Locke’s social contract Notes for March 14

Main points

We talked about a variety of topics concerning Locke’s version of the social contract.

  1. Why did Locke think people would want a state? After all, they have natural rights. I compared Locke’s story with the one in Diamond’s article about the New Guinea Highland tribes.
  2. Locke’s argument that absolute monarchies are not in “political society” with their subjects but rather that they remain in the state of nature with them.
  3. What rights do the subjects transfer to the state in the social contract, as Locke understood it? What rights do they retain and how do these limit the state’s power?
  4. Locke thought that each generation could consent to the state’s power, even if they do not participate in writing the social contract. He said that this works through tacit consent? How does Locke’s account of tacit consent work? We also looked at Hume’s objections to Locke’s claims.
  5. What does the right of revolution involve?

Yes, it’s a bit of a grab bag. I haven’t figured out a way of unifying all of these topics in a satisfying way. By contrast, I managed to get Hobbes’s views on conquest and revolution, which look like separate topics, into one coherent class. (Of course, in my opinion, Hobbes had both in mind as the revolutionary government had been established through violent conquest.) Anyway, ideally, I’ll figure out some way of bringing most of this material together like that. I just haven’t gotten it yet.

My criticism

I criticized Locke for an unrealistic assumption that “the people” are unanimous. This comes up in two ways.

1. The right of revolution

In his discussion of the right of revolution, Locke maintains that “the people” have the right to decide when the state has violated the trust that gives it its powers.

But there will always be some people who think the answer is yes and others who think the answer is no. The right of revolution is really a right to start a civil war.

Hobbes thought that the people could resist or seek to change the state only if it threatened their lives. He was probably wrong about that. But he was right to characterize revolution as civil war.

Well, maybe not. What about the revolutions in the East European states in the 1990s? The Communist governments completely collapsed due to lack of public support. The governments were overthrown without civil war. That’s a pretty good case for Locke.** Added March 18, 2010.

2. The general welfare

Locke described the legislative power as including the power to promote the general welfare. This fits neatly with his account of private property rights if promoting the general welfare literally makes everyone better off.

Once again, it’s not going to be that way. Some people won’t want to contribute their property through taxes to projects that make most people in the society better off. If the purpose of the state is to protect the right to property, how does it get the power to promote the general welfare?

Perhaps this is a power that everyone agrees to give to the state in the social contract: promote the general welfare even if I disagree on particular occasions.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted March 14, 2010.
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