Thoughts On Locke’s Second Treatise on Government

I just listened to all of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, and I have to say that I really enjoyed them.

However, while the First Treatise is interesting to me as an historian of ideas and an instant fan of Locke’s sardonic style, the Second Treatise is clearly the one that is most relevant to the modern day.

In Locke’s Second Treatise, he lays out the foundations of what became classical liberalism. While many of his arguments and his final conclusions doubtless seem strange in 2021, it’s easy to see how later thinkers agreed with or drew upon Locke.

As someone who’s familiar with Mill, I have to say that there are parts of Locke that seem interesting as a precursor to classical liberalism, especially since there are things in Locke that seem distinctly backward to us.

Locke, the Man of Faith

The degree to which people in Locke’s day brought their religion to their arguments and daily life is much greater than that of moderns.

In the First Treatise, Locke draws heavily upon the Bible to refute a religiously derived argument for an absolute monarchy.

Even in the Second Treatise, Locke uses the Bible as one of his few referenced texts, and he relies on these citations much more heavily than those to the ancient Greeks and his contemporaries.

He doesn’t do much belly-aching over individual meanings of Hebrew words in the Second Treatise, as he does in the First Treatise, but he still illustrates his text with allusions to Biblical stories.

One thing that strikes me as tragic is the idea that in a few decades there will probably be a minority of people–if this is not already the case–who have the background to understand these allusions.

And this is a major distinction between Locke and a lot of his successors. When I started in on the First Treatise, it seemed to me like Locke was hiding some of his arguments in religious language as a convention or a cover. However, it’s clear to me that Locke is making a lot of his arguments from a religious perspective.

Some of that comes from his reliance on natural law, which he uses differently than secular thinkers in the liberal tradition. The two concepts are compatible on most points, but the distinction is that Locke considers rights to flow from God while a secular approach might rely on a concept like self-ownership.

Locke, the Revolutionary

Locke is very open about his belief that systems of government should not be perpetual on a de jure basis.

He occasionally takes efforts to proactively state that he’s not advocating for anarchism and makes two central points to this purpose:

First, Locke believes that any mode of government is acceptable so long as it has the consent of its people. This is maybe putting too much burden on him, though he draws something of a Machiavelli-style outline of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy and the mix between them as an example.

The term he uses for the body that establishes the government is the “legislature,” a concept which we’d probably consider more synonymous with the idea of constitutional government in the modern US. There’s no Hegelian idea of the living constitution (e.g. the absolute ruler), but there is a discussion about how the legislature is a product of the body of people.

Now, I’m not fully content with Locke’s explanation of its form. He’s not advocating for democracy, especially since he avoids any implication that they should overthrow the English monarchy.

I’d say that it approximates, again, the Machiavellian concept of power flowing from the undemocratic consent of the people. Basically, the degree to which people tolerate a government is the degree to which it has legitimacy.

With this framework, Locke presents a distinction between two forms of rebellion:

  1. Rebellion against a tyrant who rules outside the boundaries of the legislature.
  2. Rebellion against the legislature.

Locke’s Stance Against Tyrants

Locke’s argument about tyrants is essentially this:

When you have someone who operates outside the boundaries of law, they might be a tyrant.

This law is made up of both the legislature’s agreement (e.g. practical consent), and the natural laws.

However, Locke’s statements in favor of natural laws granting inalienable rights are concentrated outside this section. The Second Treatise starts with an exploration of these rights, but it’s not clear whether Locke expects the reader to add them sub-textually or if he’s deliberately beating around the bush.

The primary focus of rights in this section centers on the idea of the rules that only a tyrant breaks, namely depriving people of life (and property) arbitrarily.

Locke creates plenty of room for a hypothetical leader to overstep the legislature, using the theory of prerogative.

This basically says that so long as no natural laws are broken and the ruler’s actions don’t tick people off enough to spark a revolution, the leader is not a tyrant.

Whether this is a cop-out to stay out of trouble or a Locke goes for an approach that the legislature is both a real governing body and a philosophical concept, meaning that the former might not keep up with the latter is not clear to me.

I think Locke would say his primary point is that kings do not have an absolute right, but I find it to be a very restrictive definition of a tyrant. Elsewhere Locke articulates an idea that threats and coercion invalidate agreements, but he makes no exemption for a government that oppresses its people.

Locke’s Stance Against Individuals

Likewise, Locke’s argument never really approaches individuals as potentially independent entities.

His ignorance of this is such that a sort of Westphalian idea of the permanently sovereign nation has crept into the text.

Locke does not grant people an opportunity to revolt against their legislature. In this sense, while the American Revolution would likely be justified as an anti-tyrannical effort by Locke, there would be no concept within Locke that justified the disintegration of the British colonies and England.

Not that Locke denies the idea that nations can split; he handles this in a Biblical context. But the premise that nations could divide under Locke’s framework of rights is absent.

Locke seems to take an approach where one who lives in a society is automatically complying with its rules to the degree that they have entered a compact with their government, even though he acknowledges that foreigners do so only temporarily as a measure of respect for the laws of the land they reside in.

Essentially, the right to rebel is limited to the right to rebel against rulers, but not the right to rebel against a certain legislature. If Locke’s adherents were to rebel, they could only do so to depose and replace a monarch or parliament, not to alter their system of government.

The legislature may appoint the government under Locke’s theory, so an absolute monarchy may change to a constitutional one, but only through its own internal workings.

Basically, there’s no enumerated ground for secession, and that seems like an odd oversight for someone who spends a good chunk of time talking about how there can be no single ruler over all the world.

Wrapping Up

I’m glad that I read Locke, but I also find that I agree with many parts of the classical liberal philosophy while rejecting most of his arguments.

With that said, if I were writing a review I would have to give Locke great marks. His writing carries a certain tone and cadence to it that keeps its clear emotional weight centuries after it was written. There’s a Shakesperean timelessness to Locke, and it’s worth reading his Two Treatises of Politics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.