Locke’s Philosophy and its Relevance Today


You are sitting there alone at your home when all of a sudden some security officials burst into your house and ask that you submit to them. You sit down in your backyards watching some unknown people crush down your house so that someone else could build a factory out there. Life in your neighbourhood was all good and healthy, happy and gay until the local government decided to dispose off the municipal waste near your neighbourhood. What can you do? What are your rights? Are you the slave of the government?

Man is born free and thus, has the natural rights to property and liberty. His rights can be taken away only through his consent and that too with the exception of his inalienable rights. The existence of government is justified only with the consent of the people who are being ruled by that government. Hence the end of any government is the protection of private property and individual liberty. People enter into social contract to make their life easier. However, the modern day governments have gone too far in constraining individual rights. Today, the governments can take away the properties of people as and when they desire using the power of eminent domain. Locke believed that people have the right to remove the governments which do not work towards their end of protection of private property and individual liberty.

Government obtains its power from the consent of the people in the state of nature.

To understand political power right and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Locke thus argued that since all people are equal with no one having more rights than another in the state of nature, it is only through the will of the people that someone can rule them. The people have full rights over their property and their body. Hence, if someone claims to rule another man with equal rights, it can only be through the consent of the one being ruled.

However, the modern governments take power for granted and have gone far from upholding the trust which people had on the governments when they formed them. Now, governments are so powerful that they can make laws as they see fit. The rights of the people are confined very much. People do not even have the freedom to move from one place to another as and when they desire. For instance, American people are warned against visiting Communist countries of the world like Cuba. Besides, there are several regulations which hinder the process of getting visa. Many laws are made every year that only limit the freedom of the people. In fact, the people do not have a direct say over how they should be ruled. The modern democracy is far from the notion of “a rule by the people; for the people; of the people”

This however does not mean that we do not need the governments. Man will face a lot of problems in the state of nature and thus, governments are necessary to ease their lives. Rules and regulations that aim to respect the equal rights of all the people will make it easier to live on earth. However, rules alone will not be sufficient. We need a body to implement the regulations. And, the core function of the government is to enact the laws that are made to create harmony in the society.

“…it is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases that self love will make men partial to themselves and their friends, and, on the other side, that ill-nature, passion, and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others, and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow…..I easily grant that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniencies of the state of nature, which must certainly be great where men may be judges in their own case…”

It is true that judiciary is needed for impartial decisions. His idea about man being selfish and more attached to one’s family and friends is very true of our societies. The rampant corruption scandals and crimes warrant an independent body to judge these cases and determine the appropriate punishments. Hence, man enters into a social contract in which he sacrifices some of his rights to the government in order to get the protection from it. And, the government is bound to provide protection to the people from domestic or foreign aggression. The function of government is thus restricted to the protection of private property and liberty of individuals.

However, the society is more complex today than ever before. Governments need more power today in order to protect people from foreign aggression. The war in Iraq is an example of this. May be his idea of executive prerogative can be of use in these scenarios whereby the government takes decisions outside of its normal power in the interest of the people. Yet, governments may not have the right to force someone to go to battle in Iraq under Locke’s theory. However, it may be the case that military conscription is essential to protect the country. But Locke would consider the right over one’s body to be an inalienable right. His argument is that government cannot intervene into the lives of the people without their consent. And, it is a lot more difficult to get the consent of each and every people. Hence, his theory does not offer a practical solution to many of the problems that modern governments face while performing their duties.

Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that his advocacy of property rights has a great significance in today’s world. We are bound to pay hefty sums in taxes to the government. We would not have to pay taxes in such a large amount had it been the case that the government ruled according to our will. Since people own their body, they also own the product of their labor. Hence, Locke believed that people have the sole rights over their earnings. This acts as an encouragement to the people to work hard and be rich. This would not only increase the prosperity of the individual but also of the society at large. Since a man can sell the excess of his products, he can consume a variety of products he would not have been able to produce by himself. Thus, the notion of specialization came into the existence.

Locke’s idea of division of power within the different branches of a civil society is still followed in many countries worldwide. The power of executive would be limited by the rules and regulations made by the legislative and legislative would in turn be under the control of the people. The judiciary would be there to make sure that the rules are followed properly. These different bodies will not be able to work in their self-interest as they will always be checked by the other departments. Hence, the government would work in the interest of the people.

He further argued that the legislative cannot shift its power to make rules and regulations of the society.

“…and, when people have said, we will submit to rules and be governed by laws made by such men; and in such form, nobody else can say other men shall make laws for them…”

Since people elected someone to make rules for them or to rule for them, he cannot shift his power to other people. Again the concept of consent comes into play. However, the people are influenced by so many factors that the elected bodies may not perform their duties properly. Moreover, the laws made by the legislative may be influenced by many factors including the international pressure. Hence, Locke would have been more relevant in primitive societies where the societies lived in isolation.

In spite of the flaws in his theory, Locke’s arguments are not dead. He was an advocate of private property and limited government. What we need today is limited government so that we can live a free life. The end of government is the protection of private property and individual liberty. The society cannot prosper if there is a continuous government intervention into the lives of the people. The prosperity of the capitalist countries in North America and in Europe is the evidence to the fact that private property leads to prosperity. Hence, it is time that we reflected upon the ideals of Locke’s philosophy to further advance the human civilization.

(based on :Locke, John: The second Treatise of Government (edited by T. P. Pearson), 1997 )


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