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Locke and the Political Problem

The political problem is how to best achieve and preserve peace. This problem ought to be considered by everyone since everyone desires the preservation of their own lives which is best done in a peaceful environment. Peace is best made and kept under a system where the state, made up of consenting individuals, governs the people effectively while also being governed by the people themselves. This system of governing reciprocity ensures that the people do not violate each other while not being violated by the government made to protect their property in the first place. This system, that secures perpetual civic peace, is one that Locke tries to formulate in his Second Treatise, which is the state of civility or what he calls the civil society.

Locke addresses the political problem by first recognizing the state of nature. Although the state of nature is not all warfare, unlike Hobbes’ view, the state of nature is more opportune for war to break out as any perceived threat to one’s property is justification for judgement and execution by any and all individuals. This innate desire of self preservation is the law of nature that is universal in the state of nature. An individual naturally seeking to decrease the chances of war will look to civil society or a commonwealth to find security for their property. Locke’s view of property is broader than the land around someone but also includes the individual person (Locke, 19). After recognizing the state of nature, the state of war, the law of nature, and the nature of people, Locke then goes to describe what the state of civility is. In short, the state of civility or civil society is the trust people put into an institution designed to protect their property. This protection does not just mean protection from neighbors or outsiders but also protection from the government itself, which leads to how society can achieve perpetual civic peace.

Locke’s plan for perpetual civic safety starts at what he calls the “first society” or the conjugal society which is between husband and wife (Locke 42). This led to the start of the family as a relationship between parents and children. This relationship is not a temporary one made for mere procreation but a well established one made for the continuation of the species which requires parental relationships to last long enough to nourish and train the next generation to live on their own. In this society, Locke mentions how the parent who is most able and powerful should have the final say but that what the final say should be is not freely determined by that parent and it must be a final decision in the best interest of the family. As the stronger partner has final say, the lesser partner maintains the right to separate from their marital bonds, if separation is conducive to their wellbeing (Locke 44).

This mutual respect between individuals, even if one individual has power over the other, continues into the master-servant dynamic. A servant, according to Locke, is a temporary civil obedience to a master via consent from the servant in a contract of paid labor (Locke 45). Since this obedience is temporary the servant’s individual right to his property is still protected from any tyrannical action by the master. A slave, on the other hand, is not temporary nor consenting and is taken through just war and so their right to their property is forfeit to the absolute will of the master which removes that slave out of the state of civility since the civil society is based on preserving an individual’s property (Locke 46).

Continuing from the small commonwealth of a family with its master, pater familias, and servants and possibly slaves, Locke expands the scenario to a broader political body that he calls the political society. This is a political structure that has the power to preserve property, which consists of life, liberty, and estate, and the power to execute those who commit offenses on anyone’s property. This is created when the society’s members consentfully give up their natural power to a single entity and in return that entity ensures the rights of the individual (Locke 46). Similar to how the lesser partner gives up their power or final say, not their rights, to the stronger partner in a marriage. This power is what individuals would use if they were in the state of nature or war to preserve their natural right to their property, however, being in that state of civility requires the relinquishing of power and judgement in order to ensure continuity of authority which better creates an environment that best secures peace to all members’ property (Locke 47).

The authority of the state, frequent re-evaluations of its consenting members, preservation of property, and commonly established laws are all crucial in solving the political problem and creating perpetual civic peace. Locke dives deeper in outlying the importance of separating the power that was granted in trust by the individuals to the government. In the state of nature, an individual has the power to set their own laws, judge others based on those laws, and execute those who violate their laws. In the state of civility, the government has that power which is divided into three parts or branches. The state of nature is chaotic and inconvenient in part due to the fact that the individual has this trinity of power, making them a type of an absolute prince and as long as they maintain this power they will not be in a civil society (Locke 48). So when the government has this power, it is prudent to keep each part separate from one another in order to prevent the government, and specifically the individuals in the government, from becoming such princes and bringing themselves and everyone else into a state of nature (Locke 49).

Individuals may consent to what they were assured is a civil society but if that society turns out to not be one that protects property then those individuals are not actually in a civil society but still remain in the state of nature (Locke 51). However, if an individual is truly in a civil society then they do not have a right to act as if they are still in a state of nature without also losing their protection of their property from that society. The act of joining a body politic is a compact which includes giving up their natural power to the majority as long as the majority maintains the consent of the individual which can do so by recognizing, respecting, and protecting their property (Locke 51-52).

There are objections made about this civil compact which Locke responds to. One of the objections is that no one actually signs a compact, instead people are born under a government and are forced to submit to it without the ability to begin a new one just as a child is submitted to their parents without their consent. Locke points to the fact that there are many instances throughout history of new political bodies being formed and that if people were truly bound to their parent’s political community against their consent, then everyone would be living under one government (Locke 61). It may be difficult for an individual to secede from the community they were born into, especially if they are still a child, since their power is overwhelmed by the power of the government, however, one individual acting on their own is not a civil society but instead what occurs in the state of nature. Due to this it requires multiple people either from one previous group or from a diversity of groups to form a new political body with a new majority. Essentially, if one desires to be in civil society, which everyone does anyway, then they must be in a political body with and live under a majority (Locke 64). Someone cannot be alone and in a civil society.

There may be restrictions on individual actions but there are also restrictions on the government, even to the supreme authority which is the legislative branch of a civil society, that functions to preserve peace. These include the supreme authority not being arbitrary over the lives of its members, not being arbitrary in its decrees and judgements, not being violators of property, and being diligent and responsible to its legislative duties by not delegating the power to make laws to any other branch (Locke 73-75). These build trust in the society’s members along with assurances that laws will be equal and don’t vary from person to person, will be designed for the good of the people, will be supported by the people, and will be where the people desire power to be held at.

Perpetual civic peace is created when consenting individuals grant their power in trust to the political body which is then used appropriately for the good of the people. When the people give their power they must restrict their behavior and not take into their own hands legislative, judicial, or executive power or else they remove themselves from civil society and are back into the state of nature. When the government is granted the powerful trust of the people, it too must restrict its behavior to only be preserving the property of its members since preserving property is the source of consent from the people and any violation of this consent ends the government’s claim to civil society and everyone is back into the state of nature. This relates to modern day since war and conflict still rages on. Clearly we have not created a society of perpetual civic safety where people’s rights to life, liberty and property are respected not only by the state but also by the people. This should not be disparaging, however, as the system currently in America is one that can be amended through reasonable and peaceful means instead of accident and force. We do not need a violent revolution, instead we have a republic, if we can keep it through political participation and legal prudence.


Work Cited

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Edited. C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1980. Print.

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