The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Locke, John (1632-1704)

John Locke was perhaps the most influential and paradigmatic of classical liberal thinkers. Locke studied and taught at Oxford from 1652 to 1667, at which point he joined the household of Lord Ashley (later the Earl of Shaftesbury) as his personal physician. As a member of Shaftesbury’s circle, Locke was deeply involved in political opposition to Charles II and James II throughout the 1670s and early 1680s. Locke went into exile in Holland shortly after Shaftesbury’s death in 1683 and only returned to England after the Glorious Revolution. His early works in political philosophy include the Essays on the Law of Nature (1663–1664), and the pro-tolerance An Essay on Toleration (1667). His major and mature works in political philosophy were Two Treatises of Government (written 1680–1683, published in 1689) and the Letter Concerning Toleration (written in 1685, published 1689, with the subsequent letters published in 1690 and 1692). Locke established his  reputation as a major figure in philosophy with the publication of his treatise in epistemology, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). After his return to England, Locke was an influential advisor to the postrevolutionary regime. His most important later work was The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

The core of Locke’s classical liberalism is presented in the Second Treatise of Government. Here Locke laid out his famous doctrines of natural rights, property rights, the consensual creation of government, and the conditions under which individual and collective resistance to government is justified. According to Locke, to understand the purpose, justification, and limits of political authority, we should inquire into the condition that people would find themselves in were all political authority absent. Such an investigation reveals what problems, if any, would exist if we lacked all political institutions and, hence, reveals what type of political authority rational individuals have reason to create. A major aspect of this inquiry into the state of nature is an investigation into what rights individuals possess in the state of nature. Such natural rights, if they exist, are possessed by individuals on the basis of yet more fundamental features of human existence.

Locke argued that the facts that each of us should engage in self-preserving actions and that none of us can reasonably view another person as existing for the sake of our own self-preserving actions support the conclusion that each of us has a right to dispose of ourselves as we judge best. Each of us possesses a right against others’ disposing of us to advance their own purposes. Because we are all natural moral equals, any individual who rationally claims certain rights for himself must acknowledge that all other individuals have the same rights. Because what we each rationally claim against others is a right to freedom (i.e., a right to depose of our lives and liberty as we see fit), we each must grant that all other individuals have a like claim to freedom. Similarly, Locke argued that the way for each person to take cognizance of the facts that we are all, by nature, of equal moral standing and that each of us is directed by reason to preserve ourselves (and promote our happiness) is for each person to pursue his own self-preservation and happiness in ways that do not preclude others from comparably pursuing their own self-preservation and happiness.

In the state of nature, each individual has rights over his own life, limb, and liberty. The law of nature, which Locke held governs the state of nature, requires that we all are bound to respect each other’s natural rights. For each of us, these rights also include a right over our own labor. We acquire rights to particular external objects by mixing our labor with some previously unowned material. Having so mixed our labor, we cannot be deprived of the transformed object without being deprived of our rightfully held labor. Hence, we now have a right to the transformed object. But it is crucial that the material labored on not already be the property of anyone else. This exception raises a complication; for Locke asserted that God has given the earth to all mankind in common. Thus, it may seem that no man may labor upon any part of nature without the prior consent of mankind. Locke argued, however, that God gave the earth to all mankind in the way that a father presents a cut of meat to his children: Each child may cut a slice of the meat for himself—which thereby becomes that child’s property—without the prior consent of all the others. However, at least initially, two restrictions apply to the individual’s acquisition of natural material. The individual may not acquire so much that a portion of what he takes spoils, and the individual must leave “enough and as good” natural material for others.

These initial provisos on individual acquisition are, however, transcended through the invention of money. Once value attaches to bits of silver or gold, individuals are able to exchange what will otherwise spoil for coins that will not spoil. The ability to preserve value indefinitely gives individuals much more incentive to produce exchangeable objects and much more incentive to discover new and better ways to produce such objects. At this point, Locke argued, failing “to leave enough and as good” of the world’s natural material for others becomes morally permissible. It has become morally permissible because this eventuality is a consequence to which people agree by virtue of the introduction of money. If we ask ourselves why everyone would agree to the introduction of money when substantial economic inequalities are likely to result, the answer is that this inequality is beneficial to all. According to Locke, the introduction of money and the incentives and productivity gains engendered by money leads to a substantial expansion of the total wealth. So enormous is this expansion that even individuals who anticipate ending up with less than an equal share correctly expect that their portion will be much larger than would possess were money not introduced.

Beyond the rights to life, limb, liberty, and elaborate forms of property, individuals in the state of nature also possess rights to enforce the law of nature—to defend against violations of their rights and to enforce reparations and punish. The inconveniences of the state of nature arise from people’s individual, nonstandardized, and uncoordinated attempts to enforce the law of nature. Especially as  forms of property become more complex, there is a need for a clear public articulation of who owns what. In addition, the demand for known laws and reliable and impartial judges becomes increasingly important. At the same time, the need for reliable power to enforce known law and judicial decisions increases. For these reasons, directly or indirectly, individuals waive their private rights to act as executors of the law of nature. They vest this right in political society, which, in turn, entrusts a particular government with the task of articulating and enforcing the law of nature. Government is assigned the task of securing individuals the enjoyment of their rights to life, limb, liberty, and property. These rights retain their full and original force so that any actions by government that infringe on them are criminal. If an individual correctly judges that the government or its agents has infringed on his rights, he may rightfully resist—although it is likely that things will not go well for him if he alone resists. If, in contrast, the government generally infringes on the rights of its citizens or systematically fails to protect their rights, it loses its claim to authority and may be replaced—by force if necessary. The bloodshed that accompanies a just revolution is to be blamed not on the revolutionaries, but rather on the monarch or legislators who have rebelled against justice by using force without right.


Further Readings

Ashcroft, Richard. Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Buckle, Stephen. Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Grant, Ruth. John Locke’s Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Locke, John. A Letter Concerning Toleration. James Tully, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1990.

———. Political Essays. Mark Goldie, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

———. Two Treatises of Government (A critical edition with introduction and notes by Peter Laslett). 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Seliger, Martin. The Liberal Politics of John Locke. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1968.

Simmons, A. John. The Lockean Theory of Rights. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

———. On the Edge of Anarchy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Originally published .