George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

John Locke (1623–1704) was undoubtedly one of the most influential individuals who ever lived. Locke considered the great questions of slavery, religious toleration, constitutional government, individual rights, property, the market economy, and the foundations of justice. He was a physician, a philosopher, an economist, and an activist for liberty and limited government. He is also important as an “intellectual bridge” between the broader European civilization and the American revolutionaries whom his work inspired.

This module explores the foundation of Locke’s thinking: the idea of the natural law, “an eternal law to all men,” and his understanding of reason and our common “intellectual nature” as the foundation for the individual’s “dominium” over himself or herself. Since “we are born free as we are born rational,” restrictions or impositions upon our freedom require justification. “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Each of us, Locke argued, has “a property in” his or her person, and that property is inalienable, that is, it cannot be transferred to another. Locke insisted that government cannot rest, as previous thinkers had argued, on the total transfer of the rights of the people to the sovereign, for the simple reason that some rights are by nature inalienable. Just as one cannot transfer one’s moral responsibility for one’s acts, one cannot alienate one’s right over one’s own life.

The true foundation of government rests in the consent of the people to the transfer of certain just powers to government in order to protect their rights, rather than in a total alienation of their rights to government. Government is made necessary by three deficiencies of the “state of nature”: the lack of a known and settled law, the lack of a known and impartial judge to settle disputes, and the lack of a power to back and support the decisions of law. To remedy these “inconveniences” of the state of nature, individuals delegate to government their right to execute the law of nature.

This module sets Locke’s thinking in the context of the political conflicts of his time–notably over an established church and religious toleration, the powers and limitations of the sovereign, and the limits of governmental authority generally–and in the context of the philosophical currents and disputes of his time. The ideas of Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, the Levellers (notably Richard Overton, whose essay is excerpted in the readings for this module), Algernon Sidney, Robert Filmer (the apologist for absolutist government whom Locke and Sidney set out to refute), and others are examined and compared with Locke’s ideas.

Locke’s writings helped to set the stage for the modern world, including legal protections for individual rights and constitutionally limited representative government. Most modern thinking bears the trace of Locke’s influence. Locke’s approach has been updated and applied to the problem of “justice in holdings” by Robert Nozick and applied to more concrete problems by David Boaz in his chapter “What Rights Do We Have?”

Readings to Accompany The Audio

From The Libertarian Reader: John Locke, “Understanding Can Not Be Compelled” (pp. 53–57) and “Of Property and Government” (pp. 123–39); Richard Overton, “An Arrow Against All Tyrants” (pp. 121–22); Robert Nozick, “The Entitlement Theory of Justice” (pp. 181–96).

From Libertarianism: A Primer: Chapter 3, “What Rights Do We Have?” (pp. 59–93).

From From Magna Carta to the Constitution: Documents in the Struggle for Liberty: “Agreement of the Free People of England” (1649) (pp. 25–36).

Some Problems to Ponder & Discuss

• What is the difference between the “state of nature” and life in political society? If I am in a political society with one person, can I still be in a state of nature with regard to another? What is the difference between Locke’s state‐​of‐​nature theory and Hobbes’s state‐​of‐​nature theory, with which it is sometimes confused?

• What does it mean to say that the “state of nature” has a “law of nature” to govern it?

• What would be objectionable, from a Lockean libertarian perspective, about “selling oneself into slavery”? In addition to Locke’s theological arguments (that we are God’s property and therefore cannot sell ourselves), is there a secular argument to the same effect?

• What does Richard Overton mean when he writes, “To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any; for everyone as he is himself, so he hath a self‐​propriety, else could he not be himself”? How could one “not be himself”?

• Is there a difference between the thievery of a petty thief and the taxation policies of government? What about the “taxation policies” of a condominium association that assesses monthly “condo fees” for maintenance of the building, garden, and so forth?

• How does “mixing one’s labour” with naturally occurring resources generate an exclusive property in them?

• What is the difference between “negative community” (an equal right to appropriate) and “positive community” (an equal right to common management or to a share of the common product)? Is the distinction relevant to Locke’s argument about the emergence and justification of private property rights?

• What is the difference between “express consent” and “tacit consent”? If unanimous consent is the best guarantor of the rights of all, but difficult to obtain, how does majority consent serve as a “second best” alternative? Are there limits to what the majority may consent to?

• What does it mean to say that, in cases of just rebellion, it is not the people who have rebelled against their rulers but the rulers who have rebelled against the people?

• What is liberty? Is it the absence of all constraint whatsoever, as some believe, or freedom from the arbitrary will of other humans?

• Once the people have consented to a government, have they consented to submit to whatever that government does?

Suggested Additional Reading

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government. Although a variety of editions of this classic work are available, the most highly recommended is the one edited by Peter Laslett, which provides useful notes and an introduction. The Second Treatise is well worth reading in its entirety, both to appreciate the logic of its arguments and to experience for oneself the rigor of Locke’s libertarian, or Whig, arguments for liberty.

Stephen Buckle, Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). This very readable and appealing book traces the ideas of natural law and of private property, with an especially interesting chapter on Locke.

A. John Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) and On the Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent, and the Limits of Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). These two books attempt to restate Locke’s arguments in modern philosophical terms, to explicate their meaning, and to apply them to contemporary problems in moral and political philosophy. The reasoning and writing are clear, even if it sometimes seems that Simmons takes special pains to distinguish Locke from the libertarian tradition of which he is so clearly a part.

For Further Study

Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, Thomas G. West, ed. (1698; Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1990). Like Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Sidney’s work was written as a response to the arguments for unlimited royal government and served as a powerful inspiration to the American Founders, who referred to Sidney as “Sidney the Martyr,” because he was executed for plotting to kill Charles II. Sidney’s papers, including a draft of the Discourses, were used as evidence against him. Although there is nothing in the work that is incompatible with constitutional monarchy, the indictment of Sidney claimed that the Discourses were a “false, seditious, and traitorous libel,” citing sentences that stated that the king is subject to law and accountable to the people.

Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). This book provides a thorough introduction to the political background of Locke’s writings and reveals the radicalism of Locke’s views on the legitimacy of government, as well as recounting his intense political activism on behalf of the Whig cause.

Joyce Oldham Appleby, Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth‐​Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978). This book explains the background from which emerged the philosophy of limited government, free markets, and a self‐​ordering society.