Why, according to John Locke, should one abandon the freedom of nature to join civil society, and what does he constitute as a legitimate government?
John Locke defended humankind’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. These rights are so inherent in the individual, as they come from nature, that they are inseparable from the human experience.
However, Locke recognized the need for a tradeoff. Since true liberty cannot exist without authoritative recognition and protection of natural rights, he argued for abandonment of nature’s anarchy so people would bind themselves to the social contract of citizenship, wherein they would be responsible for exercising their rights and protecting the rights of others. Such a citizenry would need governance, and the government’s main responsibilities would involve protecting their rights from foreign enemies, criminals, and government itself.
If nature is a state of lawlessness, then it is governed by brute force. Any individual’s right to property, including their own body, is only as legitimate as their ability to protect such property from thieves instead of through legal recognition. There are no lawsuits, trials, or even crimes themselves in nature as such binding forces are the privileges of a society that has agreed to live under virtuous standards of citizenship. But just like the irrevocable social contract, all aspects of government come with tradeoffs. For instance, a mass-murderer causes death to many and can never be trusted again, thus he should lose his natural right to life because the degenerate is worth less than the safety of everyone else. Such is the reality of the human condition. In spite of laws that are able to tame most people, there will always be those who reject the commands of citizenship. These are criminals, and they must be thrown out of the society through the force of prison sentences, deportations, or death penalties so that they will no longer enjoy the protections of citizenship that enabled them to cause such grief in the first place. Thus Locke had a conviction: “every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be the executioner of the law of nature…”
But the purpose of government is not merely to punish wrongdoers. That is a preliminary function to protect law-abiding citizens, which can mean a variety of measures such as bolstering a military to repel invaders, constructing a border wall to keep aliens out, or any other constitutional measure that promotes widespread protection. However, governments must ultimately operate with the consent of the governed because a virtuous citizenry will determine what best serves their interests, so as long as they abide by laws and do not turn into mobs. It requires elected legislators to dedicate service to their constituents instead of themselves, whereas unelected officials, such as federal justices, should be entirely concerned about impartial application of laws. This is why Locke argued for separate branches of government, an executive, legislative, and federative, so that they would be driven by different sources of incentives to check and balance each other’s power. Such a system of government would prevent tyranny by making it optimal for leaders to act as public servants instead of tyrants. Of course, leaders will always be driven by self-interests, but it would be in their best interests to protect the masses, provided that their power ultimately comes from a sovereign citizenry.
Locke also argued that the natural state of human beings is one of cooperation and virtue. However, he understood that this cannot happen when there is no society that patriots unite to serve. The violence and wickedness of anarchy stem from a collective refusal or inability to impose standards on each other, and thus most men are in it for themselves because the average one will not worry about what is ethical when he must survive amongst other wicked men. Virtue is a privilege for the enactor’s neighbor, but in such a state of depravity there is a much greater risk of exploitation since incentives for trustworthiness are scarce. What then, must a good government do to ensure trustworthiness amongst the citizenry? It must enforce a rule of law that protects the natural rights of each citizen. Good laws will ultimately serve good citizens.
Most who believe in such a philosophy, including Locke, wrongfully assume that these arguments justify a supposed right to overthrow tyrannical governments. All governments, some more than others, manage to protect certain rights of their citizenries by establishing a common order. So when a citizenry decides to mount an insurrection against even the most despotic regime, which will cause a state of war and chaos, they are attempting to eliminate the only thing that has the legal authority to protect their rights, and thus are subjecting themselves to a loss of life and property. This is not to say that such revolutions are illegitimate. There are times when citizens should say enough is enough. But governments have the authority to crush violent rebels for the sake of maintaining order and self-defense. Thus if the time comes to abolish a tyrannical government, it is important for warriors and their sympathizers to recognize that they are surrendering all of their rights for the time being, with hopes of eventually crafting a superior system. Although the American colonists believed it was their God-given right to revolt, they still knew they were opting for a dangerous pursuit of liberty over soft tyranny.
All good governments should ultimately receive consent from the governed, in order to prevent violations of their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. There are no rights that can be guaranteed because too many people are capable of violating their neighbors–the purpose of government is rather to minimize and prevent violations for the sake of a good society. Rights do not come from governments, yet governments still have a responsibility to protect and recognize them. The big tradeoff of government is that some individuals will lose their rights because they will fail to respect the laws and obligations of citizenship. And so the social contract must be upheld by a virtuous citizenry. Otherwise, the moral and legal framework for peace, harmony, and justice will inevitably crumble as each man lives not by the laws of a nation, but by the rules of nature.