Classical Liberalism and
The foundations of liberalism are not laid by Hobbes. Hobbes at best
was a precursor of liberalism or a proto liberal. That means that
within his philosophy are elements of liberalism, but because there are
also antiliberal elements in it, he cannot be considered the "father" of
liberal ideology. That distinction belongs to another British
philosopher, John Locke.
John Locke (1632 1704) was the son of a Somerset solicitorlawyer
and clerkfor the Justices of the Peace of Somerset. His father did not
do terrifically well financially; he owned some land but not enough to
live the life of the country gentleman.
His father fought in the Royalist army in support of the king, Charles I,
during the British Civil War. Thus he had made many influential
friends, one of whom got John Locke into Westminster School. From
there he went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a student and a
At Oxford he studied medicine and science (and kept the lifelong
practice of consulting his friends on their various ailments). But he
was hired as a lecturer in Greek and then in rhetoric and moral
Through a fellow medical student Locke was introduced to Lord
Ashley, later the Earl of Shaftesbury and so thereafter came into the
Lord's household as the Earl's family doctor. It seems that
Shaftesbury was about to undergo an operation to remove a cyst from
his liver, and Locke supervised the operation bear in mind that Locke
had no medical degree. Shaftesbury, against all the odds, survived
and for 14 years afterward Locke served as his secretary and
factotum, even helping to arrange marriages for Shaftesbury's
In 1684 Locke had to flee with Shaftesbury from England to Holland.
Shaftesbury had entered into a major conspiracy to deny King James II
the throne. This conspiracy was called the EXCLUSION
CONTROVERSY or Exclusion Crisis, in which Locke played a part.
To Shaftesbury James was too autocratic and Catholic; Shaftesbury
1 wanted to restrain the powers of the Crown and strengthen
Parliament. This was serious business, as many feared that James
would bring Catholicism back to England and would rule absolutely.
Shaftesbury and his cohorts had planned to kidnap James on his
return from some horse races. The plot, however, failed; the leading
conspirators were arrested all but Shaftesbury who fled to Holland.
One conspirator committed suicide in the Tower of London; two others
were hanged. We don’t know whether Locke was involved in the
actual plot to kidnap James, but Locke was active in Shafterbury’s
revolutionary group and continued his involvement in this radical
political movement even after Shaftesbury’s death.
Since he had been intimately involved with Shaftesbury, Locke went
into hiding in Holland and lived under an assumed name. Shaftesbury
died soon after arriving. Locke could have been in deeper trouble. He
probably carried with him the manuscript for what would become the
Two Treatises of Government . This is the Bible of classical political
liberalism (in which Locke argues against monarchy.)
The manuscript was seditious because it could lead to the disruption
of the peace of the state. In it Locke endorsed the people's right to
resist a legitimate monarch when the monarch grossly abuses his
powers. One of those abuses is imposing religious beliefs on people.
Remember that in Leviathan Hobbes had argued that the sovereign,
the king, had the right to force his subjects to worship whatever
religion he wanted. So Locke was writing to oppose thinking such as
Locke had also written at this time A Letter on Toleration , which
argues that no one had the right to interfere with religious worship or
beliefEXCLUDED WERE CATHOLICS AND ATHEISTS. Why exclude
those two groups?
Locke felt that some sort of moral and ethical religious teaching
was necessary to hold society together, but he opposed the idea of a
state religion, which Hobbes permitted. So Locke advocated toleration
of religious beliefs and practices on the assumption that reason will
guide persons to the same kinds of conclusions and will result in a
consensus on moral and political ideas, values, and beliefs. So if
religion has reason in it, then there should be no problem.
But atheists must not be protected in their false
beliefs, for those who have no belief cannot be trusted; nor should
Catholics since they obey the Pope whatever the Pope says.
BOTH OF THESETHE RIGHT OF RESISTANCE AND TOLERATION
TOWARD RELIGIOUS PRACTICESBECOME ESSENTIAL TO LIBERALISM.
2 Locke was offered a pardon, but refused it, insisting that he had done
nothing that warranted a pardon. It is highly unlikely that Locke would
have written a book such as The Two Treatises and would have
modified his positions so dramatically had it not been for
Shaftesbury's role in politics. (Early on Locke favored government by
aristocracy, slave labor, and religious toleration for Christians only.)
His objective, like Thomas Hobbes's before him, was to determine
what kind of government was legitimate and what was the best way of
life. He knew before he started that he wanted his arguments to show
that the best way of life had to be a Christian life.
What he hoped to do, again as did Hobbes, was to show how reason
would lead to inevitable conclusions that Protestant Christian life was
without question the best life. The more Locke pondered this himself,
the less convincing his own arguments seemed.
HERE LOCKE PRESENTS ANOTHER LIBERAL ELEMENTREASON.
So far, then, we have seen in Locke three elements that make up
1) right of resistance,
2) toleration of religious practices (for all but Catholics and
3) the use of reason.
THE LIBERAL BIBLE
In the Two Treatises of Government Locke developed three themes
central to liberalism:
I) a theory of what makes government legitimate
(THEORY OF CONSENT)
II) a theory of the RIGHT TO RESIST unjust
government (which we’ve already been introduced
III) a theory of how persons can come to own and
dispose of PRIVATE PROPERTY (which, because it is
private, is beyond the reach of government)
I) LEGITIMACYHow Locke arrived at his notion of legitimate
3 His first concern is to show with certainty the grounds for legitimate
government. He wanted to establish the sort of government people
ought to obey. [What did Hobbes say?]
Why all this concern with legitimacy and what government should be
obeyed? First, Locke was Protestant. On the Continent the Catholic
regime of the French king, Louis XIV, was threatening to conquer the
small independent Protestant countries like Holland and then force
their people to become Catholics. In England English Catholics were
subverting the political system by suggesting that the ecclesiastical
order the Church and the political order should be run by the same
power the Pope.
Locke wanted the Church out of all political affairs; and he thought
that religious matters were one's own personal business.[ Letter on
Toleration ] So Locke sets out to determine what is legitimate
WHAT IS HIS METHOD?
Like Hobbes, he wants a proof that is certain, if not infallible. He
starts with what he calls "self evident truths ," truths that need no
proof or argument and that all will accept as undeniably true.
Locke begins with certain selfevident truths that he claims are
imprinted on all men's minds directly by God. Among these is that
man is rational, which separates him from all other creatures.
THUS THE FIRST SELFEVIDENT TRUTH: Men have reason ordained by
God to guide them toward proper behavior and to understand the law
of nature more on that later. All persons (Women were not
considered persons at this time in history) are therefore by nature
rational. This element, too, we’ve already been introduced to.
Locke believed that God provided men with reason as the means
of understanding how to order and live life. "God has furnished men
with faculties sufficient to direct them in the way they should take, if
they will but seriously employ them that way."
Locke thought that reason will lead men to their proper obligations
and responsibilities . Reason was a political force, because knowledge
was power; it would produce concrete results.
Locke, therefore, asserts three propositions:
1) God has ordained a natural order and given all men reason;
4 2) by the use of reason men can discover rules of social conduct
to be used within that order because these are prescribed by
God and are thus objectively valid; and
3) such rules can be known certainly ("if we but consult reason")
This view on the use of reason is important for politics, because Locke
concludes from these propositions not that reason leads us to
God, but that reason enables us to order our affairs correctly .
If we reflect carefully on our experience, we shall come to the right
normative conclusions and know them with certainty. We decide for
ourselves . We are free to decide for ourselves.
STATE OF NATURE:
Like Hobbes, Locke also conceived of a state of nature, a state before
society was formed, to understand what human nature is. In Locke's
state of nature all men are in a state of "perfect freedom " (SECOND
"Man being, as has been said, by Nature, all free, equal and
independent, no one can be put out of this Estate, and subjected to
the Political Power of another, without his own Consent ."(LOCKE'S
THIRD SELFEVIDENT TRUTH)
By "freedom" Locke means the ability of individuals to order
their actions and dispose of their possessions and their persons as
they see fit;
By "equality" Locke meant that no individual had any more
power or authority over another than they had over him. This is part
of the natural freedom that each enjoys.
By "independence" Locke meant that no individual is morally or
politically dependent on another.
Notice the emphasis above on liberty, which is seen both in freedom
and in independence.
Natural Law :
For Locke this perfect freedom, equality, and independence means
that man can control his own life, can make decisions as to what he
wants or needs to do, and can do with himself as he pleases. So if
5 man can dispose of his person as he sees fit, then unlike Hobbes [for
whom natural law is what?], Locke thinks men can kill themselves.
NO, Locke tells us that the state of nature is a state of liberty, not
license. Thus men can order their actions "within the bounds of the
law of nature." They cannot do whatever they want; they don’t have
license to kill themselves, for whom do their lives really belong to?
Locke stipulates that everyone is obliged to obey reason, which comes
to us from God. What does reason teach? Reason teaches all men
who will consult it that no man ought to harm himself or another in his
life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions . This is natural law .
Every man is bound to preserve himself. [But not like Hobbesian
natural law; for Locke natural law = no harm.]
Locke does not say directly “do not harm yourself” in terms of these
rights. But in the Second Treatise he does say that our lives are not
ours to dispose of, because they come from God. We have no right, he
says, to "quit our station wilfully"—that is, we have no right to kill
Natural right , therefore, is the freedom and obligation to "prosecute
the natural law"; that is, again, to preserve Life, Liberty, Health, and
Possessions . Another way to say this is that we have a natural right
to life, liberty, health, possessions. Natural right is freedom, not to do
whatever we please, but only our duty to follow natural law, which is
to follow reason and not harm others.
Men have the right to enforce the law of nature, since there is no
superior authority to do so since all men are "free, equal, and
independent." They can kill a robber, for example, for the person
does not know how far the robber is willing to go to get what he
wants, whether the robber might wish to kill or enslave the person. So
the person is really preserving his life and liberty by exercising his
natural right to protect that life and his liberty. The person has the
freedom to do so, even though in protecting his right he is harming
another. That’s because in following Godgiven reason, the person
sees in this situation that he can only preserve his life and liberty—
that is, follow natural law—if he harms this other person. To fail to
protect his life and liberty would be to violate natural law or God’s law.
But Locke's state of nature, however, is not a violent place, not like
Hobbes's war of all against all. Rather it is full of decent, reasonable
people living in harmony with nature and in peace and tranquility with
one another. But, as with the robber example, not always in peace
6 and tranquility. One commentator described Locke's state of nature
as a city with the police force and judiciary on strike . That is
exact. Some people will be peaceful and peaceable; others will take
advantage of the absence of police to rob and plunder.
What Locke's state of nature lacks, therefore, are impartial judges to
settle disputes and make laws. The law of nature declares that every
man is to act to preserve both his life and that of others. He has no
right to another's property or person, unless he is under threat.
But he is secure only so long as others also recognize that. But man in
the state of nature is insecure. There is no common authority to
adjudicate violations of the law of nature and punish offenders. Each
man is his own judge and policeman, determining for himself when
and whether the law is violated and what the punishment should be
as in the example of the robber. This lack of independent judges and
enforcers Locke called “inconveniences .”
The result is high instability. Because all men do not obey natural law
or respect the natural rights of others, because men will favor their
own friends and will seek revenge against their own enemies, a civil
government is needed to "restrain the partiality and violence of men."
Thus, while the state of nature is far more peaceful than that of
Hobbes, it is still a dangerous place, and men will want to leave it.
They want to do so, then, for two reasons:
First , they do so because of the lack of impartial judges,
because, Locke says, they wish to redress the defects and
imperfections "the inconveniences ," as mentioned above found
in the state of nature.
Second , because they wish to avoid the state of war. Locke's
state of nature is not Hobbes's state of war, but for Locke "every
least difference is apt to end" in such a state. Because there will
always be differences, that is close to a perpetual state of war.
What kind of government is best for protecting the life, liberty, health,
and possessions of all? Locke says that it can’t be an absolute
monarchy, because absolute monarchs are still men (a slap at
Hobbes). As men, they still have and represent only one point of view
and so will favor their own friends, family, case, and cause. Also, for
Hobbes, the absolute monarch, not being part of the first promise of
the social contract to surrender absolute freedom, is above the law
and can do harm.
7 So men are looking for security, for an impartial interpretation and
enforcement of the laws of nature. If government can provide that
security, then there is an advantage to government over the state of
nature. How do men find this kind of government?
LOCKE'S SOCIAL CONTRACT
First, they have to leave the state of nature. So how do men leave the
state of nature? They can only leave, says Locke, through a compact
in which men "agree together mutually" to enter into one community,
one body politic.
Since all are independent, equal, and free, only by consent can one
divest himself of natural liberty, the natural power to punish offenses
and preserve property, health, life, liberty.
This political community then becomes the protector of
"Property" including the property one always possesses in his or her
1) becoming an impartial umpire/police force and
2) becoming one authority to decide controversies that is, a
3) by establishing laws. These laws are valid only so long as they
conform to the law of nature.[Follow reason and preserve
Then how is political power exercised? It can only be exercised by rule
of the majority , because the body politic, says Locke, moves the way
"whither the greater force carries it." That force is the majority.
Because everyone is equal, no one can have more influence or power
than anyone else. So, we see what all these free and equal people
(men) want and then go with the majority.
Is Locke's consent theory perfect? No. There are two problems
1) majority rule
2) historical precedents express and tacit consent
1) First is the unanimity problem; decisions should be made
unanimously, just as Hobbes argued, because everyone, as said, is
equal. That would be splendid, says Locke, but decisions are not often
8 favored unanimously. It would be "unreasonable" to expect them to
be. So we need another way. The only other way is through majority
rule. That does not favor any one vote more than any other. To favor
the minority is to treat people unequally, for it favors the minority
views. To treat all equally, we must treat each one as one and as no
more than one.
EXPRESS AND TACIT CONSENT
2) When do people ever agree to join a society? Aren't they born into
Historical evidence is scant on consent. It doesn’t show us people
outside of society giving consent to form one. We see no state of
nature; we see only societies that already exist in some way. That
doesn't mean the state of nature did not exist, any more than it
means that George Washington's soldiers were never children Men
race to society to overcome the "inconveniences" and hazards of the
state of nature.
To form a commonwealth requires differentiating between two forms
of consent, only one of which, according to Locke, is strong enough for
a) express consent , in which one openly and expressly
declares loyalty to a government; this act makes one a
subject and member of that commonwealth. Naturalized
citizens are giving express consent when they are sworn in
as citizens. Citizens give express consent when, for
example, they register to vote.
b) tacit consent , which is not overt but which includes
having any possessions; enjoying any of the works of the
government; residing in that country, traveling its
highways; or any similar act by which we benefit from
being in a society. Here we give tacit consent to abide by
and to be subject to the laws of the land. Foreigners can
and must do this as well. So what makes one a member of
society, a citizen and not a visitor? A foreigner can live all
his life in a country and not be a citizen. What is missing is
an active declaration, such, as said, as voter registration
or draft registration. It is an active declaration that, again,
is necessary to form a commonwealth.
9 But when may we withdraw consent? When may we break the laws;
when do we cease to be subjects and are no longer obligated to obey
the laws and lawmakers?
II) LOCKE ON RIGHTS AND RESISTANCE
Locke, like Hobbes, was determined to preserve individual liberty
while granting to government the power to make laws. But Hobbes
claimed that individuals entering the social contract surrender all their
natural right to the sovereign but keep the right of natural lawto
preserve oneself. Men could do as they pleased, provided they kept
the peace so Hobbes thought, but the sovereign might have other
ideas. Hobbes is really after protection to assure our life, which is our
right to life. Locke thought this wrong. Some natural rights beyond
the right to life must be retained to serve as "trumps" against
In Locke's scheme, individuals surrender only the right to make laws
and to execute and enforce them. But they relinquish that right in
order to secure their other rights more tightly, especially their right to
life and property.
Locke's social contract theory is the first to suggest limiting political
authority through the idea of inalienable individual rights . This is the
key to liberalism .
An invasion of a subject's rights by political authority is a "breach
of the ruler's trust" and is grounds by which the "government can be
The purpose of the civil society and political authority is to protect the
natural rights of citizens to life, liberty, and property. That, according
to Locke, is its only function. It is no part of government to monkey
about with an individual's soul. Religion is a private matter, not be
intruded upon by the state. As beings of reason, individuals know
their ends better than anyone else.
RIGHT TO RESIST:
Locke argues that citizens have a right to active resistance of an
unjust political authority. Locke holds the view that all citizens have
the right and the duty to judge for themselves (using reason) what to
preserve in society and how to preserve it. Locke has now extended
his notion of the people judging for themselves from religious matters
to governmental concerns.
10 Most of the time, argues Locke, men have a duty to obey the ruler
because society is peaceful and orderly. Peace and order are
preconditions of living a decent human life.
But if the ruler himself, through his laws and other
actions, threatens the peace and order, then subjects have every right
to judge the degree of the threat, and if it is severe, to resist the
threat as best they can.
HERE IS AN IMPORTANT LESSON: IT IS PART OF GOD'S LAW TO RESIST.
Anytime anyone king, soldier, commoner violates the law of nature
or the natural rights of another, that person is rebelling against God
and must be resisted . Note the distinction between rebellion and
resistance . Natural rights are ordained by God. Therefore, anyone
violating them defies God. The violator of God's law is the rebel, not
the person who resists that violation.
TO REPEAT: Natural law and natural rights come from God. This is, for
Locke, selfevident. To violate anyone’s rights, regardless of your
authority, is to rebel against God. That person, or those persons,
must be resisted.
Locke concludes in the Second Treatise that since the chief end of
government is to preserve and protect property any invasion or
seizure of property by the government or its agents is a violation of
the end of government and a breach of trust. Authority is then
illegitimate, and persons revert to the state of nature.
WHICH MEANS WHAT? Those persons must seek to keep the peace
and to protect themselves any way they can that is, on their own.
When can, or should, persons resist?
a) anytime anyone violates one's rights.
b) if anyone tries to seize the power of the legislature without the
consent of the people, or if anyone tries to make laws without
consent, these laws and this authority shall not be obeyed.
c) if the legislature or the monarch tries to buy off, unduly influence,
regulate, or otherwise corrupt representatives or elec