Perhaps one of, if not the, most historically influential political thinkers of the western world was John Locke. John Locke, the man who initiated what is now known as British Empiricism, is also considered highly influential in establishing grounds, theoretically at least, for the constitution of the United States of America. The basis for understanding Locke is that he sees all people as having natural God given rights. As God’s creations, this denotes a certain equality, at least in an abstract sense.
This religious back drop acts as a the foundation for all of Locke’s theories, including his theories of individuality, private property, and the state. The reader will be shown how and why people have a natural right to property and the impact this has on the sovereign, as well as the extent of this impact. Locke was a micro based ideologist. He believed that humans were autonomous individuals who, although lived in a social setting, could not be articulated as a herd or social animal.
Locke believed person to stand for, “…a thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places, which it only does by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking. ” This ability to reflect, think, and reason intelligibly is one of the many gifts from God and is that gift which separates us from the realm of the beast. The ability to reason and reflect, although universal, acts as an explanation for individuality. All reason and reflection is based on personal experience and reference.
Personal experience must be completely individual as no one can experience anything quite the same as another. This leads to determining why Locke theorized that all humans, speaking patriarchially with respect to the time “why all men,” have a natural right to property. Every man is a creation of God’s, and as such is endowed with certain individual abilities and characteristics as gifts from God. Not being able to know God’s exact wishes for man, Locke believed that all men have an obligation to develop and caress these gifts.
In essence, each man was in charge of his own body and what was done with his body. Of course, for Locke, each man would do the reasonable thing and develop his natural skills and potentials to the best of his abilities, in the service of God. The belief in God given abilities and the obligations that follow are not totally deterministic. Man, endowed with reason, could choose not to develop these abilities. Having the ability to choose the development of his potential, each man is responsible for that potential and consequently is responsible for his own body.
The development, or lack therein, is a consequence of individual motivation and is manifested through labor. In keeping with the theory of one’s body is one’s own, a man’s property can be explained in terms of the quantifying forces of his labors. Physical labor or exercisation of his mind, to produce fruits for this person’s labor, is then his own property. Locke believed that one did not need the consent of a sovereign, as far as property was concerned, because it is the melding of labor and nature that makes anything owned.
Yolton articulates this when he states, “(b)y mixing my work, my energy with some object, (nature), I particulise that object, it’s commonness becomes particular” Locke believed that as long as there was plenty for others, consent was pointless, irrelevant and would merely be an overzealous exercision of power. Pointless because as long as there was more for others in the common store, one was not infringing on another’s natural rights. Irrelevant because property production or the use of labor was completely individualistic and one should not be able to control another’s labor as it is an infringement on their natural rights.
There are however limits, as far as property and labor are concerned. One limit is that of non destruction. God did not create anything for man to destroy. The amount produced by any man should be kept in check by his level of destruction. For example, there is a big difference between the cutting of one or a few trees and the harvesting of an entire forest. Yolton explicates this by stating that, “… specific rights comes in conjunction with this restriction. Since ? Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy,’ the property making function of man’s activities ought to be curbed at the point of spoilage.
If my acquisition spoils, I offend against the law of nature, since I have, in the beginning, ? no Right, further than’ my use. What is useful and is used has value and the person who uses them a right to them. The same rules are cited for land as for the produce of land. ” The making of currency as an unspoilable property and medium for exchange seems to have by-passed this limit all together. Inequality becomes rampant and as such an authority is needed to protect a man’s property and the social peace.
With the advent of money as unspoilable property, certain inequalities amongst men would develop. Those with less start to feel cheated and used. This is very dangerous for those with more, because with these inequalities, comes the danger of theft, or injury to property or body. It is for this reason that people enter into a social contract and appoint a soveriegn. The sovereign has the ability to protect those whose property is in danger, and will do so through the passing and enforcing of laws. In this way not only is a man’s property protected, but a state of peace is maintained as well.
Locke not only believed in one individual’s right to property, but every individual’s right to property. Since every person is a creation of God’s, and it must be God’s wish that we serve him through the abilities that he’s given us, to interfere with a man and his labor, or the consequence of his labor, that is, his property, would be to interfere with God’s wishes. It is here that we begin to see the limits of men as well as the limits of the soveriegn. After all, how anyone interfere with the wishes of God?
Locke believed that the power for social control must come from the sovereign. This sovereign is responsible to the will of the people, but has a protective authority, governing both over land and people. Locke believed that if a body of people, that is a community of people, chose to live and interrelate amongst each other, they must choose to live by a greater force, that is they must enter into a social contract. This force was the power of the majority manifested through the creation of a sovereign. Problems can arise, when individuals cannot agree.
For this reason there must be a ruler and government to decide disagreements, make and enforce laws, and govern man. The enforcement of rules is not as absolute as it may sound. Even with the existence of a limited monarchy, man retains his individual and God given rights. As such, the sovereign, had no right to acquire or take away the property of another. If he did so he would be going against, God, the people, and all that is natural. The extent of the services of the existing sovereign is to govern over, protect, and enforce the laws of the people.
Locke believed that the role of the sovereign and his authority is in serving the people and that there must not be parental, that is absolute authority. Yolton explains this like so, “If royal authority is derived from parental authority … there would be as many kings as fathers… from parental power it necessarily follows either that that all fathers have royal authority – in which case a contradiction arises – no one has royal authority. ” In this way Locke is seen as a man who wants to limit the power of the sovereign over the individual.
Locke believed that the sovereign, created out of the need for the protection of individual rights, that is, out of the need for protection of the privacy of property, could not manifest itself publicly through excessive social control. Perhaps Locke’s idea is better explained this way. “From privacy of possession, publicity of sovereignty does not follow… `no Man could ever have a just Power over the life of another, by Right of property in Land or possessions'” This, of course, would include the man of sovereignty and the men of government.
Property sets the limit of sovereignty, in that no man has just power over another or another’s property. This right comes directly from God, because it is a God given right that a man should gain property through labor. This also sets the tone of the role of government, that of servitude instead of command. Locke believed that civil society existed to free individuals from the insecurity of the state of nature. He thought that men united voluntarily in a concerted effort of preserving and protecting life, liberty, and estate. Here again we see the importance of property.
Government within limits can work beneficially for all of man kind. This means that a sovereign would be necessary for the preservation of lives, the promotion of freedom, and the protection of estate. Locke is quite adamant about the preservation of individual freedom which Aaron describes as “need(ing) to be jealously preserved. ” This right to the property produced through labor is an inalienable right that each and every individual has. Even the soveriegn has no right to interfere with or take away a man’s property. This is the true limit of any man or governing body. Locke favored a limited monarchy.
This is an elected legislative assembly and a monarch that have the power to direct the commonwealth to preserve the community and it’s members and their rights. Locke believed that people were the absolute sovereign, and that if the appointed sovereign abused his authority the people would have the right to dissolve the government. This right of the people reinforces the limitations of the sovereign, while enforcing the accountability of the sovereign. It is in this sense that the community or the aggregation of individuality, retains power over the sovereign and in essence limits it’s power.
This is the extent of the limitation of authority of the sovereign. The sovereign is a servant of the people, that has limited power only as long as the majority allows it to have power. It was Locke’s intent that the state was made for the individual and that the sovereign be used as a protective instrument for the good of the individual. Locke’s ideas of property are based on God given rights. Each person has been given a body, with certain abilities and potentials, to use by God. The use of this body is called labor and its product is called property.
Since everyone has a body and a level of potential everyone is capable of producing property. The purpose of the sovereign is to protect the individuals right to property and their property. The sovereign is limited in it’s power and authority and does not have the right to take or interfere with any man’s property, since to do so would be an interference with the right’s of man as given by God. It was Locke’s hope that with such an ideology behind a people and their government that they might attain and retain Locke’s version of the good life, that is life, liberty, and most importantly estate. Bibliography:
Aaron, Richard, John Locke, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1963. Bowie, James, Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, MacMillan Publishing, New York, 1964. Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Oxford University Press, London, 1975. Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy, Harper and Row, New York, 1961. O’Connor, D. J. , John Locke, Pelican Books, London, 1952. Squadrito, Kathleen, Locke’s Theory of Sensitive Knowledge, University Press of America, Washington, 1978. Yolton, J. W. , Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970.