John Locke's Democratic Self-Rule: An Analysis

An old essay looking at one interpretation of democracy.

Image courtesy of Capitalism Magazine

John Locke’s political theory has often been described as moving towards a principle of democratic self-rule. His differences from traditionally democratic behaviour are characterised by the notions of differentiated rationalities, self-preservation, perfect freedom, and increasing rights to property based on the increasing accumulation of wealth and merit. In order to arrive at a full democracy, he would have to change the exploitation of labour in favor of the propertied members and get people to try and collectively agree on what sort of rules should be put in place based on their individual perspectives.

To understand Locke’s concept of democratic self-rule, we must first look at how he sees humans in the state of nature. It has laws of nature in it, and all people know this. According to Locke, every individual has enough reason to recognise the basic laws of nature. 

The state of nature is the condition we would be in if there was no sovereign enforcing the law. However, these natural laws are understood as proper obligations, and so we recognise them as unconditional and absolute. They are rules that we subject ourselves to and should, therefore, obey at all times (8).

The natural law essentially says that everything we have a right to exists in nature. This includes the distinct rights to punish criminals, to prevent crime and to various punishment methods. In the state of nature, we, as independent arbitrators, decide what to do when someone does us wrong or causes us harm (10).

That being said, Locke believes that every person enjoys perfect freedom. This means that everyone is free in the state of nature since there are no laws. Though at the same time, there is also a freedom in the equality of jurisdictions. This is because each person has his or her own jurisdiction. People are equal in that sense and are perfectly free. In other words, no one has the right to tell anyone else what the laws of nature are, what they signify, and how they should be enforced. People do not need to be or live like anyone else in order to enjoy equality. No one individual has power over another, because everyone governs himself or herself. Therefore, each person will enforce the laws of nature by themselves and for themselves (9).

However, this presents a problem. People will inevitably have different interpretations of laws, resulting in legal debates on how laws ought to be enforced. Therefore, a social contract is conceived, which decrees the transfer of rights to an entity that will interpret and enforce the laws of nature for everyone else. 

We then agree amongst ourselves that we will transfer those rights for most situations to the majority of contractors, which we call sovereigns, because there is no other higher authority. It must be noted, however, that the sovereign is not a stable subset of whole; thus, it cannot govern directly because it rotates, meaning that the power shifts from one body to another (12).

According to Locke, there are two steps to sovereignty. It starts with the first delegation to the shifting majority, which is the sovereign, since the majority cannot govern directly. A government is formed at this phase, and the legislative and executive powers get transferred to it. However, these powers are only delegated to the executives and legislators as a trust. 

They are revocable if abused or betrayed, and they can legitimately replace the government for a new sovereign (12). A lawyer, for example, is an agent in trust, and when they do not do things according to the wishes of their clients, they can be replaced. This is the same logic that applies to government powers.

Revolutions, for instance, do not rightly replace the sovereign majority. What gets replaced is, at most, the government. The right to revolt is ambiguous, because it is a question of who exactly holds this right. It also calls into question the appropriate time this right can be exercised. It cannot be something people do at a whim. 

For example, people should not revolt just because of one or a few oppressive laws, as laws cannot always be perfect. People should only revolt when a government is being consistently oppressive in its overall practices over an extended period of time. At this stage, the government is limited, so it only has enough power to enforce the laws of nature (15).

There is also a second delegation whereby some government powers go to the executive. These are a trust as well, because they can be taken back at the will of the larger entity in government. This is referring to a subset of parliament, which is the group within the majority government party (12).

It can be safely assumed, then, that Locke is clearly against absolute power. In Locke’s idea of a civil society, we choose a judge or an arbitrator of sorts to make decisions, because we have consented to them and not the law itself. Additionally, we are not ignorant of the law. This is, of course, how we make decisions in the public sphere. In the private sphere, we are our own judges and decide how to interpret the rules, just as in the state of nature. Either way, we all acknowledge and are subjected to the law (13).

We have the right to self-preservation, and Locke says that people ought to harm others in order to protect themselves. However, if their self-preservation is not in danger, then they should try to promote the well being of others. This is because we are all equal in opportunity to achieve goals as industrious and ambitious beings. At the same time, we also have the right to freedoms and measures such as peace and protection (11).

Locke says that we decide everything rationally, because we are in control of ourselves. However, it is possible for people to enter a state of war, a right to destruction when there is a threat. This is different from state of nature in that we are not always in warfare. It is only a possibility, because people are not always out to get each other. The state of war is when we are not functioning rationally (14).

The point people leave the state of nature is when they want consistency in arbitration, so they need someone to decide what is right and wrong for everyone else. Otherwise, they will always have disputes with each other over who has the right to judge situations. When the sovereign stops enforcing the laws of nature, people can, and should, stop following that particular regime (15).

For example, the right to own property is a natural right. Once our property is in jeopardy, we can get remove the power trying to violate that right. Locke does not call for revolution unless it concerns property protection. When all else fails, that is the time to revolt. We earn property through being industrious. Although it is already a given natural law, if we put our labour into property, then it is ours to keep (18).

There are certain cases where this is not always true, however. Property will always belong to people who have slaves working on them, for instance, because it is part of a contract. Slaves sell their labour to landlords while landlords give them some compensation. Additionally, landlords also give slaves a place to live and work in. A general rule for Locke is that, as long as people put enough work into something, they will always get something out of it (17).

There is always equality, even in the case of uneven wealth distribution. Locke would say that wealthier people try harder to accumulate wealth than poorer people on welfare do. For him, it is simply not enough to live somewhere. Locke says that whoever invests in and uses the land well deserves to take it in their possession. Locke, then, wants to make some aspects of property natural (20).

However, we start to see some ambiguities and contradictions about these individual rights that segue into state and society. As stated, property is something that people are allowed to, ought to, and have the right to use to the exclusion of other people, whether it be a tangible item, an idea, a relationship, or labour. It belongs, or will belong, to one individual and not necessarily to another even if both have equal rights to it. Monetary values, however, are taken for granted. Although the accumulation of wealth is unlimited, class differences still exist (21).

Ideas about the different categories of property, such as limited property, common property, private property, and absolute property are all socially constructed, but Locke says there is still a natural set of relationships and natural conditions for property. 

There can be no property for an isolated individual, which means that, in order to use things, they must challenge others for the use of those possessions. People have to agree on what they can and cannot take from each other (22).

What we know for sure is that our right to property is necessary for living. All Earth’s resources are given to mankind in common. However, we make a shift from that to individual private property and eventually the consequences of unlimited accumulation and class differentials. Firstly, when people make something their property, they are exercising their right to live. At this early stage, people are limited in how much property they have, so when they claim something, they cannot and try not to waste it because that goes against nature (21).

Trading goods, for instance, is an acceptable practice, so that no one is over-accumulating a particular good. Cooperation among people is encouraged, but credit will always go to those who exercise their labour, so partners always need to be sure that the workload is distributed evenly to avoid disputes over who deserves more credit for doing more work (24).

Locke also discusses sufficiency limitation, whereby people should only use as much as they need and leave the rest for others. Moreover, they cannot take what others put their labour into. He says that we cannot take so much or accumulate a particular resource in such a way that will cause it to spoil. He emphasises on taking what is needed and working as much as needed or desired. He says that every individual must adopt this practice (25).

We eventually get introduced to a form of stored value, that which is currency, because it does not spoil, unlike most other resources. People have an easier time exchanging this. Money is integrated into the exchange system among individuals before civil society and other stable legal arrangements are established. The existence of money, to an extent, gets rid of all the previous limitations in spoilage, sufficiency and labour (26).

It is especially evident in labour, where all possessions and employees are equivalent to one’s labour. Even though everyone and everything starts out free in nature, an individual is allowed to employ and claim property in order to advance and increase their own wealth. Sooner or later, however, we will experience severe class differentials. Some people will become employees to those who have accumulated enough money to hire others to do their work. This system leads to more productivity, and employers can take from their labourers what they can get (27).

With all of that in mind, according to Locke, there are two ways this sort of society can be run. He talks about his two states of nature, one of which is good, and the other being nasty. In his envisioned good state of nature, limited sovereign power is allowed on the basis of full membership, explicit consent, rights and rationality. This is what Locke calls the civil society, in which the government is responsible to appeal to the will of all of those other members who are considered equals. As mentioned before, we all start out equal in state of nature. 

Upon entering civil society, we take an oath of allegiance swearing to obey the laws, the parliament representatives and of course, the sovereign. We all have equal rights and rationalities, although there are times when particular classes with more property are expected to have greater rights and rationalities than members of the majority (12).

His nasty state of nature, on the other hand, requires a Hobbesian-like sovereign, except that this sovereign is equivalent to the majority. The entitled power is based on: the propertied full members, implied consent, just enough class differentials in rights and rationalities, and money and all of its consequences. The problem is that we do not know when sovereign powers are limited if at all, so it becomes harder to challenge the regime whenever conflicts arise. It also becomes a war of each against all, so we give over unlimited power to the sovereign to keep everyone else in check (15).

In this nasty society, some people are definitely more “equal” than others, because those that have property are automatically assumed to have more rights. Another way to take an oath in this state is to stay in a place for a week without owning property. Sovereign power can unfortunately become a danger to society, because it eventually gains a mind, will and interest of its own. The power then becomes even less limited, and more oppressive. It raises the question of whether giving all the power to one body, and then let them make decisions for the rest of society, is convenient after all (16).

This type of society is also a threat to property, especially when it comes to people with little to no property. Locke says that we need a sovereign power that has as much as it needs to defend everyone’s property. In order to fix this regime, Locke would need to employ an amalgam of elements from both the civil society and the state of nature so that these ambiguities and contradictions can potentially be reduced. 

That is because we can see a clear difference between the state of nature and civil society, where people are roughly equal in all respects in the former and experience differences in class and rationality in the latter. It is to ensure that people are guaranteed their rights and possessions by nature as well as by merit, but to also limit anyone from taking advantage and competing against others for wealth (16).

This competition of sorts for more wealth becomes more apparent, especially when considering the introduction to currency in civil society. In a condition of equality when it comes to wealth and possessions, once money comes into existence and usage, we are subject to its consequences, those being disproportionate and unequal possessions across the state. 

Money causes a great division among people into social classes. It becomes a means to stay alive, which applies to all our basic rights, such as the right to life, to maintain that right, and ultimately to stay alive as long as possible. We also have rights to what is essential in order to remain alive, which translates into some form of access to productive resources (25).

Money creates a differential in rationality. For example, those excluded from the access to means needed to undertake self-preservation, such as potentially productive resources, become less rational in terms of knowing their rights. What they do is give up the equality of jurisdiction, which is the basis of their freedom, and become employees or servants because they do not have the access to the means to produce things needed to live. Thus, they go to someone with the means and ask them for wages in exchange for instructions for their labour (28).

The concept of industrious appropriation comes into play. We agree to all of money’s consequences, which entail the accumulation of unlimited wealth and disproportionate possession and property for everyone, propertied full members, and a nasty state of nature when a great number of people are not as fully rational as the few. 

It becomes difficult to persuade people with fewer rights that they should abide by these principles on an equal basis, as well as the superiors on the basis of wealth. If a society is able to afford a limited sovereign, in that they have truly good intentions, then we can have a nice state of nature (24).

The aforementioned ambiguities and contradictions serve the purpose of guaranteeing unequal property rights and protecting both the rights of both classes, as well as their possessions from the sovereign. Locke would have to propose a concept similar to a persuasive theory of obligation that covers everyone, no matter how poor or unequal they are (30).

Locke’s government is close what we have now in Ontario, which entails a conservative government and liberal welfare. We have this right to shift the majority party every five years during the election period. His idea of government has democratic elements, but it is not a complete democracy, because the people can form whatever they want. He says that the executive and legislative powers should not be embodied into one power, but rather remain separate for legitimacy. It is to ensure that there is less bias and that both powers will check and balance each other. 

For one, the legislative body should not always be active, and having it be less active limits the risk of them tinkering, or even abusing their power. They should, therefore, sit only periodically to evaluate the situation. The executive body, of course, must be separate because it cannot be entitled to full control. It needs to be challengeable in case it ever passes questionable legislations. Locke says that if the natural laws do not protect our rights, they can be defied, and so they must be applied equally to all citizens (13).

In order to make the transition from democratic self-rule to a full democracy, Locke needs to remove the notion that people individually decide on how to interpret the laws and govern themselves, otherwise it will look less like a society with collective agreement and a common good, and more like a Hobbesian state of nature where every person is divided and tries to protect their own interests against everyone else.

As well, he should remove the other extreme, where people give all their power to one sovereign that will make all the decisions. Even if everyone is consenting to this, and abiding by the laws, it is still not totally democratic if people do not have a say in what kind of laws are implemented according to popular opinion and needs in society.

The other issue that needs to be addressed is the disparity between classes in property ownership. For example, those with less property should be given more opportunities, as well as compensation, considering it is they who are technically putting more labour into their products than their employers, who are facilitating the selling of those products and supervising production. It can also be said that the products belong to them initially, since they are the original creators.

The idea that workers are paid on the basis of merit is agreeable, but this does not mean that people with more wealth should be granted more rights than those with less or none at all. Otherwise, the poorer classes will not be able to fully participate in the political and social spheres nor the economic growth of that society. They would be limited in resources to satisfy their basic needs, labour opportunities as well as ownership of production, and access to means of functioning as citizens. 

Ideas surrounding morality would also end up becoming more divisive if we continue to isolate the lower classes. There is also the possibility that those in higher positions would view their actions and ways of thinking as immoral or deviant, when it could very well be the case that they are trying to survive in an environment that they are largely being separated from as best as they can.


Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 1960. Print.

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