What is the purpose of government? Why do we even have it in the first place? Locke takes on answering these questions as his task in his “Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay.”
Locke is answering many of the questions that have come up in some of the modern political debates. Perhaps if more folks were to read Locke, then perhaps the discussion could start from a place where the first principles had at least been considered.
So, what is the purpose of a civil government? It is to take people out of a state of nature where everyone needs to shift for themselves to a state where they can live together. The purpose of government is to resolve disputes between people impartially and peaceably.
“Men 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, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.”
What’s more important is that governments are created because the people come together to create them voluntarily. But creating the government does come with responsibilities.
“And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact if he be left free and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of Nature.”
People who benefit from the government have a responsibility to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of that government. We have seen instances in the United States where people have tried to set themselves outside of the law, and even tried to use force or the threat of force to make their case. Locke would say that these people are essentially freeloaders who are taking advantage of the safety and benefits offered by a government without holding up their end of the bargain.
“And to this, I say that every man that has any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth hereby give his tact consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it, whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging for only a week; or whether it be barely traveling freely on the highway; and in effect it reaches as far as the very being of anyone within the territories of that government.”
“Whoever therefore from thenceforth, by inheritance, purchases permissions or otherwise enjoys any part of the land annexed to, and under the government of that commonweal, must take it with the condition it is under – that is, of submitting to the government of the commonwealth, under whose jurisdiction is it, as far forth as any subject of it.”
All of that said, Locke does not believe that people should just be blind subjects. If there is a problem, he writes that people should turn to the law first and work through problems with the government in accordance with the law. A well-constructed state will have laws that prevent tyranny and prevent governments from acting arbitrarily. But when governments start to infringe on peoples’ rights, then they can be changed.
“The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community….But if they have set limits to the duration of their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person or assembly only temporary; or else when, by the miscarriages of those in authority, it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture of their rulers, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves or place it in a new form, or new hands, as they think good.”
While Locke thinks that the first step should be finding a remedy within the laws and finding a peaceable solution, he does believe that the people have right to resist governments that threaten them. He rejects the notion that there are kings who would be somehow so superior to the people that they can act capriciously. When the government gets really ugly, then the people have the right to return the favor.
“But if they who say it lays a foundation for rebellion mean that it may occasion civil wars or intestine broils to tell the people that they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties…this doctrine is not to be allowed, being so destructive to the peace of the world; they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.”
Of course all of this requires people to actively think about their government and to engage with it. People need to think through why the government is there and realize that it is there because we have all agreed tacitly or explicitly to have it. Our political discourse would be improved if we could all start from the place Locke suggests: we have agreed to a government because it is better than living in a state of nature, and we need to work to configure it in such a way that it works for the good of people and, as Locke would say preserves “their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name – property.”