Revisiting John Locke

The perennial question – that likely racks the brains of recovering conservatives, who are leaning toward an adoption of anarcho-capitalism – is the following: Is it morally justifiable to physically force someone to join an association for that person’s own good? Obviously an anarcho-capitalist must say no, while conservatives and liberals alike must answer this in the affirmative. Surprisingly, it is relatively difficult to find articles and books (outside libertarian circles) that treat this question directly. So after having read up pretty thoroughly on Austrian economics and regularly studying the various authors who are published by, I figured I would revisit John Locke himself and his “Second Treatise of Government.” I wanted to see exactly how he treated the question that I posed above and whether or not his answer was as satisfying as I originally found it to be when I first read Mr. Locke 15 years ago as a college junior.

So what makes government legitimate according to Locke? “…Political Society, (is one) where every one of the members hath quitted his natural power, (and) resigned it up into the hands of the Against the State: An ... Rockwell Jr., Llewelly... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 EST - Details) community.” (Italicized emphasis is mine) Similarly Locke states: “Where-ever therefore any number of men are so united into one society, as to quit every one (of) his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the public, there and there only is a political, or civil society.” And finally Locke, says again: “Men being…by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subject to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby anyone divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature.” (Italicized emphasis mine)

The running theme then seems to be that the explicit consent of every member is required in order to establish and maintain valid governmental authority. So far so good, right? The above doesn’t sound much like a modern government to me at all, but rather more like the Rotary Club or any other voluntary association. But alas, Mr. Locke is not finished and you did not actually think he was on your side, did you?

Expanding upon the idea that explicit consent is required, Locke then introduces the far more fluid and hence dangerous idea of tacit consent. Here we go guys and gals: “Every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent…” Wow, really? Something tells me Locke is not just talking about buying into a condominium association. Just like that, I went from being a member of the Rotary club to the obedient tax slave of Governor Christie and Senator Menendez. At least we can take solace in the fact Check Amazon for Pricing. that “…(we are) at liberty to go and incorporate (ourselves) into any other commonwealth; or to agree with others to begin a new one, in vacuis locis, in any part of the world they can find free and unpossessed”

I feel a lot better now, don’t you? I mean maybe if me, my family and some compatriots head to the pine barrens of South Jersey, Mr. Christie and Mr. Menendez will allow us the “….liberty to agree with others to begin a new (commonwealth), in vacuis locis!” Oh wait the illustrious former Governor, Brendan Byrne, already claimed that land under the dominion of the state of New Jersey. In the end folks, is there a single acre of land that does not fall within the boundaries of one sovereign or another? I know I would love to mix my blood, sweat and tears in vacuis locis such that said property becomes my private property by virtue of that admixture, wouldn’t you? Locke doesn’t treat the fact that there is no free and unpossessed land that one would not have to fight for; nor does he treat whether or not one may morally fight for that seemingly free and unpossessed land that is now unjustifiably claimed by some unproductive sovereign. All in all, Locke’s treatment of explicit consent seems sound. It gets foggy and more ambiguous when he introduces tacit consent and it falls to pieces when you try to apply the theory to real circumstances.

All of this is not even considering Locke’s dubious assumption that entry into civil society somehow baptizes those who make the plunge or are forced into the Jordan. Are men really more likely to be just if they live together in a political order versus living in proximity to one another in a state of nature? I find it hard to believe that entry into civil society somehow removes the stain of original sin. Locke himself seems to acknowledges that it does not when he says that “…absolute monarchs are but men”, yet he is still a proponent of limited government. What justifies the rule of those who are “but men” over those of us who are also “but men”? What sense does it make to say that no government would be necessary if men were angels, when men (who are not angels) constitute government? Admittedly I am reluctant to conclude that government is a massive conspiratorial canard, but the longer you live and the more you dig, it is hard not to see it as just that.