John Locke: Defense against the Black Hats is the Origin of the State

In “The Social Contract According to John Locke” I write:

John Locke's version of social contract theory is striking in saying that the only right people give up in order to enter into civil society and its benefits is the right to punish other people for violating rights. No other rights are given up, only the right be be a vigilante.

But why would people give up even that right? John Locke explains in Section 123 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (in Chapter IX, “Of the Ends of Political Society and Government”):

§ 123. IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to nobody, why will he part with his freedom? why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and controul of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, to have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.  

Note here his definition of “property” as “lives, liberties and estates”; the ordinary meaning of property was enough different in the 18th century that the Declaration of Colonial Rights used the phrases “life, liberty, and property,” and the Declaration of Independence famously included close to the full range of things that enter people’s utility functions by the expansive phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In the absence of some sort of mutual protection association, many things people care about are endangered by bad guys.

What does it take to restrain bad guys? Here is John Locke’s answer:

  • clearly stated rules

  • impartial judges

  • the brute force needed to enforce sentences

Why are these needed?

  • people are reluctant to admit they have transgressed

  • the desire for revenge makes people want to go too far in punishing offenses against themselves

  • lack of caring makes people not want to go far enough in punishing offenses against others they are not emotionally close to

  • punishing bad guys is hard.

Here is how John Locke makes those points:

§ 124. The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting. First, There wants an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them: for though the law of nature be plain and intelligible to all rational creatures; yet men being biassed by their interest, as well as ignorant for want of study of it, are not apt to allow of it as a law binding to them in the application of it to their particular cases. 

§ 125. Secondly, In the state of nature there wants a known and indifferent judge, with authority to determine all differences according to the established law: for every one in that state being both judge and executioner of the law of nature, men being partial to themselves, passion and revenge is very apt to carry them too far, and with too much heat, in their own cases; as well as negligence, and unconcernedness, to make them too remiss in other men’s. 

§ 126. Thirdly, In the state of nature there often wants power to back and support the sentence when right, and to give it due execution. They who by any injustice offended, will seldom fail, where they are able, by force to make good their injustice; such resistance many times makes the punishment dangerous, and frequently destructive, to those who attempt it.  

There remains the question “Why are people willing to subject themselves to actual, imperfect rulers?” The basic answer is that there are bad guys out there who are worse than the rulers:

§ 127. Thus mankind, notwithstanding all the privileges of the state of nature, being but in an ill condition, while they remain in it, are quickly driven into society. Hence it comes to pass, that we seldom find any number of men live any time together in this state. The inconveniences that they are therein exposed to by the irregular and uncertain exercise of the power every man has of punishing the transgressions of others, make them take sanctuary under the established laws of government, and therein seek the preservation of their property. It is this makes them so willingly give up every one his single power of punishing, to be exercised by such alone, as shall be appointed to it amongst them; and by such rules as the community, or those authorized by them to that purpose, shall agree on. And in this we have the original right and rise of both the legislative and executive power, as well as of the governments and societies themselves.

When the rulers become as bad as the worst of the bad guys, then people will often take their chances rejecting any authority of the state over them, or will try to form alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that can be seen as the rudiments of an alternative state.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: