John Locke: The Purpose of Law Is Freedom

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                                                                   image source

In the course of arguing against parental power as a justification for monarchy, John Locke gives a powerful statement of how law serves freedom in section 57 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (Chapter VI. Of Paternal Power).

First, John Locke argues that natural law is rational:

The law, that was to govern Adam, was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason. But his offspring having another way of entrance into the world, different from him, by a natural birth, that produced them ignorant and without the use of reason, they were not presently under that law; for nobody can be under a law, which is not promulgated to him; and by this law being promulgated or made known by reason only, he that is not come to the use of his reason, cannot be said to be under this law;

Then he makes the startling claim that because children can't fully understand natural law, they are not fully free: 

... and Adam’s children, being not presently as soon as born under this law of reason, were not presently free: 

John Locke then suggests that law has a utilitarian (if not, anachronistically Utilitarian) purpose: 

... for law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law:

As a good proto-economist, John Locke then suggests that if law didn't make people better off, it would be discarded:

... could they be happier without it, the law, as an useless thing, would of itself vanish;

One of his nicest lines is this example of how limits are not always a reduction in freedom:

... and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices.

Freedom is not just doing what you want, it is other people not doing what you desperately want them not to do:

So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law:

One of the toughest issues for Libertarians is the autocratic authority of employers over their employees.  Chris Bertram, Corey Robin and Alex Gourevitch make this point trenchantly in "Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace." (I also wrestle with this a bit in my post "Jobs.") In those situations the boss does whatever he wants, but the employees have little freedom. What John Locke says next seems relevant here:

... but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?)

Liberty is not for a few people to be able to do whatever they want, but for each individual to have a sphere in which she or he is the master:

... but a liberty to dispose and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

To me, the most interesting new idea is that to count as freedom, there must be enough rules to prevent any individual from being domineering. That is a tough standard for a society to meet, but a worthy goal. 


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