John Locke’s Call for the Dissolution of Bad Government, Through Strictly Lawful Means

Part One: Analysis

John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government”, in his Two Treatises of Government, makes a clear point that the people of a commonwealth grant authority to their governing body, and thereby have an inherent right to bring about the dissolution of that body, if it violates the principles upon which it was initially established.  But Locke goes further than to simply condone the overthrow of a bad government.  He examines and rationalizes the tenets and limits to authority of government; what sort of situations would constitute a government that has overstepped the authority designated to it.  And concludes how it is by peaceful, legislative means that the people who constitute the society being governed can dissolve the governing body, which has become alien to their will and interests.

Locke’s view of governing authority is that it should serve the will of the people that make up the commonwealth, because they are the ones who grant legislative authority in exchange for security and protection.  This is stated in Chapter 9, paragraph 131, “And so whosoever has the legislative or supreme power of a commonwealth, is bound to govern by establishing standing laws, promulgated and known to the people / to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people.”  Furthermore, since legislative authority ultimately resides with the will of the people, the dissolution of such authority is subsequently reserved by the people as well.

Locke makes a distinction though between the dissolution of government and dissolution of society (TT.II.211).  In regard to the dissolution of society, the union can only be disrupted through the conquest of a foreign force, thus if a government is dissolved, the society it governs can continue to exist and authorize a new legislature.  The dissolution of the government is different however, in that the legislative powers, who have been granted authority to make laws for the good of the people, are themselves subject to the laws they have made (TT.II.143).  Since the governing body is dependent on the people’s will, it can only function as long as the commonwealth of people sees fit to maintain it.  If the actions of the government are counter to the will, or good, of the people, then it is also counter to the laws by which it itself is bound, and thus can be dissolved by the society that has empowered it, because it no longer upholds the interest of the commonwealth (TT.II.202).

On the issue of altering legislation, Locke equates the act similarly to a foreign conquest, which in itself is, “as far from setting up any government, as demolishing a house is from building a new one in the place” (TT.II.175).  And generally dismisses belligerent disobedience against the laws of government, either by ruler or subject, as vile and criminally despicable (TT.II.230).  As far as Locke is concerned the only legitimate law is one that derives from the consent of the people; if a law does not derive from, or stands in opposition to, the original framework consented by the people of the commonwealth, it is a breach in contract and the authority bestowed upon the guilty party is automatically invalid:

By this breach of trust they forfeit the power, the people had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative (such as they shall think fit) provided for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society (TT.II.222).

The function of the government is to serve as a representative to the interest of the commonwealth.  If the government chooses to behave in a self-serving arbitrary manner, neglecting the good of the people, it is breaking the principles upon which it was founded.  The people have a fundamental right to oppose any force that is contrary and harmful to the principles that they have agreed to build their commonwealth on, and if that force happens to be reflected in the actions of their current government, then the government can be opposed by its subjects since that government has ceased to be their government.  Although, this might seem like a defense for revolutionaries, Locke also notes how this revelation does not invite the incessant dissolution of one government for another, because, “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest” (TT.II.223).  He uses Britain as an example, where even through countless government scandals, administrative corruptions, and calls for revolution, the monarchial system of king, lords, commons, has yet to be replaced.

How then can a people, by Locke’s doctrine, rebel against a government that no longer serves their interest?  Not by force, because, as already stated, a violent strike against an existing legislature will produce effects similarly to foreign conquest (TT.II.218).  That is to say, the resulting structure will be rendered as invalid on the grounds that whatever new institution is erected in place of the old is not compatible with the original foundation consented to by the commonwealth.  In truth, Locke views this doctrine, where power is authorized by the people who alone hold the right to dissolve a legislature that is not protecting their property and providing their safety, or is acting in any way contrary to their trust, as the ultimate barrier against rebellion (TT.II.226).  If the people see fit to dissolve the government, because the legislators have altered laws that have been agreed upon by the people, it is the legislators who are the dissenters by rebelling against the government that has been authorized by the people, who alone are the authority on what is to be their society’s ways of governance:

When they, who were set up for the protection, and preservation of the people, their liberties and properties, shall by force invade, and endeavor to take them away; and so they putting themselves into a state of war with those, who made them the protectors and guardians of their peace, are properly, and with the greatest aggravation, rebellantes rebels (TT.II.227).

The people do not need to rebel, because once the actions of the government no longer represent the will of the commonwealth, the people who make up the commonwealth have no obligation to remain subjects of what has now become a de facto foreign power to them.  And if violence does occur when a people consciously rise against a corrupt legislature, the fault cannot lie with the honest man who is trying to preserve his rights and the rights on which his society was formed, but will always fall on the conscience of the invading force, invading his rights and the rights of his neighbors (TT.II.228).

John Locke’s treatise is a proclamation for majority governance, where ruling authority rests with the commonwealth, the people, who have the rights to determine what is best for their society.  As it is their right to establish, for their own good, whichever sort of government they see fit; it is also inherit in their authority to be able to dissolve an existing legislature, when it no longer serves their good, as they are not obligated to be subjects of a government whose priorities are not representative of their own.

Part Two: Critique

As already mentioned, Locke pronounces that the people of the commonwealth grant authority to the legislature and thereby reserve the right to determine whether or not it is legitimate, and if deemed illegitimate by the commonwealth, the governing body relinquishes its legislative powers back to the people who can then install a new sovereign to represent their interests.  All of this sounds sensible, but Locke also mentions that, “acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate” (TT.II.149).  This seems to be an implicit contradiction to his appeal for majority governance, in which it is the people who are the sovereigns of the land, and the legislative is an institution through which they protect and preserve their rights.  Locke goes on to say, reconcilably, that, “the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust repose them” (TT.II.149).  This statement appears to have been made by Locke in order to smooth out the discrepancy of his earlier statement and keep his proposed form of government consistent with democratic theory, but despite this attempt the sentence is still a non sequitur.

If Locke wants to identify the legislative body as the supreme power in the commonwealth, then its authority cannot be limited by the people of the commonwealth, because once a power is limited then by definition it is no longer supreme.  Perhaps, Locke meant that the people authorize the legislative with supreme power to institute laws favorable to the general good of the commonwealth, while the commonwealth still retains a certain trait of supreme power giving it the ability to pass judgment over the governing body: a separation of powers.  However, this is still unsatisfactory and only works if one is willing to be charitable to Locke, who did not bother to define his reasoning or assessment of how or why both the people and the legislator can hold supreme power in the commonwealth and in certain passages seems to refute any such claim:

In all cases, whilst the government subsists, the legislative is the supreme power.  For what can give laws to another, must needs be superior to him: and since the legislative is no otherwise legislative of the society, but by the right it has to make laws for all the parts and for every member of the society / and all other powers in any members or parts of the society, derived from and subordinate to it (TT.II.150).

Even if we are charitable towards Locke in this one statement, the fact still remains that the rest of his treatise treats the legislative authority as subordinate to the will of the commonwealth, which is composed of the interests of the people.  His occasional divergence from this point, rather than strengthening his argument, renders it moot.

This also causes a fundamental problem to arise when one looks at Locke’s views on how the people retain a basic right to dissolve the government that they have authorized to begin with.  When you have the ability to depose of an entity, then you do in fact hold some sort of dominion over that entity, making it subordinate to you.  A point Locke himself might reject according to the above quote, but a Lockean would have to accept if he or she follows Locke’s reasoning throughout the treatise.

Locke explicitly states that when a government is destroyed the commonwealth remains in full form (TT.II.211), meaning that supreme power cannot be equally shared between the two (separate or otherwise); for if the roles were balanced, then it would also be true that the government can theoretically dissolve the people just as readily as the people can dissolve the government.  But this is not true, because the people hold ultimate authority on how the government behaves/exists.  The relationship between the two is one in which the legislative body cannot act on its own will (such as deciding to destroy the commonwealth), because that will is dependent on the will of the people, going so far as to be composed solely of the will of the people (TT.II.142).

Locke creates a similar problem when he mentions that the legislative is what combines the commonwealth into one coherent living body, “This is the soul that gives form, life, and unity to the commonwealth: from hence the several members have their mutual influence, sympathy, and connection: and therefore when the legislative is broken, or dissolved, dissolution and death follow” (TT.II.212).  Here, it is implied that as the product of the society’s communal interest, the legislative is the representation (or soul, if one was keen on a more metaphorical prose) of the society’s will.  It is the uniting agent by which the commonwealth expresses its founding principles, operating as a physical embodiment to exercise the people’s collective will, and were it destroyed the resulting conclusion would be the removal of the commonwealths ability to physically exercise that will.

To Locke’s political theory of majority governance, this is disastrous, and the Lockean responds would be swift to counter the reasoning with the following:  First, one could argue that the statement made was Locke’s way of assessing all possible scenarios of the dissolution of government.  Rather than conceding that the destruction of the legislative body leaves the commonwealth without the ability to exercise their will, Locke was applying deductive reasoning to the situation.  This is supported by how in subsequent paragraphs Locke truly does explore varies alternative forms of existing and dissolving governments, the possible approaches that can be taken when they are no longer in line with the people’s will, and what results from each possible approach.  The second defense would be that since Locke ultimately concludes that, “the people have a right to act supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves, or erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good” (TT.II.243).  Thereby, the will of the commonwealth is not entirely tied in with the existence of legislative and the intermediary scenarios are irrelevant to Locke’s ability to reach his wanted outcome; the defense of majority governance.  Now, as fervent as such defenses may be, they do little but try to redirect from the issue at hand.  If it can be supposed that as the representative entity of the commonwealth’s will, the legislative is a needed component in order for that will to be organized in a coherent way, then it goes to show that Locke’s insistence on the readily manner by which the commonwealth can dissolve a governing body is not universally applicable in theory or practice.

The Lockean dismissal of the major faults with Locke’s theory as irrelevant due to its focus on the semantics of Locke’s premises, rather than his conclusions, reveals a great deal about the flaws of John Locke’s argument as a whole.  It is in the ways a philosopher constructs his argument that deems it coherent or not.  Locke’s final conclusion in the Two Treatise of Government, of a governing body that is authorized by the people for its own interest and protection, and who retain the right to judge, mediate, and dissolve said legislative once it no longer serves the will of the people, is an idea that resonance favorably with the masses; not to mention an idea that was quite radical in Locke’s time of monarchial governance.  Nevertheless, as shown here, the manner by which Locke constructs his premises is far from consistent, and nowhere near as articulate as he indeed could have made it.  He sets out to defend the core part of his theory, the need for a limited government preceded in authority by the will of the people of the commonwealth, and fails by breaking from this premise and designating both parties (government and commonwealth) separate but equally supreme in authority (actually maintaining that it is the legislative that is the supreme power, though somehow still limited in authority).  Only to falter again by concluding that it is really the legislative that is dependent on the will of the commonwealth after all, despite stating that this will is correlated to the existence of the legislative.

Bibliography

Locke, John.  1993.  “Second Treatise of Government,” Two Treatises of Government, ed. Mark Goldie.  Churchill College, Cambridge:  Everyman.

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