Democracy Is Best
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
John Locke, from Second of Two Treatises of Government
Kem Stone - 18 April 2008
In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes reaches the conclusion that monarchy is the best form of government after
establishing that man’s natural state is war.  John Locke, in his
Two Treatises of Government, begins with the
opposite opinion regarding man’s natural state, and concludes that the ideal form of government is democracy.  In
this particular selection, Locke presents the enormously influential idea that the power of the government is
derived from the consent of the governed.  Men are not forced into civil society to escape their otherwise nasty
and brutish existence, but they agree to abide by the laws of society in order to have an impartial judge in the form
of the state to decide controversies among them, and to protect their property.  I believe that like Hobbes, Locke’
s theories on government are too simple to be entirely accurate, though they are at the core far more defensible.

Locke describes man’s natural state as “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their
possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or
depending upon the will of any other man” (470).  Rather than a state of perfect war, Locke sees men without
government in a state of perfect freedom, as well as perfect equality due to the relatively same degree of naturally
endowed powers that men are born with.  Locke contends that reason shows us that the law of Nature teaches
mankind that because we are all naturally free and equal, no one can justifiably harm another in his life, health,
freedom, or property.  In the state of war, however, one person has set his design on another and so the latter has
the right to defend himself and call on others to assist him in his defence, it being justified to destroy another rather
than be destroyed.  “And here we have the plain difference between the state of Nature and the state of war,
which however some men have confounded, are as far distant as a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance,
and preservation; and a state of enmity, malice, violence, and mutual destruction are one from another” (471).

Man is born with the right to be free and enjoy the rights of the law of Nature, particularly to preserve his property
against the injuries of others, but also with a natural right to punish those who breach this law.  What separates the
commonwealth from the state of Nature is mainly that in the former, a group of men have united into one body to
establish an authority to dictate the law, to judge when the law has been breached, and to enforce punishment
when it has.  These are respectively the legislative, judicial, and executive powers, which originate in man’s giving
up his own right to punish wrongdoers to the commonwealth.  “Wherever, therefore, any number of men so unite
into one society as to quit every one 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….For hereby he authorises the society, or which is all one, the
legislative thereof, to make laws for him as the public good of the society shall require, to the execution whereof
his own assistance (as to his own decrees) is due” (472).  Locke points out that monarchy is inconsistent with this
picture of civil society, as the monarchs themselves have no common authority to appeal to.  Two absolute princes
in dispute have no recourse to a higher authority to settle their controversy, and they are therefore, by Locke’s
understanding, still in a state of Nature.

One of the most critical aspects of civil society is the agreement among all participants to submit to the will of the
majority.  Having united into one body, a commonwealth must move in a single direction, and it is most reasonable
to move in the direction where the greater force carries it.  A man who consents to be governed places himself
under an obligation to be subject to the will of the majority, or else his consent means nothing.  The consent of the
majority must be received as the act of the whole, as the alternatives are either unjustifiable or impractical.  It is
unjust for a minority to determine the law for everyone, as is the case wherever the government is not a
democracy.  But even in a democracy, the state will act against the interest of some of its participants, as it would
be impossible to govern only by unanimous consent.  All participants must therefore agree to abide by the will of
the majority, even if they disagree with that will from time to time.  “And thus, that which begins and actually
constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of majority, to unite
and incorporate into such a society.  And this is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful
government in the world” (473).

If the state of Nature is perfect freedom, and entering into civil society means giving up a large degree of that
freedom, the question then arises as to why anyone would willingly enter into civil society.  Locke says that the
answer is obvious, that although in his natural state man has complete freedom, this freedom is uncertain and
constantly under threat by the invasion of others.  It is the preservation of property that Locke believes is the main
reason that men unite into commonwealths, because a commonwealth has many advantages that do not exist in the
state of Nature.  According to Locke, there are three basic things wanting in the state of Nature that prevent men
from being secure in their property.  First, there is no settled law established by common consent by which to
measure standards of right and wrong.  Second, there is no indifferent judge with the authority to interpret the
law.  Third, there is no executive power to enforce the law as interpreted by an impartial judge.  “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” (474).  Without a law to guarantee him a right to his property, a judge to decide when
this right has been violated, and a force to punish those who violate it, the abundance of freedom a man has
naturally is overshadowed by his complete lack of security.

The formation of a government creates security at the expense of man’s freedom, and although there are different
forms of government, Locke believes that the will of the majority stands behind them all.  “The majority having, as
has been showed, upon men’s first uniting into society, the whole power of the community naturally in them, may
employ all that power in making laws for the community from time to time, and executing those laws by officers of
their own appointing, and then the form of the government is a perfect democracy; or else may put the power of
making laws into the hands of a few select men, and their heirs or successors, and then it is an oligarchy; or else in
the hands of one man, and then it is a monarchy” (475).  The legislative power can be given to representatives, to
nobleman, or to a monarch, but should the majority decide on a new form of government, this power can be
revoked and placed anew into whatever hands they please.  Democracy is the ideal form of government because
in a perfect democracy, the majority itself, rather than a monarch or a handful of noblemen, represents the will of
the majority.

I certainly agree with Locke’s central conclusion that the power in any commonwealth ultimately and
appropriately rests in the hands of the majority.  I also believe that Locke’s view of the state of Nature is closer to
the true case than Hobbes’s.  However, there are several problems I have with Locke’s argument, most notably
his preoccupation with property.  Locke asserts that it is a law of Nature that no man ought to harm another in his
life, health, liberty, or possessions, yet I do not believe men can
have possessions in a natural state.  Governments
are not set up to protect the property that a man rightfully owns, but to make owning property possible in the first
place.  A piece of land does not naturally belong to me rather than anyone else, but as long as there is a
government to decree that this land belongs to me and to punish anyone who tries to take it from me, I can claim
that I own it; that it is
my possession.  Yet without a government decree it does not belong to me any more than it
belongs to the grass that grows on it.  People do not enter into a commonwealth to protect their property, but to
acquire property in the first place.

The most important question, however, is whether man has the right to grant himself the right to property.  
According to Locke’s theory of government, the authority of the government is derived from the consent of the
governed, so if everyone consents to the idea that a piece of land can belong to a particular person and anyone
who trespasses on this land ought to be subject to punishment, the right to own property is justified.  Yet there is a
fundamental problem with the idea of authority derived from consent, when we ask whether this consent is explicit
or implicit and exactly who gives the consent in the first place.  In reality, it is only those men who form a new
government who give explicit consent to the laws they make and the rights they guarantee, while everyone else is
given no choice in the matter.  I may not believe that my neighbour has a right to
own the land his house sits upon,
and I may not consent to any government that gives him that right, but I will still be prosecuted if I trespass on it.

To use the United States as an example, the framers of the constitution developed a new form of government and
gave their explicit consent to submit to the authority of this new institution.  In a sense, those people whom they
represented gave their consent as well, because they were freely chosen by these men to represent their own
interests when writing the new constitution.  It should be noted that women and black men were never asked for
consent, yet they were forced to obey the laws of this constitution anyway.  But even without considering
minorities, once a generation had gone by and all of the men who had signed the constitution were dead, there
was no longer a single man alive who had given his explicit consent to be subjected to the authority of the
government.  The following century, half of the country decided that they were no longer going to consent to be
governed by the president in Washington, but the Civil War forced them to do so.  Today we are still subject to
an authority established long ago to which none of us have given our explicit consent to be ruled by.  The authority
of the government is not derived from the consent of the governed unless we argue that by
not starting a
revolution to take down the government, each person gives his or her implicit consent to be subject to its laws.  
Yet even those who do try to start revolutions are arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned, forced into subjection by
an authority to which they explicitly
denied their consent.  Logically then, it appears that government authority is
ultimately derived from force, rather than the combined will of the people.

Yet this is not a necessary evil of government, and if there is one valuable thing to take from Locke it is the idea
that government authority at least
ought to be derived from consent, and in a perfect democracy it would be.  If
all members of a society had an equal say in their government, consent would be given each time a citizen votes,
and the outcome of elections would be a true reflection of the will of the people.  Yet over three centuries have
gone by since Locke’s writing, and though the elements of democracy are far more widespread than they were in
the 17th century, a
true democracy has yet to be born in the world.  People vote for politicians to represent their
interests, but most politicians have only their own interests in mind.  It is usually in their best interest to cater to the
interests of the wealthy and powerful, rather than the people they are supposed to represent.  Yet Locke could
not have foreseen the great social and economic changes in the world that have led to this present state of affairs,
and we can not completely condemn democracy in theory for the flaws of democracy in practice.