PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday March 28, 2003

[4.] Powers of Government (Second Treatise XI - XIII).


[4.1.] Separation of Powers.


Locke lists three separate political powers (even if they all belong to a single entity, they are still conceptually separate):

·         legislative-- the power to make laws

·         executive-- the power to enforce laws

·         federative-- the powers of war, peace, and other relations between the community and those outside it


Unlike Hobbes, who held that all the powers of a sovereign should belong to a single entity (be it an individual or an assembly), Locke advocated the separation and distribution of these powers among different entities.



[4.2.] General Limit on Legislative Power.


The legislative power is "the supreme power of the commonwealth" (XI:134, p.486; cf. XIII:149, p.490).


But it does not have absolute power (as does the civil power in Hobbes' system):

·         it acts as a fiduciary or trustee or agent with regard to the community, i.e., the community has entrusted the legislative branch with its welfare [the contract by which the community gives up its collective EPLN is an agency contract, not an alienation contract]

·         when the community finds that trust has been broken (when the legislative branch is working against the interests of the community), the collective EPLN reverts back to the community, which can then transfer it to another party:


...the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any body, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject. (XIII:149, p.490)


·         A caveat: the community has supreme power, but only outside the context of government: "this power of the people can never take place till the government be dissolved." (XIII:149, p.490) While there is still a government, the legislative branch is the supreme political power.



[5.] The Dissolution of the Government (Second Treatise Ch.XIX).


[5.1.] When the Government Loses Its AuthorityN.


There are two general conditions which constitute the "dissolution" of the government -- when these conditions are met, the government automatically loses its authorityN to rule.



1. The government changes in a significant way.


Hobbes lists four such ways:

(a)    A prince (a monarch, perhaps acting in the capacity of the executive branch) changes the laws put in place by the legislature (i.e. he "sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws." XIX:214)

(b)    A prince prohibits the legislature from doing its job (XIX:215)

(c)    A prince changes the manner in which elections are conducted without the consent of the community (XIX:216)

(d)    Society is turned over to a foreign power (either by a prince or by the legislature itself; if the latter, this is "the greatest crime men can be guilty of one towards another." XIX:218-219)


But frequently, when such changes happen, it is too late for the community to remedy them by the creation of a new legislature (although they do have the right to do so, if they can). This is why Locke allows that a government doesn't have to actually change in any of the ways enumerated above in order for it to "dissolve" (lose its authorityN). The following is also sufficient:


2. The government loses the community's trust by violating individuals' property rights -- in Locke's broad sense of "property," which encompasses "lives, liberties [and] fortunes" (XIX:221).


On Locke's view, this offense is serious enough to cost an elected government its authorityN, since the reason the community and government were formed in the first place was to ensure the protection of individual's property (including "life" and "liberty"). (XIX:222, p.502)



[5.2.] "Rebellion."


Locke takes it to be legitimate for the community to disobey a government that's lost its authorityN. In fact, Locke's view seems to be that the community can rightfully forcibly depose the (previously legitimate, now illegitimate) government in such conditions. As he wrote back in chapter XIII:


…the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any body, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties of the subject. (XIII:149, p.490)


So on Locke's view, the community may rise up and forcibly depose a government that has lost its authorityN. But this is NOT rebellion. Locke uses the word "rebellion" to refer, not to the overthrow of the elected government by the community, but to the refusal of an elected government to give up power when the community demands it--


Conditions of Rebellion:

1.       A government loses the trust of the community that elected it, thereby losing the EPLN the community had transferred to it.

2.       The former (and now illegitimate) rulers refuse to leave, attempting to hang on to power by force, thus initiating a state of war. On Locke's view, this refusal to give up power is rebellion (literally: reballare, returning man to "a state of war," i.e. "a state of force without authority"). It's the illegitimate government that's rebelling, not the community!


So on Locke's view, its not the community that rebels against its rulers; rather, the rulers themselves rebel when they refuse to give up the power they were originally granted, power that is no longer rightfully theirs. (XIX: 226-228, pp.503-504)


[5.3.] The Individual Turns Against the Community.


Although Locke allows that a community can dissolve its government (the contract between community and government is agency, not alienation), he indicates that an individual cannot leave the community once he's joined:


…The power that every individual gave the society, when he entered into it, can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community, no commonwealth, which is contrary to the original agreement… (XIX:243, p.505)


In other words, the contract between individuals and their community is an alienation contract.


This is in harmony with Locke's view that the community can work only if each individual is willing to submit to the will of the majority, e.g. to recognize the results of an election by majority, even if the candidate you support loses.  (VIII:97, p.482)


But it's in tension with his view that "the power of society … can never be supposed to extend, farther than the common good." (IX:131, p.485)


All of this suggests that a plausible social contract account of the authorityN of a government has to describe the relationship between individuals and community as being neither too strong nor too weak. The relationship… 


…must be strong enough so that each individual respects the will of the majority -- otherwise the community wouldn't be able to elect a legislature!

…must be weak enough to allow individuals to leave if the community begins to operate in a way that threatens their welfare.


By not allowing for individuals to exit the community, even if the majority approves of a government that is acting against the best interest of the community as a whole, Locke seems to be erring on the side of strength, making the bond between individual and community too strong.


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