Locke’s Philosophy of Government

Why do governments exist? What purpose to humankind do states serve? Does the formation of states pose a threat to the privileges that humans might otherwise possess should no state be formed? Philosophers since Socrates have attempted to answer these important questions about politics. One of the most influential philosophers in the modern era to voice a response to these questions was John Locke. Locke admits that there is an inherent quality in humans that causes a natural drive toward society; indeed, humans are born into a society of a mother and father. But in order to secure the rights that one is born with, humans looked to create civil societies. Locke believed that when a group of people created a social contract and formed a government, they were not surrendering the natural rights of life, liberty, and estate—or property—which they had in the state of nature, but that the government’s objective was to secure these rights. Furthermore, if a government ever failed to protect these rights of an individual or a group of individuals and also failed to address their grievances, then a proper recourse of action could be the destruction of the state.

In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke notes that God created man as a being for “whom it was not good to be alone,” and “put him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience and inclination to drive him into society.” He then goes on to explain how this society grew from “man and wife,” to “parents and children,” to “master and servant,” and eventually to something “short of political society.”[1] This natural progression toward a civil society is also aided by a pressing need for government. When men are born into the state of nature, Locke argues that they have the right and ability to punish anyone for trespassing on their property, or their “life, liberty and estate.”[2] Civil society, or a commonwealth, comes about when men yield the natural power of punishment to a community to establish a system of determining what punishments ought to be utilized for particular transgressions—the members of this society then have the “power of making laws.”[3] The civil societies that individuals create out of social contracts become the more efficient means by which they can protect their property.

Throughout his treatise, Locke consistently notes that the purpose of the state is to secure the natural right of property. He explicitly states this on a section about the ends of government where he writes, “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”[4] As noted earlier, Locke’s understanding of property was not limited to physical goods, but to life, liberty, and estates—those things that in the state of nature man owns. When man enters into a social contract, he does not give up these natural rights, but only the right to punish. This latter right becomes the right and responsibility of the government, and is divided into three parts. First, there must be “an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong.”[5] Next, the government must act as an “indifferent judge” to measure the actions of citizens against the law.[6] Finally, there must be the “power to back and support the sentence when right, and to give it due execution.”[7] The three branches of government—a legislature, a judiciary, and an executive—are derived from these three different responsibilities that the government has pertaining to law.

If the government is successful in securing the rights of individuals by establishing a rule of law based on consent of the governed, then it will work toward the good of the community. Locke writes, “[W]hatsoever alterations are made in [government], tending to [the good of the community], cannot be an encroachment upon anybody, since nobody in government can have a right tending to any other end.”[8] Therefore, government has a responsibility to work toward securing and preserving the natural rights of the individual. But in the scenario that a government works against the good of the community, then Locke argues that the members of the community may “appeal to heaven” under “a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men.”[9] They may reclaim their natural right to punishment against the government. Of course, this right may not be reclaimed for transient causes, but only when “inconvenience is so great that the majority feel it, and are weary of it.”[10]

Locke believed that the individuals making up a government and their natural rights came prior to the creation of the state. The creation of the state was not intended to grant individuals new rights, but to secure the property that humans had possessed in the state of nature. Men form commonwealths so that the actions of punishment might be ordered through an organized system of law and justice. The government exists to create, judge, and execute laws aimed entirely at the good of the community. When the government fails in its responsibility to such a degree that it affects the majority of its citizens, then the people have the right to reclaim the one right that they surrendered in the compact: the right to punishment. All in all, the aim of government is to most efficiently secure the blessings of life, liberty, and estate—the blessings of property that man is naturally entitled to in the state of nature.


[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government in Political Writings ed. by David Wooton (Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 2003), 300.

[2] Locke, 304.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 325.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Locke, 346.

[9] Ibid., 348.

[10] Ibid.