The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

John Locke on Voluntary Dictatorship


Does the fact that we live in a democracy mean that if we want the government to enforce a policy, they have to do it? Not according to John Locke. Not when it would mean creating a voluntary dictatorship.

In chapter eight of book two of his Two Treatise of Government, John Locke sets out that famous principle that all democratic societies now take for granted: A just society can only be governed with the consent of the people:

Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left, as they were, in the liberty of the state of Nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.

For, when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority.

However, Locke explained, the fact that you are governed with your consent does not mean that those who govern you may do nothing without your consent. You have given them your permission to govern, and you must wear that fact:

And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to every one of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact if he be left free and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of Nature. For what appearance would there be of any compact? What new engagement if he were no farther tied by any decrees of the society than he himself thought fit and did actually consent to? This would be still as great a liberty as he himself had before his compact, or any one else in the state of Nature, who may submit himself and consent to any acts of it if he thinks fit.

Once you have banded together as a society and given consent to a body of people to govern you, you cannot simply withdraw that consent at whim because you do not like a decision that this body makes.

Let me then introduce a question: What if we, as a society, agreed together and gave consent to a governing body to rule over us with absolute power. What if we deliberately elected a tyrant, intending to grant that tyrant the very power of life and death over us, with the ability to enslave us, to take our property at whim whether we want him to or not etc? The question is similar to a microcosmic version of the same question (if only because Locke’s answer applies to both cases): What if we just agree with our friend that he has the right to torture and kill us? What if we hand him a gun and consent to him blowing our brains out – to exercising absolute power over whether we live or die? Going back to a societal model, the question is something like this: Can we legitimately enter into a voluntary dictatorship?

In a word, no. But why not? Don’t you have absolute ownership of your own life? Can’t you choose to allow another person to exercise that right for you? It’s your choice, your life, your body, right? Perhaps surprisingly for some moderns (especially Locke’s libertarian fans), Locke’s answer was a resounding “no” to these questions.

Though the legislative, whether placed in one or more, whether it be always in being or only by intervals, though it be the supreme power in every commonwealth, yet, first, it is not, nor can possibly be, absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people. For it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to that person or assembly which is legislator, it can be no more than those persons had in a state of Nature before they entered into society, and gave it up to the community. For nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another.

Locke, Two Treatises on Government, book 2, chapter 11, paragraph 35.

You can’t give away what isn’t yours to begin with, reasons Locke, and the “absolute arbitrary power” to destroy your very life does not belong to you. Obviously the ability is yours, but here Locke means legitimate power. And why not? Locke is characteristically clear here too:

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure. And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours.

Locke, Two Treatises on Government, book 2, chapter 2, paragraph 6.

You cannot give away the right to another to own your life, because you do not have it. That belongs to God.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Paul D.

    “Once you have banded together as a society and given consent to a body of people to govern you, you cannot simply withdraw that consent at whim because you do not like a decision that this body makes.”

    This is a logical contradiction. The very fact that person A governs person B with A’s consent means that A can withdraw his consent. Otherwise it’s not consent.

  2. Paul D.

    Sorry, that should read “The very fact that person A governs person B with B’s consent means that B can withdraw his consent. Otherwise it’s not consent.”

  3. Paul, no, it’s not a logical contradiction.

    Let CG = “giving consent to govern.”
    Let CP = “consent to make a particular policy while governing.”

    I will assume that we both see that CG is not CP.

    So where is the logical contradiction in Locke’s claim that ~CP does not entail ~CG?

    We experience this all the time, Paul. We have elections, giving consent for a particular party to govern. And then that government passes laws that we did not specifically consent to. But obviously this doesn’t reverse the fact that we gave consent for them to govern. You mustn’t think of “consent” in this context as “the mood I am in at this very second, and what I want right now.” It has to do with a voluntary process of bestowing the right to govern like entering a contract with the mutual consent of another party to that contract. The fact that a contract was entered into with your free consent doesn’t mean you can just reneg on the contract on a whim and say “hey, we’re doing this based on consent, right?”

    So there’s clearly no logical contradiction here.

  4. Dan

    Paul is right on this one, although the answer is clearer in Hobbes than in Locke. One is always free to withdraw from the social compact. The problem with that is that you don’t get to pick and choose which aspects of the social compact you keep and those you reject — it’s all or nothing. By rejecting the command of the sovereign, such as by committing murder or theft, the subject returns himself to the state of nature. There, per Hobbes, the former subject has no rights or obligations against his former sovereign, but also the sovereign has no rights or obligations against the former subject. Since the parties in a state of nature are at war with one another, the subject is free from the sovereign’s commands but is also open to violence and retaliation by the sovereign.

    The same principle works when the sovereign commits an act contrary to the social compact — “If the sovereign command a man, though justly condemned, to kill, wound, or maim himself; or not to resist those that assault him; or to abstain from the use of food, air, medicine, or any other thing, without which he cannot live; yet hath that man the liberty to disobey.” [my apologies for not having a cite — I’m quoting from an excerpted coursepack right now]

    Locke’s sovereign, unlike Hobbes’, was created not merely to protect the life of the subject but also to protect the subject’s property or “pursuit of happiness”. This, I think, is why Locke was so critical in justifying the American revolution against scriptural commands to respect those God has placed in authority and to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Locke suggested that there may be a legitimate right to revolution against sovereigns who breach the social compact in this manner. And it is still the case with Locke that a revolt against the sovereign can remove one from the protections guaranteed by the social compact.

    Thus, I think the flaw in ~CG is not ~CP is that in some cases not consenting to a failure to enact a particular policy (e.g., the failure of the U.S. federal government to create or execute a policy to protect the southern border against violent incursions) may rise to the level where the governed are justified in withdrawing their consent to be governed by that sovereign because the sovereign has breached the terms of the social compact.

  5. Dan – so essentially, Locke was wrong because it is acceptable to renege on the social compact? That is, it’s fine to enter it legitimately, bind yourself to it, and then when it’s not going well simply choose to not fulfill your end? This is what Paul said. Remember – he said that we can withdraw “on a whim.” I said that Locke denied that we can withdraw on a whim, and Paul rejected this.

    I think that actually you don’t agree with Paul. You talk about things getting so bad and rising “to a level” where the governed are justified in withdrawing their consent. So then, Paul is not correct. He is wrong according to you, because according to you (and Locke too, I would say), we are obliged to meet our end of the social contract unless things rise to a level where effectively the other party is not properly meeting its end. But according to Paul, it’s only consent if we can withdraw “on a whim.” It seems like you don’t accept this and you actually agree with Locke instead (as do I), so I don’t really see why you say Paul is right.

  6. I think the reference to a “pursuit of happiness” comes from Jefferson and not Locke.

    I think there is an interesting anti-libertarian point here though. The libertarian position is compatible with tyranny. Here is an example, suppose a group of Wahabi Muslim’s lawfully acquire a large amount of property in a region. The owners of this property then decides that strict Shariah law will govern what happens on this property, they bring there kids up this way and write into their will that the land can only be transfered to there children if there children implement Shariah law, and they impose Shariah law on every one who lives on this land, and they make it a condition of sale that the land not be sold unless Shariah law is applied.

    This would seem to suggest that a Libertarian position permits Shariah law. After all the people who made this rule own the property, they can dispose of it how they see fit. The only people harmed are those on the persons property voluntarily, they can choose to leave if they wish. One can think of all sorts of other examples.

    Locke would reject this because he would say that Shariah law is unjust and ones use of ones life liberty and property are not absolute but subject to the law of nature. Property rights are limited by the law of nature and hence cannot be used this way. I don’t see how Libertarians can avoid endorsing Shariah law for this particular region.

  7. Dan

    Glenn –

    I see both Locke’s and Hobbes’s conception of the social compact from a contractarian point of view. In both, a member of society is free to withdraw from the social compact at will, just like you’re free to break your contractual obligations to pay rent at will. That freedom, however, does not come without costs — you’re liable for breach of contract if you fail to pay rent, your landlord is free to sue you for damages, and if you don’t pay the judgment then you can be held in contempt of court and have your assets seized. Ultimately, a refusal to comply with the contract can result in the state leveling its right to engage in legitimized violence against you to enforce its laws. At that point, you have exercised your freedom to withdraw from the social compact because you no longer recognize any obligation to the state. The state, however, has no obligation to you and is in a state of war with you.

    So with respect to Paul’s point, I’m not talking about a general disaffection with the laws of the sovereign or the idiotic statements by the Bush Derangement Syndrome / Obama Derangement Syndrome crowds that “he’s not MY president.” To withdraw from the social compact can be done by an act of individual will, but it generally means that you’ve murdered someone, engaged in revolution, etc.

    Matt – Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration was a euphemism for Locke’s conception of the state being organized to protect life, liberty, and property. Jefferson wasn’t talking about some vague internal glow of good feeling — he was talking about the fact that American businessmen in particular and subjects in general were chafing under what they perceived to be punitive taxation and restrictions on making a living (such as requirements that all manufactured goods be shipped to England first and then back to the colonies).

  8. “I see both Locke’s and Hobbes’s conception of the social compact from a contractarian point of view. In both, a member of society is free to withdraw from the social compact at will.”

    That is not Locke’s view (if by “is free to” you mean “legitimately has the right to”). See what Locke actually claimed, as quoted above. Such a compact, Locke says – see it for yourself – would be no compact at all.

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