Part II: Locke and the Individual

Series Overview

The concept of limited government seemingly takes self-rule from the realm of the abstract and makes it the basis of a functional society. But, though it precludes the possibility of a central authority imbued with broad, sweeping powers, limited government is not synonymous to self-rule. The devolution of power that necessarily occurs as a result of the truncation of federal authorities might theoretically place power in the hands of individuals, but it is functionally exercised through institutions, be they state and local government agencies, or, more often, social institutions.

These institutions serve as interest aggregators, taking on a role nearly synonymous to those played by political parties: they organize the mass around commonalities and become a tool for establishing social morays. But, just as political parties run afoul of their purposes through the process of collectivization inevitable to the life cycle of intermediary bodies, so too can social institutions attain a level of power and influence disproportionate to their voice when measured as a portion of the greater communal whole. While the public sphere in which government resides is bounded, private actors have a much greater range of movement, and therefore social institutions possess as much potential to do damage to self-sovereignty as does the tyranny of government proper.


John Locke’s understanding of social contract theory held great sway over the thinking of the Founders. Jefferson went so far as to name Locke (along with Bacon and Newton) on of the “three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception,” and claimed his achievements included “having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences.”

America is as much an idea as a nation; the underlying political philosophy which held sway with the drafters of government demands attention. Understanding the Founders’ views of the proper bounds of the relationship between the individual, local society and the federal government therefore requires a survey of Locke.

The degree of legitimacy with which the self wields functional political power is affected by Locke’s views on the subject.

Locke’s Ideas Recast By the Founders

Perhaps the most ubiquitous phrase in American political culture—“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—was one purloined from Locke. In the Second Treatise of Government, Locke observed, “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.”

Locke and Jefferson share more than language; there is a common ideological fountainhead to their writing, and this is the idea that individuals possess rights by the nature of their creation. Self-sovereignty stems from the independence of man’s rational faculties.

Nor is this point the only one which resonates between Locke’s writings and that of the Founders.

Locke defines political power as a right “of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.”

This passage bears remarkable similarity to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives power—the ultimate law-making body—the “Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”

Clearly, Locke’s understanding of political power, both as a philosophical and functional concept, greatly influenced the Founders.

Locke and the Individual

Having established this connection, the issue of how the individual is viewed in relation to various political bodies remains to be examined.

Locke’s belief in the unassailable sovereignty of the individual becomes a much more complex issue once formalized political power is codified and social structures are erected.

Now, there are intermediary bodies at play. These take the form both of government agencies, which have siphoned some of the executive power each man holds absolutely in a state of nature, and social groups whose influence is less formalized but nevertheless consequential.

These intermediary bodies solve the issue of executive power, which can be wielded tyrannically in a state of nature. True, individuals have an undisputed power of retribution over those who have wronged them. But this is only properly exercised if the degree of the punishment exacted matches the crime. As there is no overarching authority to ensure that this line—the line between what is liberty and licence in a state of nature—is adhered to, justice is no guarantee in a state of nature. According to Locke, it is recognition of this uncertainty, and a desire for security, that draw men into social and political compacts:

Every offence, that can be committed in the state of nature, may in the state of nature be also punished equally, and as far forth as it may, in a commonwealth: for though it would be besides my present purpose, to enter here into the particulars of the law of nature, or its measures of punishment; yet, it is certain there is such a law, and that too, as intelligible and plain to a rational creature, and a studier of that law, as the positive laws of commonwealths; nay, possibly plainer; as much as reason is easier to be understood, than the fancies and intricate contrivances of men, following contrary and hidden interests put into words; for so truly are a great part of the municipal laws of countries, which are only so far right, as they are founded on the law of nature, by which they are to be regulated and interpreted.

But Locke also recognizes that, no matter how truly equitable a law code, it is still enforced by men, from whom passion and the desire to protect their own interests and the interests of those they love cannot be divorced.

There is, then a certain degree of mutability to the social contract: it extends only so far as those who agree to enter it, and in so doing abrogate some of the executive power they naturally possess, stipulate.

Nor does this mean that other lesser compacts between individuals cannot be formed. The idea of free association, then, is integral to Locke’s conception of a free society.

This has several implications for the possibility of self-rule.

First, there is some incongruence between Locke’s belief that man is, by nature, and by way of his rational faculties, self-sovereign and the idea, introduced with the birth of society, that self-love renders null the ability of man to be a judge in his own affairs.

This sentiment can be over-extrapolated. While there is reason in reigning in the ill-founded passions of man when they have power to abuse the rights of others, society has no right to intervene in the mistakes man might make in his private life, or in any affairs he has undertaken volitionally with others. If individual sovereignty is to have any meaning, man must be free to err and to learn from his ill-founded judgments. In cases where his reason does go astray, his missteps cannot be pejoratively labelled as the inevitable result of selfish pursuits. The negativity Locke imputes to self-love is the foundation for the modern denigration of anything associated with the personal; this is an attitude that makes self-sovereignty impossible. While Locke’s concerns take on a narrower cast, and he sees self-interest as a positive when properly managed, his sentiments nevertheless form the basis for an increasingly influential and pernicious strain of thought that has become engrained in politics’ treatment of the individual.

Another implication for self-rule is contained in the degree of flexibility implicit in the society Locke imagines. The government Locke describes is not a particularly powerful one. What constitutes legitimate political authority is largely a function of prevailing sentiment. This has both positive and negative connotations for individuals, for while it protects them from the tyranny of minority which can come from an individual unjustly exercising executive power (a form of despotism that exists both in a state of nature and in society), it does not address the possibility of such abuse occurring in the more private parts of society which are more loosely governed by compacts formed between individuals.

Freedom of association is a boon to self-sovereignty. However, when social institutions are buoyed to prominence in the largely-unregulated private sphere, they can spell trouble for the individual. Faced with social pressure from an organized interest group, coercive power can be exercised against the individual, forcing them into conformity with dominant social thinking. This actually has a long-term negative impact on the sovereignty of the individual, particularly where conscience is concerned.

Again, as private spheres are largely unregulated by government—and rightly so—social tyranny can quickly become entrenched, paradoxically produced by the very conditions to free men of the dangers of such conditions which exist in a state of nature.

In the next installment: Tocqueville Champions Institutions

Advocates of limited government champion pluralism in localities as an answer to tyranny from the government. Madison makes a case that adopts this rationale in The Federalist Papers. Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the greatest observer of the nature of American society, also champions these ideas. Yet, Tocqueville sees individualism as an evil and names pluralistic institutions the solution to the degrading ideology of egoism. What does this mean for the possibility of self-sovereignty in a free society?

Read next:
Tocqueville and the Authority of Institutions

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