Natural Altruism and Anarchy — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2e)

(Part VI of this series)

By the point at which the reader has gone past Locke’s last proposition (pertaining to capital punishment, discussed here), the concept of the state of nature that he is considering has grown far more clear. One might have found it perplexing that we established from the outset that the state of nature is anarchy, yet Locke also wrote of the “law of nature,” which would seem to require some government. It turns out Locke was referring quite literally to a “state” of nature, suggesting that even without formal government, it is default for humans to react to actions against their purposes with retaliation, which most reasonable people deliver to a degree proportional to the offense. So far as we know from common experience with people’s behavior in situations where the threat of punishment looms very small, this is mostly accurate, and not so hopeful as to lead us to think Locke is advocating anarchism.

Such is clear as Locke continues:

“I easily grant, that civil government is the proper remedy for the [inconveniences] of the state of nature, which must certainly be great, where men may be judges in their own case, since it is easy to be imagined, that he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it: but I shall desire those who make this objection, to remember, that absolute monarchs are but men … [Compared to a state] where one man, commanding a multitude, has the liberty to be judge in his own case, and may do to all his subjects whatever he pleases, without the least liberty to any one to question or [control] those who execute his pleasure … and in [which] whatsoever he doth, whether led by reason, mistake or passion, must be submitted to … much better it is in the state of nature, wherein men are not bound to submit to the unjust will of another: and if he that judges, judges amiss in his own, or any other case, he is answerable for it to the rest of mankind.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2 (for the sake of transparency I must say I took some liberties of clarification with this quote; though Locke’s point is preserved in all its accuracy, I had to make some edits seen in most of the bracketed terms because parts of this passage are incomprehensibly phrased — should you find while reading the original that I have improperly abridged Locke’s words, feel free to correct me in the comments)

So Locke’s intention is not to promote full-blown anarchism, but to concede that given the choice between anarchy and absolute monarchy, he would gladly choose the former. After all, though in practice rebellions tend to replace one tyranny for another (exhibit A: the French Reign of Terror), the freedom most people retain in natural anarchy outweighs, while it lasts, the lack of monarchy’s false “security.”

Does this sound familiar? From “Give me liberty or give me death” to “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” (this lesser-known nugget comes from Benjamin Franklin), the idea that concentrated power steals more freedom than it offers in protection (which can be arbitrarily withheld without checks on this power) is fundamental to modern constitutional democracy. This is a useful rule of thumb for keeping our government on a short leash, but someday we’ll have to come to the crucial questions of when it’s necessary to extend that leash to achieve what we truly value as a society.

In the following paragraph, Locke clarifies that the state of nature yields to a different state when people contractually agree to coexist in one community under one government — not all agreements of cooperation and compromise are mutually exclusive with the state of nature. This is evidently Locke’s attempt to use a particular term for the sake of explaining this: there are some social, collaborative efforts people can make, forgoing narrow self-interests, to work together for a common purpose without government. Considering Locke wouldn’t say “all” in place of “some” here, this may seem a trivially true point, but in context, Locke was distancing his view from Hobbes’s that human nature is essentially (that is, sans government) parasitic and hostile.

Let’s keep this in mind for future considerations, because the debate over the defaults and malleability of human nature, with and without law, is one worth having for our goals.

Locke ends the chapter (“finally,” you surely sigh) with a provocative statement, namely that all people are born into the state of nature until by their consent they enter a political contract. We’ll give him his say to make his case next chapter, but for now I want to hear your reactions to this. Does the idea that we are not truly bound by the governments we’re born into, until we agree, strike you as as unintuitive as to me?