Why do we need government? In search of the answer to this question, two English philosophers, both writing in the later half of the seventeenth century, asked another question: What would the world be like if there were no government?
In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), conjured up a time and place before governments existed. Humankind before the invention of government, Hobbes believed, was in a “state of nature” in which the life-sustaining needs and passions of individuals dictated their interactions with each other. With no governmental authority to settle disputes between individuals, each person acted as a sovereign—an authority that answers to no one but itself. Because every individual in the state of nature was autonomous and because food and other items people wanted were scarce, life in the state of nature would be characterized by an incessant war of “every man against every man.” It was an existence that Hobbes characterized as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Hobbes argued that it was the violence and uncertainty of life in the state of nature that motivated people to form governments. Because life was so bad in the state of nature, Hobbes argued that the desire for peace and stability would become so profound that the people would seek out a “sovereign” or ruler to whom they could transfer or give their own sovereignty. In return, the sovereign would provide the peace and stability the people wanted. So long as they abided by the laws the sovereign established, the people would then be free to pursue happiness without constantly fearing for their lives and property.
At the time when government was formed, Hobbes maintained that the people gave up their sovereignty absolutely and permanently. The sovereign, however, did not participate directly in the agreement made by the people to transfer their sovereignty because that might limit the sovereign’s efforts to ensure the peace and stability. For example, Hobbes argued that a ruthless sovereign might actually promote order because the people would be motivated by fear to obey the laws of the sovereign. Hobbes further argued that because the transfer of sovereignty was permanent, the right to revolt against the sovereign was nonexistent. In fact, any attempt to reform a government through disobedience (revolution) would be an injustice that would produce more harm than good. Better to suffer the excesses of an unjust king than to overthrow him and be left with anarchy.
The arguments Hobbes presented in Leviathan were radically original perspectives on the nature of man and the origins of government. Being in the employ of the monarchy, at least one motive behind Hobbes’ writings was a desire to create a plausible defense of the monarchy. In defending the monarchy, however, Hobbes ultimately defended the absolute authority of the sovereign, monarch or not. It was an argument neither the people nor the king was comfortable with.
In his defense, Hobbes was fighting against insurmountable forces which would continue to weaken the monarchy until it was finally reduced to the figurehead role it occupies today. Even as he was writing Leviathan, the rising merchant class was growing ever wearier of the monarchy’s abuses of power. Indeed, it was precisely because the monarchy was already losing its credibility that Hobbes was commissioned to write Leviathan.
By defending the monarchy in the manner he did, Hobbes unwittingly laid the groundwork for just the kind of popular revolts he decried in Leviathan. By claiming that individuals in the state of nature were the original source of sovereignty, and not God or kings, Hobbes created a doctrine on which others base compelling arguments for natural rights, popular government and revolution. One such man was John Locke.
John Locke (1632–1704), in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, declared that Hobbes’s description of life before government was only half right. While the state of nature might be a state of war, Locke argued that it could just as easily be characterized by “peace, goodwill, mutual assistance and preservation.” While agreeing with Hobbes’ that individuals in the state of nature would naturally and rationally come together to form a government, Locke argued that the contract people entered into with each other and the leaders of their new government was not permanent because the people did not unconditionally surrender their sovereignty to their leaders. Rather, Locke argued, individuals would grant authority to a government so long as it provided for the common good–protection from the dangers of the state of nature. Because life in the state of nature is fraught with peril, Locke wrote, man was:
. . . willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.
In other words, Locke agreed with Hobbes that government was necessary to rescue humankind from the state of nature, but not because the state of nature was a horrible dangerous place to be escaped at all cost. In Locke’s view, when the people agreed to become subject to governmental authority, not only did they expect their government to provide stability and order, but they also expected it to protect their rights and liberties. The purpose of government, then, was to provide enough protection of life, liberty and property that individuals could enjoy them.
There are two significant implications of Locke’s “essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government” that are worth noting. First, by turning Hobbes’ argument on its head, Locke argued that because the people were the source of government’s power in the first instance, the people remained the source of governmental power even after it was established. The notion of popular sovereignty, that power was vested in the people, was lent greater intellectual credibility.
Second, if the people were the source of the government’s authority, it followed that the government was accountable to the people. Consequently, political leaders were just as obligated to obey the laws of society as the people were. More important, Locke argued that the government could only legitimately exercise its authority so long as it protected the inalienable individual rights of the people. If government ever acted “contrary to their trust,” the people were justified in taking action against it.
Today, Locke’s writings are recognized as a source of some of the most important contributions to political philosophy. His emphasis on popular sovereignty and individual rights was groundbreaking. His influence on the Framers of the American Constitution was at least of equal significance. In his writings, Locke spoke of “life, liberty and property,” a phrase which was modified only slightly by Thomas Jefferson when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (emphasis added). So profound is Locke’s influence on American political thought that one author has called Locke the “massive national cliché” in America.
Locke’s influence on the Founders is discussed at greater length in “The Constitutional Convention.”