For absolute monarchs, John Locke was “the most dangerous man in the world,” as I explained in a recent article. Locke’s case against absolutism literally revolutionized the world. Here is a summary of that case, as he expressed it in his Two Treatises of Government.
The State of Nature
John Locke argued that all individuals have rights to person and property as well as the right to enforce those rights. According to Locke, individuals have these rights because of their human nature, not because of any government or prior social arrangement.
When an individual reserves the right to enforce his rights against violation by other individuals, he is in what Locke calls a “state of nature” in relation to those individuals. That means that he reserves the right to judge any dispute over rights between him and them and to enforce his judgment. This includes disputes over ownership, identifying rights transgressions, and determining redress.
The state of nature, Locke said, has severe “inconveniencies.” When people are “judges in their own cases,” Locke wrote:
“…self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends: and on the other side, that ill nature, passion and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow…”
Locke further pointed out that, “he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it…”
Thus, according to Locke, in the state of nature, while people do have rights, those rights will tend to be subject to rampant violation.
To better secure their rights, individuals can provisionally relinquish their “right to enforce their rights” to a community. The members of that “commonwealth” voluntarily subject themselves to it as a common appeal and authority and are thus no longer in a state of nature toward each other, but rather in a state of “political” or “civil society.”
The members of the commonwealth can create a “civil-government” by appointing individuals to offices for the creation of laws, the judgment of disputes according to those laws, and the enforcement of those judgments. The sole purpose of such governments and laws is the purpose for which individuals joined the commonwealth in the first place: to secure those individuals’ rights.
“Hence it is evident,” Locke posited, “that absolute monarchy, which by some men is counted the only government in the world, is indeed inconsistent with civil society, and so can be no form of civil-government at all…”
To support this claim, Locke argued that an absolute monarch, “is as much in the state of nature, with all under his dominion, as he is with the rest of mankind: for where-ever any two men are, who have no standing rule, and common judge to appeal to on earth, for the determination of controversies of right betwixt them, there they are still in the state of nature, and under all the inconveniencies of it.”
As Locke reminded champions of absolutism, “absolute monarchs are but men” and so are inclined toward self-interest like everyone else. So when they are “judges in their own cases,” they too will tend to be “partial to themselves and their friends” when judging disputes and subject to “passion and revenge” when assigning punishments.
For those who think otherwise, Locke anticipated Lord Acton’s dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and wrote:
“For he that thinks absolute power purifies men’s blood, and corrects the baseness of human nature, need read but the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced of the contrary.”
An absolute monarch has all the latitude of the state of nature (and the temptations that go along with it). Moreover, that latitude is “increased with power, and made licentious by impunity.”
Such a monarch will likely be, not a protector of, but a menace to the rights of his subjects. This result is antithetical to the whole point of forming a political society and creating a civil government in the first place: which was to secure the people’s rights better than they could be secured under the state of nature.
Under absolutism, a person’s rights are actually less secure than in a general state of nature. In the state of nature, a man has no recourse to appeal, but at least he has the freedom to fend for himself. A subject under absolutism has neither. As Locke put it:
“…whereas, in the ordinary state of nature, he has a liberty to judge of his right, and according to the best of his power, to maintain it; now, whenever his property is invaded by the will and order of his monarch, he has not only no appeal, as those in society ought to have, but as if he were degraded from the common state of rational creatures, is denied a liberty to judge of, or to defend his right; and so is exposed to all the misery and inconveniencies, that a man can fear from one, who being in the unrestrained state of nature, is yet corrupted with flattery, and armed with power.”
“…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.”
If, Locke argued, a ruler insists on remaining in a state of nature with respect to his subjects, those subjects, rather than placing themselves at his mercy, would be better off reciprocating: that is, entering a state of nature with respect to him.
Thus always to absolutists.
This essay was originally published on Dan Sanchez’s Substack publication “Letters on Liberty.”