January 16, 2011
John Locke the democrat
A seriously mistaken conception seems to have developed even among those who ought to know better, about John Locke's position on democracy.
For instance, the Online Library of Liberty notes: "Although it would not be correct to say that Locke favored democracy, he did advocate limits on the power of the sovereign, confining that person's authority to the protection of the individual's natural rights to life, liberty, and property."
The reality is that Locke was writing at a time when anyone who was perceived to be anti-monarchy, or a republican, could well end up in gaol. Kings didn't mind listening to a Hobbes (who is an archetype of a conservative, with very strong liberal principles, as well), but a republican would infuriate them.
Locke was therefore considerably reserved in all his political writings, preferring anonymity in many cases to being disclosed publicly as a writer.
This is crucial to remember when contemplating Locke's work.
Therefore Locke didn't lay out explicitly in one place the case for democracy, but if you read his entire work wholistically, his support for democracy is clear as day. Indeed, he showed that a free society must have all kinds of freedoms – both economic and political; and that both these depended on representation. Classical liberalism therefore includes BOTH economic freedom and democracy. Those who argue that these are separate freedoms don't know what equal freedom means.
The best exposition of his advocacy of democracy is found in Robert Faulkner's "The First Liberal Democrat: Locke's Popular Government" in The Review of Politics, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 5-39.
I was hoping to provide key extracts from this article article but am suffering from the most amazingly painful eyestrain and must stop trying to read or write further.
Let me just type a few words before closing and taking some rest. Locke:
– He DETESTED absolute monarchy and wanted a highly constrained and limited executive (consistent with the 1688 Glorious Revolution).
– He believed in EQUAL natural rights and equal freedom.
– He believed in a government BY CONSENT.
– He said clearly that there can be no taxation without representation.
– He believed in a supreme legislative (preferring to use this word to "parliament") that made laws which the executive (which could be a king) implemented. The king under no circumstance was to be the legislative 'body' (unlike with Hobbes).
– He spoke of the right of MAJORITY rule – to represent consent and the right of the majority to overthrow the government should that be necessary.
– He was FULLY AWARE of the long history of development of the British Parliament since before the Magna Carta and did not advocate any overthrow of the parliament.
– He advocated checks and balances among the various "directors" of the government – and that diffusion of powers underpins the concept of democracy.
For these and many other reasons – clearly articulated in Franklin, Locke must be considered the world's FIRST MAJOR theoretician of modern democracy. Anyone who thinks that Locke was not referring to a democratic legislative system, with an executive that reported TO THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH of government, does not understand what Locke was trying to achieve. He provided the theoretical framework for the Glorious Revolution, and outlined principles that, taken forward by other classical liberals, helped reform British democracy and economy, and directly influenced the American Revolution.