Thoughts on economics and liberty

Locke, the first theorist of representative democracy

A few months ago I noted the reluctance even among those who ought to know better re: Locke's role in the development of modern democracy.

It was disturbing also to note that Timothy Ferris does not attribute (in his otherwise excellent book) the prime role in developing the theory of democracy to John Locke but to a ragtag self-seeking power struggle in England with the advent of the new middle class  (p.27-33, The Science of Liberty). Instead, he notes that: "Locke feared that the people were mired in 'passion and superstition'". (p.28) But acknowledging that people are OFTEN mired in passion and superstition does not mean that they are unfit to form part of a democracy. 

Ferris also makes the very strange comment in the beginning of his book, that "In 1900 there was not a single liberal democracy in the world" (p3). His reason is that "none yet had universal suffrage". However, it is not possible to expect that societies can move from absolute monarchy to universal suffrage at the flip of a switch. These things take time. And classical liberals were at the forefront of this battle (as I have shown in DOF). 

Ferris's is a book that I'm thoroughly enjoying (as time permits), but it is replete with errors in relation to economics and politics. After all Ferris is a scientist (an eminent professor) and science writer, not economist or political philosopher. He is trying to form a bridge between three important disciplines: science, economics, and politics; and that is not a trivial task.

And so, to ensure that all people of the world can better understand why John Locke is at least as important in world history as Isaac Newton (and in my view MORE important than Newton(and both were greatest of friends – a happy coincidence!), I'm advancing some more relevant information on this blog post.

I have now found the time (and more important the physical capacity – although my eyes have not fully recovered, still sore throughout the day: only in deep sleep I forget the pain) to convert Robert Faulkner's excellent article, "The First Liberal Democrat: Locke's Popular Government" in The Review of Politics, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 5-39, into Word. Do download and read this. I strongly commend the article. Prof. Robert Faulkner (of Boston College) has a profound understanding of Locke's work.

(I also located a book, by Graham Faiella (2006), entitled, John Locke: Champion of Modern Democracy. Rosen Pub. Group. It is available at Amazon. It is meant for young adults, and you can browse through it on google books.  – haven't read it but its title is self-explanatory)

Locke's own statements:

Whosoever, therefore, . . . unite into a community, must be understood to give up all the power necessary to the ends for which they unite into society to the majority of the community, unless they expressly agreed in any number greater than the majority. [Locke, Second Treatise] 

It is the “interest, as well as intention of the People,” to have a “fair and equal Representative” (Second Treatise, 158).

Locke prefers a legislature of the people’s “Deputies” (Second Treatise,142)

“The People alone can appoint the Form of the Commonwealth, which is by Constituting the Legislative, and appointing in whose hands that shall be” (Second Treatise,141).

In “well order’d Commonwealths” the legislative power is in “divers Persons” or “collective Bodies” (Second Treatise,94, 143).

“just and equal” representation is so suitable to “the original Frame of Government,” which “cannot be doubted” to be “the will and act of the Society,” whoever “permitted, or caused them so to do” (Second Treatise, 158).

The People shall be Judge” (Second Treatise, 240). 

The doctrine of a collective legislative excludes “any Man, in what Station soever,” who by “pretence of Superiority” claims “exemption” from the laws for himself or “his Dependants” (Second Treatise, 94).

The Essence and Union of the Society”consists in having a collective will and that the legislative’s role is the “declaring, and as it were keeping of that Will” (Second Treatise,212).

there is to be no taxation without also a representative body (Second Treatise,140). (cf. Faulkner)

the people reserve “to themselves the Choice of their Representatives, as the Fence to their Properties” (Second Treatise,222).

he defines equal protection of the laws in a manner that forbids legal patronage of different orders: “one rule for Rich and Poor, for the Favourite at Court, and the Country Man at Plough” (Second Treatise,142).

People could not be “safe nor at rest” under government, nor think themselves in Civil Society,”until the legislative was in “collective Bodies of Men” by which “every single person became subject, equally with other the meanest Men, to those Laws, which he himself, as part of the Legislative had established” (Second Treatise,94). 

Key extracts from Faulkner

While Locke was not the first to advance representative government, nor the first to separate executive from legislative, he was, according to Harvey Mansfield, the first to combine these two inventions.

This article discusses the democratic side of Locke’s political thought, which is generally not appreciated. 

Locke’s plans are more democratic, and more radical too, than is generally believed

Civil government rather democratically understood is the only rational government, the one just government for the world.

While Locke does raise up a powerful executive, he also makes it dependent as a rule on a rather democratic legislative. What Locke wishes to induce over time is something like parliamentary government, with the executive vested in a cabinet and the whole more or less responsible to the people in his sense, especially to a majority.

Locke prefers representation to direct assembly, attacks constant or even frequent sessions of the legislative, 

He relies mostly on political arrangements, say of election and reapportionment, to bring representatives to heel. “The People shall be Judge” only when government is not in effect popular government.

A majority enforcing piety or sharing the wealth is not a Lockean “majority” and violates the limits on a Lockean legislative (Second Treatise, 134-42).

Locke’s constitutionalism is a universal razor to cut away aristocrats and theocrats as well as monarchs, and in general all regimes in which the rulers pretend to a superior authority. 

Only a representative government is not absolute, and only government by a legislative in Locke’s novel sense is not arbitrary. 

The "legislative" seems to be Locke's great innovation in enlightened government. 

Locke’s legislative mixes supremacy and legal form with rule of law and popular representation. 

But this is very important for classical liberals: Lockean government is fundamentally an a-political agent, “government,” possessed principally of constitutional structure and only secondarily of features of monarchy, aristocracy or democracy.

There are sharp differences between Locke’s prescriptions and the English mixture in his time of monarchy with aristocracy. Parliament’s authority had been enlarged after the Revolution of 1688, indeed, but even under William and Mary its powers were qualified by royal powers over lawmaking and over the selection, purchase, and management of lawmakers. Locke opposes all of this.

It is not often perceived how anti-aristocratic the Lockean revolution in lawmaking is to be. Locke never advances anything like houses of commons and peers under the thumb of gentry and great landowners. He never prescribes a legislative of two houses. He occasionally suggests a unicameral body of the majority in “public assembly” (Second Treatise,97).

Other commentators who support the view that Locke was the first theorist of democracy

His assertion that all legitimate government rests upon "the consent of the governed" profoundly altered discussions of political theory and promoted the development of democratic institutions. With his assertion of natural law, Locke rebutted the claim that government, specifically monarchy, was an aspect of a divinely ordained chain of being. Natural law is identical with the law of God, Locke argued, and guarantees to all men basic rights, including the right to life, to certain liberties, and to own property and keep the fruits of one's labor. To secure these rights, Locke argued, men in civil society enter into a contract with their government. The citizen is bound to obey the law, while the government has the right to make laws and to defend the commonwealth from foreign injury — all for the public good. Locke asserted that when any government becomes lawless and arbitrary, the citizen has the right to overthrow the regime and institute a new government. [Source]

Throughout his writings, Locke argued that people had the gift of reason. Locke thought they had the natural ability to govern themselves and to look after the well being of society. He wrote, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which treats everyone equally. Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind…that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health or possessions.” Locke did not believe that God had chosen a group or family of people to rule countries. He rejected the “Divine Right,” which many kings and queens used to justify their right to rule. Instead, he argued that governments should only operate with the consent of the people they are governing. In this way, Locke supported democracy as a form of government. Locke wrote, “We have learned from history we have reason to conclude that all peaceful beginnings of government have been laid in consent of the people.” Governments were formed, according to Locke, to protect the right to life, the right to freedom, and the right to property. Their rights were absolute, belonging to all the people. Locke also believed that government power should be divided equally into three branches of government so that politicians will not face the “temptation… to grasp at absolute power.” If any government abused these rights instead of protecting them, then the people had the right to rebel and form a new government. [Source]

His social contract authorised "representative democracy with legislative and executive powers "in distinct hands." [Source]


In sum, I have strong reasons to believe that Locke was indeed the first major theorist of democracy. Should you have evidence either in favour or against this, please let me know asap. Grateful!

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