Critically Assess Locke’s Argument For Government By Consent

The 18th century enlightment of political ideas truly revolutionised the way we approach the concept of the social contract and political philosophy as a whole and John Locke was one of the most influential and powerful philosophers who helped bring this about. Over the course of many works, Locke proposed a type of government which was relatively unknown to the average man, and a world away from that proposed by Hobbes a century before. As an early Libertarian, Locke argued for a very limited system of governance centred ultimately on the consent of the people, a revolutionary idea considering the monarch of England  was also seen to have been appointed by God through to divine right of kings to rule over the people up until around 200 years before Locke proposed his theory. Over the course of this essay, I will assess the Lockean argument of governance to see whether it can be considered a practical system of rule or whether it is a massively flawed system which needs to be reconsidered.

‘Property I have nowhere found more clearly explained, than in a book entitled, Two Treatises of Government’[1] – An statement by Locke about his own piece of work, a work which begins to set out a different system of governance. The first treatises is purely focused on the shortcomings of Robert Filmer’s  Patriarca[2], but the second treatises deals with the issue of government. The system which Locke proposes has some key elements which we need to address before we look at the theory in more depth. Firstly, Locke’s government hinges around the consent of the people. Locke says that no man can be ‘subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent’[3], that is to say that no man or government can rule over another without having the consent of the people. More specifically, Locke believes that the consent needs to be of the majority ‘wherein the Majority have a Right to act and conclude the rest’[4]. This was a revolutionary position at the time as the people never consented to their leaders before. The feudal system of rule meant no one had the ability to consent to their rulers, but Locke sought to change that. By consenting to government, you voluntarily give up some of your rights to the government so as to achieve a better future for yourself and your political community, who have also sacrificed some of their rights. The government, in return for your consent, protects your rights from violation and acts as an arbiter in cases where rights have been violated.