Locke and the State of Nature

John Locke

John Locke was a political thinker in the 16th Century, and is credited with the idea of the Social Contract theory, as well as very many classical liberal ideas. In his writings, he talks about a “state of nature”, where people have rights, and everything is owned in common until someone “mixes their labor” with the land around them.

What kind of rights did Locke believe a person had in the state of nature? Well, he thought that a person has the ultimate right to themselves, and that nobody else has a remote claim on your body. Thus, your life and liberty are also inherently protected. If your body is yourself, then from that is also derived the liberty to own things; to take things from the state of nature and make it yours.

For example, lets just say that there are two people who get washed up on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Atlantic. Who owns the island? Neither of them do. The island is in the “state of nature”, and is commonly owned by humanity. But, lets say that person A cuts down a tree and builds a little hut with the lumber, is that hut commonly owned by the rest of humanity? No! It is now A’s exclusive property. If person B comes and takes A’s hut, that is theft, and person A can come and enforce his right to the work of his hands; it is his exclusively. Now, of course, it isn’t always person A’s hut; if person A dies or sells the hut to someone, the property moves on.

Now, Locke believed that there were “inconveniences”, or a better word would be “problems” with the state of nature. One problem involves disputes. Person A has the right to track down person B and punish him for stealing his hut. But Locke points out that these two people are obviously biased to their own views of the situation, and so Locke believes that some group, in his example government, would have to be set up to settle the dispute.

Our island example is a lot like the story of Robinson Crusoe

However, Locke makes the mistake of assuming that there has to be a state, a political body, to judge the disputes of society, to bring people out of the state of nature. But why can’t there be a third party that both parties can agree to be judged by? Why can’t person A and B keep their liberties while still getting their case judged? Locke doesn’t even consider this.

What about absolute monarchy? Does that form of government adequately free people from the “inconveniences” of the state of nature? No, because according to Locke, if you have a dispute with the monarch, the monarch will judge in his own case. The problem is, we have this problem with every established government. If I have a dispute with the U.S. government, and I take them to court, the only place I can do so is in the U.S. court system! Do you think that the U.S. government is biased concerning their own case? Of course! So, we’re back to the state of nature.

So, Locke believed that before there is government , we live in the state of nature, and that when government comes into the picture, certain problems, especially the one concerning disputes within society, are solved. Unfortunately, this, as previously mentioned, doesn’t solve the problem, and only a free society with temporary courts to settle local disputes, can give us the world Locke sought.


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