Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 16
Locke – II: Limited Government
Hello and welcome everyone. This is the second lecture on Locke and today, we are going to
discuss his theory on limited government. In the previous lecture on Locke, we have discussed
his context, personal life, and theory on ‘state of nature’, natural laws, and natural rights.
So, Locke’s concept of ‘state of nature’, his theory on natural laws and natural rights becomes
the basis of some of the inalienable rights or fundamental rights that we recognize of the
individuals. This leads to another kind of rights as well such as human rights, socio-political
rights, social and cultural rights, and economic rights in the later decades.
But some of the rights are regarded as fundamental or natural for the growth of human beings,
for the full development of his/her skills as rooted in Locke’s political philosophy. There we
have also seen how theology or theological understanding of human life or the origin of life is
the basis of Locke’s argument about why certain rights should be always respected. Or it should
not be interfered with by the government or sovereign.
The existence of the sovereign for Locke was for the protection of certain inalienable rights of
individuals. So, these rights were given to the individual, not because of some concession or
some kind of reorganization from outside the person or from the society or community or the
state. But these rights are natural, inalienable rights of the individual which must be protected by
the others and by the state.
These themes that we have discussed in the previous lecture and the next lecture on Locke, that
would be concluding lecture, we will discuss his theory of the right to dissent in which context,
individual have the right to disobey or dissent the sovereign power or government and then we
will conclude by discussing critically the contribution of Locke’s thought in the history of
western political thought. Let us begin today with his concept of limited government.(Refer Slide Time: 3:29)
Locke as a natural right theorist provided a detailed account of limited government and this
limited government was based on the consent of people or governed. So, this conception of
limited government that we had in Locke’s political philosophy was limited. Because the
legitimacy of the rule or government was based on the consent of people and there could be
different mechanisms of this consent to the ruler or government.
In modern liberal democracies, the election time is regarded as that moment in the life of a
community when they repose their faith or trust to a particular party to govern them. So,
elections become a moment when the people as a whole give consent to a party to rule for a
And these elections periodically give the people that moment or opportunity to express their
consent, to give the mandate to the people. That is the modern form in Locke as part of the social
contract tradition of political thought. We see how he imagined this kind of consent given to the
government or the state was based on this hypothetical idea of ‘state of nature’. And how from
that ‘state of nature’, we have discussed that Locke’s ‘state of nature’ was very different from the
Hobbesian conception of nature as the perpetual war.
In Locke, the ‘state of nature’ was the perfect condition of human freedom and equality. Now, if
the ‘state of nature’ was the perfect condition for equality and freedom for the human being, why
they would form the government? There were justifications required for the formation ofgovernment and Lockean, ‘Two Treatises of Government’ provided those justifications and the
formation of government from this hypothetical imagination of ‘state of nature’ or hypothetical
idea of ‘state of nature’.
He regarded certain rights such as the right to life, liberty, the private property of the individual
as natural. Therefore, the inalienable rights of the individual. So, these three rights like the right
to life, liberty, and property were natural. It existed even in the ‘state of nature’ and even after
the formation of political society or government, the individual did not transfer these rights.
That means, they retain these rights even in the political society or after the formation of state or
the government. Now, the state and political society must provide the condition for an individual
to exercise these rights particularly, the right to acquire property by mixing one’s labor physical
and intellectual with the common resources that are provided by god.
And this mixing of labor with the common resources constitutes what is called private property
over which individuals can legitimately claim ownership. So, these rights which is natural and
inalienable posed certain limits to the exercise of governmental authority and power. So, the
government, according to Locke, existed for the protection of these rights. Thus, these rights
posed a limit or constraint on the exercise of sovereign power and authority. So, it is very
different from the Hobbesian imagination of the absolutist government or absolutist regime.
Locke is also regarded as a theorist of natural laws that restraint the conduct of individuals in the
‘state of nature’ and even the power of government after the formation of civil political society.
So, his understanding of natural laws becomes the basis of the conduct of an individual in their
interpersonal relationship. Even in the ‘state of nature’ which was the condition of freedom and
equality for Locke, individual behavior was guided by certain laws, he called natural laws. That
law was that human beings would treat other human beings as equal and free, as an equal and
free member. They should not violate their life, health, property, or positions.
So, these are the mutual understanding based on the natural laws that govern the interpersonal
relationship in the ‘state of nature’. Now, the same natural law also governs the behavior of the
government or its exercise of power after the formation of political and civil society. Here, the
government is not in that sense, absolute, or has arbitrary power. It must operate and functionwithin the limits of natural laws. So, it is applicable even in the ‘state of nature’ and after the
formation of government in the political society.
Locke’s political thought is best articulated in the second treatises. So, the two treatises of
government are the representative text of Locke and the second treatises, particularly, deals with
this idea on ‘state of nature’, the condition of life in the ‘state of nature’, why people should form
the government? What are the stages of that formation of the government? And how the
government should exercise power within the limits of the contract or the limits of natural laws
and in what context individuals have the right to dissent?
All these themes are discussed in this second treatise of that two treatises of government. And his
account of limited government was based on the theological concern for human lives and ideas
on religious toleration. And these two themes, we have discussed in the previous lecture that for
Locke, there are certain responsibilities of the individual. That is as children of god, an
individual should not do certain things in their understanding of liberty as doing anything that
they can desire.
They must preserve life. So, Locke would deny the individual right to harm himself or commit
suicide or put himself under the subjugation of other individuals. That would be a violation of
the obligation that god or creator put on an individual. So, an individual must exercise liberty
within the limits of natural law which requires the individual not to harm himself. There is this
connection with the right and duties also. The individuals have the right to protect their life,
liberty, and property, and do anything that they think is desirable or just, in the dispossession of
their life, possession, and property. But in doing so, they must not harm themselves.
That is the kind of limits even in the ‘state of nature’ and this comes from his theological
understanding of human life, the liberty that human beings can justifiably or reasonably realize
within the limits of the natural law. In that sense, it is not a kind of libertarian or a kind of license
to do anything for the individual. So, liberty has to function within the limits of the natural law
and these things come from his theological understanding and views on religious toleration. This
will come again when we will discuss or critically assess the political thought of Locke.
Lockean sovereignty is therefore not absolute or arbitrary. In contrast to Hobbes, he argued that
the sovereign was a party to the contract. So, in Hobbes, if you recall, the sovereign is instituted through the contract and the contract was among the free individual and sovereign came out of
that contract. It was not a party to that contract. Therefore, the terms of the contract did not apply
to the sovereign. So, the sovereign then exercises absolute power or limitless power being
accountable to his own consigns or god. Human beings cannot scrutinize the power or action of
the sovereign in Hobbes. There is a kind of absolute arbitrary power that is given to Hobbes
In contrast, to that what we have in Locke is sovereign as a party to the contract and if a
sovereign is a party to the contract then its function or power is limited by the terms of that
contract. Therefore, it must abide by those terms as there in the contract. So, it must abide by the
terms of that contract. Locke’s views on limited government were based on the consent of the
governed has become the basis of modern liberal democracy.
Modern liberal democracy, when we talk about the legitimacy of the government was based on
this idea that the government exercised the monopoly of violence. But the exercise of that power
was to operate within the limits set by the constitution, laws, and periodically assessed by the
people through an election. So, in that sense, the government in modern democracy exercised the
monopoly of violence. But in the actual exercise of that power, it must operate within the limits
and laws of the constitution and seek periodic consent from the people.
The people are the ultimate power or source of all power that a state and its institutions exercises
over the people. So, this idea of government based on the consent of people was there in Locke
that becomes the basis of modern democracy, modern government, and politics.(Refer Slide Time: 15:06)
Now, if you look at this text, Two Treatises of Government which is a representative text of
Locke’s political philosophy. It was published in the context of the glorious revolution in 1688
and you have recalled the context of England, where there was the factionalism among the
Royalists, Parliamentarians, the Catholic Church, and various other groups within the religious
discourse such as Protestant Ethics and many kinds of dissenters.
So, there are a lot of dissenting voices, factionalism, and also discourses on the ultimate power or
authority and the period between the 1640s or 50’s to 1680s or ’90s until the glorious revolution
is there, constant flux or tensions between these forces and factions in English politics. So, this
text is written in that context, where there is the move away from the religious authority or
assertion of the superiority of the temporal power. That is the power of the monarch. But whether
that power of the monarch is absolute or should be limited by the people or their representative
in the parliament.
These were some of the creative times embedded in the factionalism or tensions or anxieties that
was prevailing during those decades. So, this Two Treatises of Government dealt with how a
government could legitimately rule? What should be the source of legitimacy to the government?
and in what context an individual has the right to dissent? This treatise was written in this
context of glorious revolution and Locke published it a year later in 1618 anonymously. This
author of this text remained anonymous for a very long time. Even one year before his death, he was referring to this text in terms of its justification for
private property or the natural rights of the individual. But he did not reveal himself as the author
of the text till he died in 1704. So, the influence or profound influence of this text is quite known
today. This text was written where Locke had to flee England and take protection in Holland. In
Holland, he developed this idea of religious toleration and how it contributed in the prosperity of
society. The turbulent time of England of the 1650s to 1690’s was a period when individuals
were not that free to express their opinion and there was lots of violence that were happening.
In that context, Locke developed this theory of limited government which we not take it for
granted. But to argue or express it in the context of monarchy or tensions between the
parliamentary forces and monarchy on the one hand and various types of religious discourses, on
the other hand, was a revolutionary thing. That is what Locke had done and started with Hobbes.
They also then developed a new discourse on the individual as the basic unit of political
Before that, we have seen in Aristotle or Plato or even Machiavelli, there was this understanding
of hierarchy prevailing in the society in terms of classes. But in the social contract tradition,
every single individual was equal having the same rights. In that sense, theoretically speaking,
between the monarch, plebeians, or ordinary citizen. They all carried the same rights and the
authority of the state must acknowledge and protect those rights.
And how, they justified that acknowledgment or protection of the inalienable rights or natural
rights of the citizen was the subject matter of these Two Treatises of Government. It was like a
radical argument considering the time in which it was published and written. So, in this text
Locke outline the theory of natural laws and natural rights of the individuals whose functions
were restrained or limited to all forms of authority. It was based on natural laws and inalienable
natural rights of the individual that Locke was regarded as a thinker of modern liberalism and the
republican notion of freedom and liberty.
For Locke, the liberty of the individual was not the license to do anything. The exercise of liberty
must operate or function within the limits set by the laws. Even in the ‘state of nature’, that law
was natural law, the mutual understanding of the free and equal rights of others. Even the pursuit
of the property was not to spoil the natural resources. That is, it should be limited in the sense that one should acquire the property that one can use, not to waste that resources. Similarly, one
should leave enough resources for others to acquire. This tacit understanding or mutual
understanding was the governing principle in the ‘state of nature’. It continues to restrain the
power of the state or government after the formation of political society.
Now, coming back to this text on the Two Treatises of Government, the first treatise of the two
treatises is Locke demolishes, Sir Robert Filmer. This very flimsy or one could say an untenable
argument in Filmer’s text is called Patriarcha or the natural power of the kings. So, Rober Filmer
argued about the absolute power of the king and this power of the king, he regarded it as the
natural power. In the treatises of the Two Treatises of Government, Locke spent considerable
time in demolishing step by step, every argument put forward by Sir Robert Filmer. This is also
done to understand the wit of the Royalist supporters.
And later on, when this text was published in 1689, Royalists used this. So, this text was written
much earlier. But Royalists used it as propaganda for the support of monarchy or absolute power
of the monarchy. Locke took considerable time in demolishing all the arguments put forward by
Filmer in support of monarchy or the absolute power of the monarchy. Then go on to discuss his
idea of limited government, its formation, and legitimacy.
So, the basis of the formation of civil or political society, the limited government, and the right to
dissent, Locke developed in the second treatise. If you care about this text, The Two Treatises of
Government, I will suggest you read only the second treatise. Because of the first treatise, it is
responding to the prevailing royalist conception about the absolute power of the monarch.
That was valid or plausible in his time. But in our time of modern liberal democracies, where
there is a kind of dominant imagination prevailing that all men are equal. Therefore, they have
the same right of participation in the political community and there is no hierarchy at least in
terms of legal and political rights.
So, there could be social and economic hierarchies that are still prevailing. But politically and
legally speaking, all men and women were treated equally having the same rights or equal rights.
In this context, you do not have to read this treatise which is the response to the Royalist kind of
argument in Locke’s time. You should focus on the second treatises where the argument is about
the civil authority and limits of that authority. And much of the scholarly interpretation ofLocke’s political philosophy was based on the second treatises. It was written in a lucid language
and self-explanatory that provided a detailed description of the formation of civil authority and
Thus, Locke’s argument on the limited government was in the second treatises, of the Two
Treatises of the Government. The first is about demolishing the idea of the absolute power of the
monarch. So, before we move onto discuss Locke’s idea of the formation of a government or the
origin of government from the ‘state of nature’, we also need to understand political power
particularly between Locke and Filmer’s argument on political power.
(Refer Slide Time: 25:18)
Sir Robert Filmer wrote a book called Patriarcha. It was written in I think 1648, so 1650 during
the English Civil War, where he justified the absolute power of the monarchy. It remained
anonymous for a very long time and there was a kind of recovery of this text in the 1680s, where
there was a kind of growing tension between the parliamentary forces and monarch. And it was
republished in the1680s and used by Royalists as a propaganda tool to defend the absolute power
of the monarch.
Now, in the twentieth or twenty-first century, we regard all forms of government authority as
limited authority. It should exercise power for the protection of the public good or the common
good of the people. And also, it operates within limits set by the constitution and the laws. But in
the time of Locke, there was this unsettled debate and discourse on which authority was the supreme or absolute authority to which all the institution of the state and political society submit
to. Royalist argued, let us take the example of religious toleration that was hotly debated and
caused many violence and conflicts in England.
Now, the Royalist argument was that the royalty or monarch exercised absolute power over all
domains of life including the religious domain. It was not a matter of personal right or personal
choice for the individuals. However, the king could give concessions to individuals. So, people
have the choice to practice any faith or follow any religion. But such practice and following
should be seen as the royal concession.
Whereas, the parliamentarians and many dissenting groups were arguing that this right to
practice and follow any religion was not a matter of royal concession. But it is the inalienable
right of the individual. So, the discourse of natural rights or inalienable rights becomes the basis
that restrained the absolute power of the monarchy. And that is the creative tension of this time,
where the Filmer text, Patriarcha was used as a propaganda tool by the Royalists forces to
defend the absolute power of the monarchy.
In this text, Filmer, equates the authority of kings with that of fathers or paternal authority, and
his argument was this authority of king had handed on by Adams who received it from god. So,
in Christianity, Adam is the first person or the father of everyone and the royal authority or
authority of the king or monarch is derived from this transfer of authority from Adam to the king.
And since, Adam had received this ownership of every resource on the earth from the god
himself and transfer it to the king or the monarchs. Therefore, the monarch is the representative
of the god and then gives a kind of anthropological understanding or explanation of royal
authority or paternal authority as well giving the idea of how the father exercises authority within
the household. Then, how gradually it leads to tribes and tribal authority which ultimately leads
to the formation of a state.
He was willing to give the anthropological explanation for this paternal authority as well.
Nonetheless, his justification for the absolute power rest with this idea that the king received the
power from Adam that was absolute. And Adam received from god. Therefore, the power of
monarch is absolute, arbitrary, and bequeathable or that means in hereditary, one can transfer it
to the son or eldest son.Hence, according to Filmer, we as children of god should submit to his will duly represented by
the kings. So, there is a kind of absolute justification in Filmer of the arbitrary power of the
monarch or the king. Locke spent considerable time in demolishing these beliefs and then
developed his theory of limited government. For Filmer, the authority of the king is similar to
paternal authority. Locke begins by stating the apparent differences between paternal and
For Locke and it is similar to Aristotle’s idea if you recall that in contrast to Plato who thought
that a state would govern on the same principle as the individual governed himself. For Aristotle,
the governing of the household among the unequal was different from governing the state which
was about equal member. So, the functioning or exercise of authority in the state cannot be
similar to the exercise of authority by the father in the household.
Somewhat similar argument Locke made, where he differentiated the paternal authority from the
political authority. Whereas in Filmer, both kinds of authority were absolute, arbitrary, and
bequeathable. That means, the exercise of authority by the king was similar to the exercise of
authority by the father in the household.
Locke refuted his claim of father or husband exercising absolute power over children and wife
respectively. In contrast to Filmer’s argument, this is true for Lockean argument about limiting
all forms of authority or tyrannical authority whether it was spiritual or temporal. He wanted to
give autonomy or freedom to the individuals and not authority that is external to it. Be it the
Church or king or monarch. So, Locke, argued that a father or husband did not exercise the
absolute authority of wife and children.
So, long children are incapable of taking a decision or not, 18 the age of maturity, they should be
protected by their father. But once they develop their maturity and capability to decide for
themselves, the power or authority of the father is reduced. That means that an individual should
be free to make decisions about his or her life. So, there is a kind of limit to the paternal authority
also. Similarly, it is with the husband in terms of his exercise of power over his wife. So, even in
the paternal authority, Locke argued that the power and authority of father or husband are not
absolute as we find in Filmer.Locke further argued that the political authority unlike paternal authorities exercised over the
free and equal members, and that distinguishes the political authority from the paternal authority.
So, in the household, a male as a father or husband exercises his authority among the unequal.
That is children, wife, slaves, and himself. But in the political society which is constitutive of all
equal and free members having the same set of natural rights, the authority of the state should be
It should operate within a set premise that cannot be similar to the governing principle in the
household. Therefore, it must be based on their consent. So, in the household, it is not necessary
to get the consent of the child for the exercise of paternal authority, whereas in the political
society constitutive of free and equal members, for any forms of authority to become legitimate,
it is necessary to get the consent from the people.
According to Locke, political power was about the right of making laws with penalties of death
and consequently, all fewer penalties for the regulating and preserving of property and of
employing the force of community in the execution of such laws and defense of the
commonwealth from foreign injury and all this only for the public good.
Now, this statement establishes Locke’s conception of political power or political authority. So,
the political power according to Locke is the right to make laws, and this right to make laws
entails, suppose someone violates the laws, what should be the penalties for such violation? It
could be death or any subsequent lesser penalties. How to exercise the power and the authority
which help in the execution of those laws or channelizing the forces of the community for
preserving the individual right to property and aggression from the foreign forces or the injury
that is from the external aggression.
So, we need the authority for these purposes and this kind of authority is different from the
authority that a father or husband exercises within the household that is among the unequal’s.
Such political power for Locke was already available to an individual in the ‘state of nature’. So,
an individual in the ‘state of nature’ was given all the power and all the rights to do things that
help him in the protection of the right to life, liberty, and property.
This political power for the state or government is similar to those rights that are given to the
individual. That is to say, they can formulate the laws, they can decide the quantum of punishment and how to execute those punishments, and how to channelize the forces of the
community to protect it from external aggression.
So, this legislative, adjudicative, or federative power of the government constituted the political
authority. Political authority for Locke is then not just about the exercise of absolute power or
about the will or the discretion of the government or the monarch. But it must operate within the
limits. That is very different from paternal authority which is arbitrary and applicable in a sphere
of life, where there are unequal members such as children, wives, and men.
But in the political society among the equals or free members, the exercise of political authority
is constitutive of these three powers, legislative power, adjudicative power or the federative
power to maintain the commonwealth, to maintain the civic life and enable the condition for the
protection of the individual right to life, liberty, and property. And these rights or political power
are available to the individuals in the ‘state of nature’ as well which they exercise to protect or
preserve their life, liberty, and property which is given to the government after the formation of
(Refer Slide Time: 38:35)
Now, if you look at the origin of the government, we have already discussed in the previous
lecture that Locke’s ‘state of nature’ was the realm of maximum liberty and freedom for the
individuals. Their interpersonal relation or the conduct was to be guided by natural rights that
they would not violate the life, health, and possession or liberty of the individuals. That mutual understanding led to a life of freedom and equality for every human being. So, the individual
acknowledged each other natural rights.
Now, the question is if the ‘state of nature’ was so peaceful that in contrast to the Hobbesian
conception of ‘state of nature’ as the perpetual war then why there is a need for government,
even the limited government? So, according to Locke, there developed complexities and
inconveniences which led the individual to form the government and leave the ‘state of nature’.
And this inconvenience and complexities was the outcome of both kinds of human behaviors
where some followed the natural laws and there was also a violation of natural law.
Now, if there is a violation of natural law that is a violation of individual rights to life, liberty,
and property in that condition of a violation who is going to adjudicate the violation and the
quantum of punishment for the violation. And in the ‘state of nature’, the guiding principle was
just the natural law, there was no authority of the state. So, in the absence of the civic authority,
how one was going to adjudicate the violation of natural law? Locke argued that an individual
who was biased or prejudiced to their acts of such a violation. It would be difficult to adjudicate
and enforce the laws impartially. That means without differentiating.
So, individuals having this mutual or tacit understanding among themselves that they would not
violate the rights of others. But what if that violation happens? Should, we leave the adjudication
to the individual consent?