John Locke 1632-1704

  • Social Contract

  • Limited Government

  • Checks and balances

  • Consent

  • The right to rebel

  • Natural rights

  • Religious toleration


Although he trained as a medical doctor, John Locke went on to become one of the most important thinkers of the Enlightenment and is sometimes considered to be the father of liberalism . Locke argued that government must be limited and based on consent . The right to govern must come from the people themselves, rather than through tradition or religious authority . Governments must be limited and respect individual rights . These rights are liberty, life and property

Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke did not believe that the state of nature was chaotic and violent . However, he argued that the state was needed as an arbiter to judge disputes . A supporter of mechanistic theory, Locke developed social contract theory to argue that the citizens and the government would make a hypothetical contract . The government would promise to respect and preserve the freedoms of the people and in return the citizens would give up some of their freedom and would promise to follow the rule of law . However, if the government abused its powers by taking away property, for example, the citizens had to right to break this contract . Locke’s ideal government would not be fully democratic, but he did argue that there must be separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary in order to prevent tyranny and ensure the rule of law

John Locke is usually seen as the father of liberal philosophy, with his book Two Treatises of Government (1690) generally regarded as the cornerstone of liberal thought. He is also seen as the central figure in the original version of liberalism, usually referred to as classical liberalism. Locke’s importance to classical liberalism lies in the questions he raised about human nature and the type of state that was therefore appropriate.

‘natural liberties’ and ‘natural rights’ (such as the right to property). As such, Locke’s state of nature was not one that people would be keen to leave at any cost. The alternative ‘state of law’ (in other words, the modern state as we know it) was therefore designed to improve upon an essentially tolerable situation, by resolving disputes between individuals more effciently than would be the case under the state of nature.

Locke denied the traditional, medieval principle that the state was part of God’s creation. He also disputed the idea that the state had been created by a celestial power, involving monarchs who had a ‘divine right’ to govern. For the same reason, he rejected the notion that ‘ordinary’ people were ‘subjects’ of the state, with a quasi-religious obligation to obey the monarch’s rulings: the ‘true’ state, he argued, would be one created by mankind to serve mankind’s interests and would arise only from the consent of those who would be governed by it.

Locke asserted that, prior to the state’s existence, there was a ‘natural’ society which served mankind’s interests tolerably well. Borrowing a phrase coined by Thomas Hobbes 40 years earlier, Locke described this natural society as the ‘state of nature’. However, Locke’s state of nature was very different to the ‘nasty and brutish’ version depicted by Hobbes. Owing to Locke’s upbeat view of human nature, and his belief that it was guided by rationalism, he also believed the state of nature was to be underpinned by ‘natural laws’,


For Locke, the ‘state of law’ would be legitimate only if it respected natural rights and natural laws, thus ensuring that individuals living under formal laws were never consistently worse off than they had been in the state of nature. The state’s structures must therefore embody the natural rights and natural liberties that preceded it. Similarly, Locke’s ideal state would always reflect the principle that its ‘citizens’ had voluntarily consented to accept the state’s rulings in return for the state improving their situation (a principle which later became known as ‘social contract theory’).

Because of its ‘contractual’ nature, the state would have to embody the principle of limited government — in other words, limited to always representing the interests of the governed and always requiring the ongoing consent of the governed. The state’s ‘limited’ character would be confirmed by the dispersal of its powers. The executive and legislative branches of the state, for example, would be separate, while its lawmakers (i.e. parliamentarians) would be separated from its law enforcers (i.e. the judiciary).