John Locke on Limited Government
“A limited government is one that levies just enough taxes to provide for national defense and police protection and otherwise stays out of people’s affairs.”
“The free society is an experiment not a guarantee.”
The notion of limited government in early thinkers such as Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin is clear, but in the last three thinkers the notion is tied to a symbiosis between church and State that was problematic to many. Even in Calvin’s day a group of Christians began to emerge all over Western Europe who sought to unravel the relationship between these two institutions by protesting the one common element in European society that linked church and State—infant baptism. Their basic argument was that infant baptism was an unbiblical idea, but their secondary concern was that since all European governments required christening within the first thirty days of a child’s life, that it had, in effect, become the single practice that knitted church and State together in such a way that the rejection of the authority of one necessarily implied the rejection of the authority of the other.
Social expectations, legal enactments and
interpersonal relationships all built on this
foundation. So to deny that the paedo-baptism
of all was legitimate and to insist on a later baptism of
only a few could not be simply a personal decision
with the goal of pursuing greater spiritual fidelity.
It inevitably also entailed a stinging indictment of
the Christian faith of the others and of the
legitimacy of the civil state.
Forming an alternative church was thus tantamount to sedition. This would have to unravel before further progress could be made in developing a notion of limited government for the world of the future. The one man, along with these scattered Anabaptists, who did most to effect divorce between church and State was John Locke.
In 1665, England sent a diplomatic mission to Cleves—a Prussian city, a Lutheran city. One member of the delegation was a young scholar who had written treatises defending the authority of government over all areas of life, and especially over religion. He had accepted the view promoted by the Tudors of the previous century and the Stuarts (and the French Bourbon kings) of his own time that any kind of religious dissent was dangerous and threatened to undermine society. In Cleves, the young John Locke (1632-1704) found a city in which several Protestant faiths existed peacefully alongside Roman Catholicism. As he put it, “They quietly permit one another to choose their way to heaven.” Locke’s world was transformed overnight.
This visit to Cleves brought about a paradigm shift in Locke’s thinking. “Over the next few years it gradually dawned on the young scholar that religious dissent is not the cause of political conflict over religion. Rather, the outlawing of religious dissent is the cause of political conflict over religion.” Locke would make a major contribution in the development of a philosophical commitment to religious liberty in England and the Western world, as well as to the nature of government in general.
Toleration of religious opinion was nothing new. The Romans, as we have shown, tolerated the religious views of the provinces, after a fashion. The Dutch had been tolerant of religious diversity, all the while having a State Church that was, successively, Roman Catholic and then Reformed. They even had a term for it: “Go Dutch.” To “Go Dutch” meant to “go the easy way,” that is, the tolerant way, since the Dutch allowed Jews, Anabaptists and other movements the freedom to live and practice their faith in the Low Countries. Locke now saw that real religious liberty, not mere toleration, was one of the lynchpins to an overall commitment to limited government in general.
Locke’s more general political theory, seen especially in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, was founded on his belief in the social contract and in his view of human nature. Locke was convinced that men would recognize the need for a social contract with one another in order to secure their own peace and safety. The state of nature is potentially a state of war (Hobbes would say that it is a state of war), so Locke argued that reasonable men would avoid this at any cost. “To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power.” In other words, they would freely form the social contract because they would know that this is the only reasonable way to live.
Having made the social contract, what ought persons in society together to do with it? Locke next made the point that all men have been given the property that belongs to them, and that none should take it from them. “Everyman has a property all his own: that property is his own person. This nobody has a right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” Once we have removed something legitimately (generally through labor or purchase) from the state of nature, it belongs to us. “The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his consent. . . . For I have truly no property if anyone can by right take from me what he pleases against my consent.” This applies as much to government as it does to seizure by any individual.
What kind of government would be best suited to these ends? In his First Treatise of Civil Government Locke had refuted the ideas of Sir Robert Filmer, whose book Patriarchy had argued for divine right kingship and that the citizens of England should see themselves as the “children” of the king. (Remember that King Charles II did believe in divine right kingship.) The Second Treatise gives one chapter to refuting these notions again (chapter 6), rejecting the idea that an “absolute prince” or “czar” or “grand seignior” ought to be recognized. He then, in a style reminiscent of Aristotle, surveys various forms of government, including “perfect democracy,” “oligarchy,” and monarchy, concluding that none of them really fits in with the pattern of the kind of just government he has been describing. Rather, Locke opts for the notion of “commonwealth.” This form of government would have as its highest and most important branch of government the legislative. “The legislative is not only the supreme power of the commonwealth, but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have placed it.” Then again, he states, “In a constituted commonwealth there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate.” Neither the executive nor the judicial can trump the legislative or act contrary to it. The role of the executive is to stand as the proxy for the legislative when it is not in session and always to comport its actions in a manner consistent with that which has been laid out by the legislative, the true and most immediate representatives of the people themselves.
This is limited government. Though Locke believed that his ideas were consistent with New Testament teaching on governance (but not with the Old Testament, and he accused Calvin of appealing more to that part of the Bible ), these ideas were not solely dependent on any part of the Bible, but rather were derived from a rational consideration of the human condition as such. Further, though this set of convictions had not been held by the Protestant Reformers, they set the stage for it. Luther’s emphasis on vocation and on the priesthood of all believers set the stage for a new form of individualism. Calvin’s political theology and his emphasis on such matters as fundamental law, natural rights, contract and consent of the people were part of Locke’s lexicon. As we noted elsewhere, “Modern Democracy is the child of the Reformation, not of the Reformers.” Locke is thus the person who brings about a confluence between both the Reformation tradition and the Enlightenment. His view on limited government is, perhaps, the best expression of that. What we need to understand more than anything out of his treatment is that the role of the legislative ought to be supreme. That is not the way it is in America today.
Chad Owen Brand
This is an excerpt from an essay that will soon appear at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.