Locke revisits many of the discussions of previous chapters here. He begins by asking rhetorically why any man would willingly leave the state of nature, a state where he is completely free and equal, to be governed by an authority. This is because the other men in a society still in a state of nature cannot be supposed to respect all men’s freedom. A man’s property may be invaded, his life may be threatened, and other men’s self-interest may preclude their acting for the common good. Life in a state of nature can be dangerous and full of vicissitudes. This makes it necessary for men to want to form a government to preserve their lives, liberties, and estates (which Locke reminds his readers all constitute the term “property”).
He then discusses three things that are lacking in a state of nature. The first is that there is no known, commonly agreed-upon law that all men abide by. Right and wrong are relative terms. Even if there are laws that men tacitly respect, their own self-interest or ignorance of said laws make it difficult for a common standard to exist. Secondly, there is no single, indifferent judge to mediate disputes in a state of nature. All men are judges and are sometimes privy to their own passions and self-interest. Others are apathetic or unconcerned with rendering fair judgment. Thirdly, there is rarely a power that can execute a law or a sentence given. Men resist their punishment and make it dangerous for those who would seek to punish a transgressor of the law.
As he also admitted in chapters II and VIII, it is rare to find men living in a state of nature because it is simply so inconvenient and onerous. In a political society, the chaos and selfishness found in the state of nature disappear, and men’s property can be protected now. They must agree to adhere to established laws of their government and give up their power of punishing transgressors, of course, and bestow power in a legislative and executive authority.
This is different from a state of nature, where a man retains two important powers. The first is the ability to do whatever he views necessary to preserve his life and those of others in the community. Mankind is a community itself, and if there were not any selfish, degenerate men all men could live together peaceably and pleasurably and government would be completely unnecessary. The second power a man has in the state of nature is the ability to punish those who commit crimes against the law of nature. He no longer has this power when he joins a civil society.
Thus, joining a political society strips a man of the two powers he previously retained in a state of nature. He must submit to the laws made by society and allow the executive power of society to deal with transgressors of the law. Being a member of a political society provides many conveniences as well as those inconveniences of relinquishing some individual power.
Even though joining a political society means men must give up their equality, liberty, and executive power, it does not mean the government can extend their power further than what the common good requires. There is the expectation that men’s liberty and property are to be protected by their government. Conclusively, the authorities of the political society must respect established standing laws and not change them capriciously; mediate disputes and controversies under the law; use force at home only to enforce the laws; and use force abroad to protect the community. All of this is to be done for the peace, safety, and public good only.
This brief chapter summarizes much of Locke’s arguments from the previous eight chapters. He details what life is like in a state of nature but is much clearer about what many of the inconveniences (a word he uses frequently) can be. He returns to the idea of property and explicitly says that the protection of property is the main reason why men form a civil government. He also reiterates the powers given to the authority figure as well as the limitations. In sum, the formation of a social contract means that a man is giving up a lot of his freedom but gaining many benefits like “the labour, assistance, and society of others in the same community, as well as protection from its whole strength” (§130).
Locke uses the phrase “public good” again in this chapter. He is very clear that a government can only be legitimate when its actions do not extend beyond the scope of the powers granted to it and when such actions promote and preserve mankind. There is no place for self-interest or arrogance and ambition. A compact means that both parties have to adhere to certain rules and assumptions; this is quite different from a society with an absolute monarch, who rarely if ever has the good of the public in mind.
In regard to the ends of a civil society, scholar Robert Nozick sees Locke’s Second Treatise as asserting that government has no other purpose than protecting people from an infringement of their rights. It is a classic libertarian thesis (libertarianism being, in brief, a school of political thought that places a premium on personal liberty and individualism and as little government interference into the lives of citizens as possible).
Alex Tuckness disagrees, writing that Locke’s theory may indeed be limited to preserve natural law but is also a positive force because it should preserve mankind as much as possible. Therefore, the government can do things such as increase the military force, sponsor infrastructure projects, and regulate the economy because they all promote the public good.
Preeminent Locke scholar Peter Laslett agrees with Tuckness, writing in his introduction to an edition of the Two Treatises, “in Locke’s theory freedom is not merely the absence of restraint, it is positive. It is something which is enlarged by the creation of society and government, which is given substance by the existence of laws, the laws of the law courts.” While on the surface it may seem like government’s job is very limited—establish and execute the laws, punish offenders, protect property—Locke may actually be giving it much more to do if the public good and mankind’s preservation are the ultimate goals.