The idea of consent is a key element in the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the “Second Treatise of Government,” Locke puts forth his conception of the ideal form of government based on a social contract. As Locke develops his theory of consent, he also incorporates theories of political obligation on the part of all citizens of his state as well as his theory of revolution and the conditions under which rebellion is permissible. Though Locke may appear to have explored the notion of consent completely, there are some problems with his theory that weaken its impact.
Despite the possible problems encountered with Locke’s idea of consent in a political society, Rousseau, in his essay “On the Social Contract,” seems to agree with Locke with regards to the concept of consent as it applies to the use of money. The works of Locke and Rousseau explore political foundations that depend on a social contract which requires consent above all things in order to secure liberty for the people.
John Locke powerfully details the benefits of consent as a principle element of government, guaranteed by a social contract. Locke believes in the establishment of a social compact among people of a society that is unique in its ability to eliminate the state of nature. Locke feels the contract must end the state of nature agreeably because in the state of nature “every one has executive power of the law of nature”(742). This is a problem because men are then partial to their own cases and those of their friends and may become vindictive in punishments of enemies. Therefore, Locke maintains that a government must be established with the consent of all that will “restrain the partiality and violence of men”(744). People must agree to remove themselves from the punishing and judging processes and create impartiality in a government so that the true equality of men can be preserved. Without this unanimous consent to government as holder of executive power, men who attempt to establish absolute power will throw society into a state of war(745). The importance of freedom and security to man is the reason he gives consent to the government. He then protects himself from any one partial body from getting power over him. He can appeal to a higher authority in his community once the consent of the people sets up a judiciary(746).
As Locke develops his theory of consent, he addresses the issue of liberty and states that in giving consent, men do give up their “natural liberty,” which involves being free from the will of any man and living by the law of nature. However, in the social contract we exchange this natural liberty for “freedom of men under government,” in which we have a natural, standing rule to live by, common to everyone, made by the legislative(747). With consent to government, men still have the liberty to follow their own will in matters where the law does not dictate otherwise. Therefore, men do not have to suffer enslavement to political institutions. For Locke, this justifies consent to government and ordered society.
Locke incorporates his views on money into his consent theory, for he feels that men have agreed tacitly, with the invention of money, to put a value on property and establish rights to it(751). The consent of men to place a value on money has allowed men to support themselves with property and labor and also “increase[s] the common stock of mankind”(751). Consent makes industry and the accumulation of the wealth of society possible and Locke considers this a positive achievement.
Involved deeply in the theory of consent is Locke’s interpretation of political obligation. Locke views government as essential to the evolution of a civil society in which the inconveniences of the state of nature are rejected while the safety and security men desire are protected by government. Therefore, the people, as part of the social contract, have a duty to obey the laws instituted by government and to accept the concept of majority rule as fundamental to the continued equality of the society. In consenting to political authority, men agree to allow the “body with the greater force” to influence policy(769). Men must have confidence in the proper functioning of government because they rely on the social compact. Their obligation is to abide by the terms of the compact so that both people and government enjoy smooth sailing.
Locke also explores the idea of revolution and insists that the people who have created government with unanimous consent in order to preserve their property and safety should not be betrayed by the very institutions they gave birth to. So Locke states that if any of the three powers in government make a move “to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power” then the people are no longer expected to obey the political authority(807). If the government is guilty of a “breach of trust they forfeit the power”(807). Locke believes that giving the people the option to rebel does not provoke frequent uprising against government. On the contrary, this option being open is a protective measure and keeps things in order, for the people will realize there is a way out if the government ceases to represent their interests. It is, in a sense, a safety valve for the people and gives them the reassurance of having some control over government’s actions.
Locke’s theory of consent encounters some minor problems. One of the possible problems regards the propertyless person. For a man who has no possessions, the desire for protection of property that motivates men to consent to government is nonexistent. He has no reason to want government and so will be beyond the reach of political authority. Such a person, Locke maintains, is subject to despotical power(794). Also, Locke feels that anyone who enjoys the privileges of government, like driving on the roads, gives tacit consent to government(777). However, many people are not conscious of the fact that driving on the roads is giving consent to government. The education of exactly what is and what is not consent to government is an issue Locke does not address. His theory of consent is weakened by the fact that many may not be as aware of their consent to government as he believes.
With regards to revolution, it can be said that Locke views rebellion as a way to reinstate political rights violated by an unjust sovereign. He states that once the government has breached the trust of the citizenry, the people “have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative…provide for their own safety and security”(807). The people’s duty is to subvert the authority that is no longer functioning in a just manner, a manner appropriate to its creation, and to assert their rights as stipulated by the social contract by forming a new government. It is simply a starting over for the society, but no power has really changed hands, except on a very temporary basis. The people take power long enough to build a new legislative and then relinquish power to the new government. Revolution ensures that malfunctioning government does not dissolve the political rights of a society.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau develops his political theory in response to the contention of Locke that his idea of government is the ideal. Rousseau believes in a much higher level of political participation and obligation, but for the most part concurs with Locke regarding the role of consent in establishing government. Rousseau would definitely agree with Locke that men give their mutual consent to money as a store of value in a society. Rousseau feels that the social compact, as it secures the consent of all, will benefit every man equally and protect his property. The general will of the people “can direct the forces of the state” to ensure “the common good” is served(919). As money is the element that allows men to acquire wealth and provide for their families, money would certainly be welcomed by the people, with their consent to its value, as serving the common good. Rousseau would contend that if money existed as a store of value, it could be so only with the full consent of the people. The general will only acts to serve its own needs in a positive way(920). Therefore, money would be accepted as benefiting society, as Locke maintains.
The works of Locke and Rousseau expand the idea of consent as the pathway to government that serves the people at all times and can be recalled and challenged by the populace if it fails to obey the terms of the social contract. Even if Locke’s ideas are only a compilation of ideas swimming around in the philosophical pool in his time, his confidence in their ability to establish a secure, positive political and civil society influenced our founding fathers as they worked to design government. His theory of consent and Rousseau’s expansion on it in his works emphasize how essential it is for both people and government to be held by certain standards so that everyone is satisfied. In reading Locke and Rousseau, a reader is compelled to compare the theories of these philosophers with the political reality today. Though their perception of the ideal government differs, the impact of their work combined can be clearly realiz
Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.”
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “On the Social Contract.”
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