Does John Locke offer enduring principles of political philosophy that harmonize with the conservative tradition? One of the puzzling trends in contemporary American conservative thought is the insistence that John Locke and conservatism as outlined by Russell Kirk have little to do with one another. Conservative critics have accused Locke of promoting materialistic individualism, unprincipled utilitarianism, and a political society driven by contractual and consensual relationships unhinged from the permanent bonds of community and culture.

At a moment when conservatism is reexamining its first principles, it’s time to readdress this blithe dismissal of Locke. Without a doubt, Locke’s social philosophy—as exemplified by his emphasis on the importance of contracts and consent regarding social institutions such as marriage—drifts toward utilitarian inclinations. I happen to disagree with Locke on the purpose and significance of these institutions. Yet fundamental themes in Lockean political

Two Treatises of Government offer profound reflections into the relationship between man and government that furnish the political foundation for Kirkian conservatism.

The first conservative lesson we can extract from Locke’s moral philosophy is the importance of order as revealed by natural law. Locke’s popularity in Britain and America derived largely from his commentary on natural rights, but an overlooked element of his commentary in the Second Treatise is the function natural law plays in ordering human action. Locke’s state of nature preserves individual freedom, but it is not a “state of license,” as he writes. [i]The proper exercise of individuals’ perfect freedom stays “within the bounds by the law of nature”[ii] to “order their actions,”[iii] and which “obliges every one.”[iv] “[T]he law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as other,” he contends.[v]Individuals possess rights, but those rights come with responsibilities and duties. And even though conservatives rightly criticize Locke for failing to identify original sin in his conception of the state of nature, Locke is acutely aware of the human temptation to sin through licentious action severed from moral obligation. This awareness is evident by virtue of the fact that he asserts the primacy of natural law and moral limits in the Second Treatise’s very first paragraph describing the state of nature.

No, Locke’s moral philosophy is not reminiscent of Plato’s transcendent moral order. No, the purpose of identifying Locke’s acknowledgment of natural law is not to transmogrify him into an English Thomas Aquinas. And no, the command of natural law is not an end in and of itself in traditional conservatism. The purpose of considering Locke’s moral philosophy, rather, is to demonstrate his understanding of the moral futility of unrestrained freedom; to show his principled desire for ordered liberty; and to challenge the claim from some conservatives that Locke promoted hedonistic individualism liberated from ethical constraints. One more interrelated point on this conservative critique: if conservative critics charge that Locke’s appeals to natural law and Richard Hooker in the Second Treatise were polemical instruments intended merely to attract the ears of contemporary religious readers—rather than as genuine insights into morality—then one could claim with just as much textual evidence in Reflections on the Revolution of France that Edmund Burke’s overtures to natural law were included simply to placate potential criticism that his Reflections dipped into a quicksand of moral relativism.

Order is inextricably linked with limits, and limits signify the core of conservatism. Not only do limits on individual action occupy a role in Locke’s moral philosophy, but limits on institutional action exert even a larger role in preserving ordered liberty in Locke’s political philosophy. Indeed, students of Western political thought are familiar with his lucid descriptions of political institutions—such as the rule of law, popular sovereignty, and separation of powers—that emerge as the clearest political expressions of limited and self-restrained government. And so, in reading Locke’s Second Treatise, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that limits are the essence of the Lockean conception of government. Government’s legitimacy is limited by the consent of the governed. Promiscuous majoritarianism is limited by the rule of law. Interpretation of the law is limited by the judgment of impartial judges (separate from the legislators who crafted the law). Seizures of property are limited by both the legislative and judicial check against the executive’s possible encroachment of power, and by the principle that a king or legislature does not have the moral or constitutional right to take someone’s property without his consent. Locke writes,

For all the power the government has, being only for the good of the society, as it ought not to be arbitrary and at pleasure, so it ought to be exercised by established and promulgated laws, that both the people may know their duty, and be safe and secure within the limits of the law, and the rulers too kept within their due bounds.[vi]

Cognizant of the propensity for tyrannical government due to man’s natural thirst for power, Locke asserts that the rule of law is the anchor that tempers this despotic impulse woven into man’s immutable nature. Conservatism is also keenly sensitive to the immutability of human nature, and to the permanence of man’s desire to accumulate power. As evidenced by his warm embrace of institutional limits and the rule of law, Locke is deeply conscious of this reality as well. The immutability of human nature, moreover, is intimately connected with human equality in the eyes of God. The political manifestation of human equality in the eyes of God is human equality in the eyes of the law. Law must have “one rule for rich and poor, for the favourite at court, and the country man at plough,” as Locke states.[vii] These laws must conform to the “law of nature, i.e. to the will of God.”[viii] The enduring principles of conservatism and Lockean political philosophy are both rooted in equality under God and equality under the law.

In sum, his conception of limits within government encompass both these institutional checks and internal checks of lawmakers’ own will to resist the temptation to exercise power repugnant to the common good. “[Members of the legislative branch’s] power in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the publick good of the society,” he writes.[ix] Locke’s conception of the “public good” may be different from Plato’s or Kirk’s conception (I believe it is), but the important point here is that limits and boundaries penetrate to the core of Lockean institutionalism. More so, such self-imposed restraint underscores the importance of place and purpose in the conservative tradition. Just as self-restrained culture breathes life into conservatism—i.e. when groups of individuals with different interests pursue different goals without invading other groups’ autonomy to exercise their same right to associate freely—Lockean government spotlights the eminence of the separation of powers and the rule of law in order to provide the political equivalent of cultural autonomy.

Place and purpose in the context of government mean that each government branch has its own specific function to fulfill. The legislative branch—not the judiciary or executive—makes rules on behalf of the people because it represents the people. Judges—not legislators or executives—rule on laws indifferently and impartially because their purpose is to interpret law. Executives—not legislators or judges—exercise prerogative on behalf of the public weal when municipal law gives no direction to certain political exigencies. Legislatures exercising the rightful authority of the executive branch, or executives exercising the rightful authority of judges, would cripple the legitimacy and power of those other institutions. That “the legislative can have no power to transfer their authority of making laws, and place it in other hands”[x] reflects the “bounds which the trust that is put in them by the society, and the law of God and nature.”[xi]  Institutional place and purpose vibrate as the pulse of successfully functioning governments in Locke’s judgment. Overreaching institutions undermine other functions of government. Similarly, overreaching groups and individuals in civil society undermine the autonomy of other groups and individuals.

Related to place and purpose in the conservative tradition is treasured continuity of the best of what the past has to offer and the future. Edmund Burke’s notion of continuity lies in his famous commentary on the social contract that represents a partnership between the dead, living, and future generations. Locke’s political interpretation of continuity inheres in his aforementioned conception of the rule of law. Standing rules, promulgated in advance and known to members of the community, promote community stability by limiting the claws of arbitrary power from snatching people’s lives, liberty, and property. A glaring weakness of Locke’s thought is that he does not emphasize the intimate trans-generational partnership as outlined by Burke. But his explanation of the importance of the rule of law in furnishing stability in political communities reveals an indispensable element of this Burkean partnership: rules established through deliberation clarify citizens’ duties and protect their property and possessions from “extemporary dictates and undetermined resolutions,”[xii] thereby promoting predictability, continuity, and consistency. They also occur incrementally and prudentially, through institutional checks in the legislative branch, rather than immediately and thunderously through arbitrary decrees from unaccountable monarchs or unelected judges.

But it is enough to say that Locke’s appeals to ordered liberty, boundaries, limits, place, purpose, and continuity in a political context harmonize with a conservative tradition, a tradition which considers politics as merely one component of a vigorous conservative culture? Conservatives know that politics flows from culture, not the other way around. Political solutions, they contend rightly, should be the last resort of a glowing conservative community that places more importance on voluntary associations and apolitical, Tocquevillian mediating institutions to solve social issues and elevate citizens’ character. The texture of conservatism is culture and community, not politics and the rule of law.

Locke’s political thought is reconcilable with this approach. In fact, perhaps the most resonant chord of Locke’s political philosophy that synthesizes with conservatism is that his conception of limited government empowers autonomous individuals and self-governing localities to come together in groups for purposes larger than themselves.

Simply put, Lockean limited government invigorates Tocquevillian groups and voluntary associations to cultivate a vibrant civic culture. The more circumscribed a central government’s powers are, the more power is reserved for community members to address social problems, cultivate a religious citizenry, and promote the common good. Tocqueville himself recognized this phenomenon in Democracy in America. While he “learned with surprise that [American priests] did not fill any public post,”[xiii] Tocqueville observed that religious institutions endured precisely because they had to rely wholly on the “sentiments, instincts, and passions”[xiv] of individuals and groups to maintain their strength, since the institutions were not propped up artificially by the state. It is no surprise in a contemporary context that the precipitous drop in Americans’ participation in traditional voluntary associations has occurred as the federal government has expanded its tentacles into the deepest crevices of what were once local domains of community action.

On this note, it is also worth commenting on the perception from some conservatives that the founding of the United States was merely a logical continuation of British political and social cultural practices. One sharp difference between America and Britain, as Tocqueville noted in Democracy, was that voluntary associations flourished in America precisely because the new nation broke from particular features of British political and social culture: namely, the English maintenance of aristocratic hierarchies. “[T]he English execute very great things in isolation. . .” Tocqueville wrote, because “[i]n aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they are kept very much together.”[xv] Since the democratic peoples in the United States were “independent and weak[xvi]” and did not rely on a state-supported aristocracy to champion causes in America, the only way to draw strength to accomplish goals and address community problems was to unite into groups.

The only means for Americans to do so was through the preservation of their individual freedom, community autonomy, and limited centralized government. In sum, while Locke failed to adequately describe the rich benefits intermediary institutions cultivated between government and the individual, his political architecture—distinguished by the rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of natural rights anchored in the morality of natural law and defined by limits, place, purpose, and order—furnished the essential preconditions for the flourishing of community and culture in the conservative tradition.

One might object: didn’t Locke spit in the face of particular contemporary conventions by advocating for individuals to exercise their natural right to liberty and property for personal gain, thereby departing from previous European conceptions of property as reflecting sources of stewardship and generational inheritance? In fact, yes, his thought does depart in significant ways from these previous insights into property. But as Burke and Kirk himself observed, and as many traditional conservatives realize themselves, conservatism is not just a blind embrace of the past; it is rather a regeneration of the best of what our past cultural heritage has to offer and a modification of its worst features. To put it bluntly: the worst of pre-Enlightenment and pre-Industrial Revolution societies and economies included the absence of social mobility for the poor; entrenched aristocratic traditions that devalued merit and character in favor of political connections and nepotism; and substandard living standards for everyone but the rich.

Locke’s praise of property, and his attendant elevation of manual labor into a dignified realm of human activity, did indeed symbolize distinct changes from past conceptions of political economy. And for the better. What some conservatives pejoratively label “acquisitive individualism” in reference to Locke’s thought served as the intellectual justification for the dramatic expansion of opportunity for the poor and middle classes in Britain and America to earn a living and pursue their happiness (opportunities which, as Tocqueville explained, encompassed forming groups with other individuals for a common cause).

But what about the additional conservative charge that Locke’s Second Treatise advances not only individualism but ahistoricism? Kirk himself disagreed with this interpretation. “Although Locke’s treatises purported to be abstract discourses on the origin and character of society,” Kirk writes in The Roots of American Order, “in truth they amounted to an explanation of the English political experience over many centuries.”  [xvii]

Without a doubt, Locke’s thought suffers from glaring weaknesses. His utilitarian flirtations regarding the nature of the family, marriage, and education disregard these institutions’ transcendent spiritual and moral purposes. Burke and Tocqueville are demonstrably stronger in drawing out the implications of this area of social conservatism. In addition, claims that the American Founding and its lasting political culture have adhered primarily to a Lockean understanding of civil society—as articulated most famously by Louis Hartz in his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America[xviii]—are incomplete. Not only does the influence of a single individual tend to be exaggerated in the tide of history, but in relation to the Founding, the Bible—in particular, the Book of Deuteronomy—arguably played a more powerfully religious and political role in shaping the sentiments of revolution and liberty in the hearts of American Patriots.[xix]

And yet, the irony persists: If one accepts the argument that Locke rejects the conservative positions on community and custom and instead embraces a utilitarianism approach to social conventions, Locke’s conception of limited government and the rule of law still provides the necessary political framework for those conservative positions to be borne out. These political prerequisites are not sufficient for the highest aspirations of traditional conservatism, but they certainly are necessary.

Why? Because even if political remedies should not serve as the final answers to vexing social problems and to questions about the relationship between man and God, politics does symbolize an indispensable mirror reflecting the character of communities. Plato and Aristotle were right: in a true community, politics cannot be severed from culture and society. A community whose government features limited powers, checks and balances, the rule of law, and institutional self-restraint will generally be part of a culture and society whose members recognize the fallibility of man; practice prudence and self-restraint; and vivify their relationship with God through mediating institutions. It is nearly impossible to conceive of a political community in which conservatism shines as radiantly under any form of government other than Locke’s conception of limited government.

Indeed, dismissing Locke’s relevance to conservatism commits a grave disservice not only to the fundamental political underpinnings of traditional conservatism. It also commits a disservice to students who yearn to learn more about the rich intellectual heritage of conservative order in the American Republic.

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i. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 270.
ii. Ibid., 269.
iii. Ibid.
iv. Ibid., 271
v. Ibid., 358.
vi. Ibid., 360.
vii. Ibid., 363.
viii. Ibid., 358.
ix. Ibid., 357.
x. Ibid., 363.
xi. Ibid.
xii. Ibid., 360.
xiii. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 283.
xiv. Ibid., 285.
xv. Tocqueville, 490.
xvi. Tocqueville, 490.
xvii. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 284.
xviii. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers), 1955.
xix. See Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review 78:1984.

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