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John Locke: Bad Rulers May Be Removed

Summary:
One of the longest sections in John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, is section 222, in the final chapter: XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government.” In reading this, I sense his righteous anger at bad rulers. In the title of this post, it was hard to be as emphatic as he is. “Bad Rulers May Be Removed. Period.” might say it better. I consider this sentiment to be something deeply ingrained into the human heart by evolution. Our cousins the chimpanzees feel it too, as you can see by following the link to the video shown above. I am in full agreement with John Locke in what he says in Section 222—not only with the

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John Locke: Bad Rulers May Be Removed

One of the longest sections in John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, is section 222, in the final chapter: XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government.” In reading this, I sense his righteous anger at bad rulers. In the title of this post, it was hard to be as emphatic as he is. “Bad Rulers May Be Removed. Period.” might say it better.

I consider this sentiment to be something deeply ingrained into the human heart by evolution. Our cousins the chimpanzees feel it too, as you can see by following the link to the video shown above. I am in full agreement with John Locke in what he says in Section 222—not only with the substance of what he says, but also with the passion with which he says it:

§. 222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence. Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society. What I have said here, concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative, and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society. He acts also contrary to his trust, when he either employs the force, treasure, and offices of the society, to corrupt the representatives, and gain them to his purposes; or openly pre-engages the electors, and prescribes to their choice, such, whom he has by solicitations, threats, promises, or otherwise, won to his designs; and employs them to bring in such, who have promised beforehand what to vote, and what to enact. Thus to regulate candidates and electors, and new-model the ways of election, what is it but to cut up the government by the roots, and poison the very fountain of public security? for the people having reserved to themselves the choice of their representatives, as the fence to their properties, could do it for no other end, but that they might always be freely chosen, and so chosen, freely act, and advise, as the necessity of the commonwealth, and the public good should upon examination, and mature debate, be judged to require. This, those who give their votes before they hear the debate, and have weighed the reasons on all sides, are not capable of doing. To prepare such an assembly as this, and endeavour to set up the declared abettors of his own will, for the true representatives of the people, and the law-makers of the society, is certainly as great a breach of trust, and as perfect a declaration of a design to subvert the government, as is possible to be met with. To which, if one shall add rewards and punishments visibly employed to the same end, and all the arts of perverted law made use of to take off and destroy all that stand in the way of such a design, and will not comply and consent to betray the liberties of their country, it will be past doubt what is doing. What power they ought to have in the society, who thus employ it contrary to the trust went along with it in its first institution, is easy to determine; and one cannot but see, that he, who has once attempted any such thing as this, cannot any longer be trusted.

I should say that the principle that bad rulers can be removed is, I believe, satisfied relatively well by our periodic elections in the US: our elections have the power to sweep out the bulk of our rulers within a period of six years.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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