Locke: “where there is no law, there is no freedom”

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in October 2017

400 words / 2 min.
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In 1689, John Locke wrote that “the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.”

Please note that this post is from 2017. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Eighteenth-century political theorists John Locke is often associated with “libertarian” ideals that suggest that almost any exercise of government power is a problem and that almost all government functions (except those dedicated to protecting property and enforcing contracts) ought to be put in private hands.

But Locke’s view was much more nuanced than those of many (but not all) current libertarians. He certainly emphasized the key importance of property, but he situated property as one of three key goals of government: life, liberty, and property. (Note that, interestingly, Thomas Jefferson, in many ways Locke’s intellectual descendant, transformed this into “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence.)

Most importantly, he emphasized the critical importance of law—overseen, implemented, and managed by government—in achieving actual freedom and liberty:

So that, however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law: but freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do what he lists: (for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him?) but a liberty to dispose and order as he lists, his persons, actions, possessions, and his whole property, which the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own. — John Locke, Two treatises of government, p. 234 (1689).

Such an emphasis on the importance of the rule of law in maintaining freedom and liberty is, I think, particularly important in a time when traditional norms are under strain, as they are today in the United States in 2017.