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Locke's contribution to democratic theory and practice

Updated on July 8, 2013

The idea of social contract and democracy

John Locke (1632-1704) was a political philosopher who is credited as the father of liberalism. He immortalized himself by his championing if individual freedom and extension of democracy before the inauguration of the age of democracy. (Mukherjee, et al). He made significant contribution in his writings and particularly in “The two treatises of the government”, that inform the basis of democratic theory and practice long before its emergence. He, like other social contract theorists, described a state of nature as the foundation of the state. It is the characteristics of his state of nature that offer the context within which his views are articulated.

George Orwell says of democracy in his essay “ Politics and the English language” says that “ in the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides… the defenders of any kind of regime will claim that it is a democracy and fear that they might be forced to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” Sartori has argued that it is indeed a misleading term for what it claims to designate. However, he goes on to define it as government by consent. This shall be adopted as a working definition for the purposes of this paper.

It then follows that democracy implies a participatory system of governance. It has such characteristics such as universal participation, political equality, majority rule, voluntary consent to be governed and individual freedom.

Government by Consent

According to Mukherjee and Ramaswamy in their book “ A history of political thought: Plato to Marx), Locke adopted the technique of social contract to explain that legitimate political authority was derived from the consent of its people, and that it could be withdrawn when the freedom of the individual was curtailed or violated. He described the state of nature in which man was in a state of perfect freedom and equality. There was also the law of nature to govern this state of nature. Under the law, everyone as he was ‘…bound to preserve himself…’ ought as much as he could, preserve the rest of mankind. All men would be restrained from invading the rights of others and from doing hurt to one another.

Locke believed that the individual was naturally free and became a political subject out of free choice. Individuals in the state of nature decided to constitute themselves into a civil society in order to protect and preserve freedom and to enlarge it. This state of nature as described by Locke, and its characteristics \such as government by consent, form the basis upon which his contributions to democratic theory and practice shall be evaluated.

Democracy implies that the people are governed by their voluntary consent. The power to govern vests in the people and it is they, by their consent, that constitute government. According to Locke, the individual was naturally free and only became a political subject out of free choice. Without the consent of the people there could not be formed a civil society/ community. From its very definition, democracy is government by consent. Therefore, it is evident that Locke belief in the government by consent forms bedrock for the democratic belief in the same.

All men are equal

Locke also emphasized that all men were equal. There was a perfect state of equality with all the power being reciprocal and no one having more than the other. This is a fundamental principle of present day democracy. As espoused, in the American declaration of Independence, “ we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” the emphasis being the every man, whatever his social standing, should be treated the same in the political system should have one vote and that all votes should be counted equally. Democracy holds this as one of its fundamental beliefs.

From the equality of man stated above, flows the democratic principle of universal participation. That no man shall be excluded from the political process. Everyone in society should have the opportunity to cast his vote that shall carry equal weight as all the others, because it is they, individually and collectively that give consent for the establishment of government to govern in his behalf. He therefore must have the right to choose such government.

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Majority rule

Democratic theory and practice hold as one of its most fundamental principles, majority rule. The consent of the majority of the people is deemed the will of the entire population. Locke says, ‘ and thus everyman, by consenting with the others to make one body politick under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority and to be concluded by it.’ Therefore, through this social contract, individuals consent to submit to majority rule and civil society. In political practice though, present day democracies are taking an even greater interest in the protection of the rights of the minority through affirmative action even though they still uphold the majority rule.

Separation of Powers

Locke, noting that the compulsion to constitute a civil society was to protect and preserve freedom and to preserve it, observed that it lacked an established, settled known law; a known indifferent judge; and an executive to enforce just decisions. He therefore pre-empted Louis Montesqueiu’s works on the doctrine of separation of powers, by insisting that the legislature and the executive had to be separate. The principle of separation of powers as was later expressed by Montesquieu is indeed one of the indicators of democracy and remains and important consideration for any democracy. There can be no functional democracy without the separation of powers. In addition to these, Locke argued for the supremacy of the Legislature amongst the institutions of government. He believed it to be representative of the people. In fact, it is the only one established in the social contract. This still is a fundamental principle of democracy.

Rights of the individual

Locke noted that even after the establishment of the political society, the individual retained a private sphere where he pursued his activities. Also, that man derived from the laws of nature, the natural rights of life, liberty and estate. He therefore emphasised that all individuals had rights and it was the duty of the state to protect those rights. It is significant, that he believed the rights to emanate from the laws of nature and not the state. The state would only protect these rights and by doing so, could restrain all men from invading the rights of others and from doing hurt to one another. Individual rights are a major principle of democracy. Indeed, individual rights are so highly rated in the debate of democracy that a state that does not recognize, uphold and protect is automatically termed undemocratic.

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Sovereignty of the People

Democracy emphasizes the sovereignty of the people. It is the people who retain the supreme authority. The American Declaration of Independence states in part that if a government by “…a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their (the people) right, it is their duty, to throw off such government…” Locke was of the same view. He saw political power as a trust, with the general community specifying its aims and purposes (Mukherjee). Indeed he viewed absolute political power as illegitimate arguing that it was tantamount to the people giving up to another, aright which they did not have in the first place. He also argued that even though community appointed a legislature, is continued to retain supreme power. In his own words, “ the legislature being only a Fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislature, when they find it act contrary to the trust reposed in them.” This informs that democratic belief that every democracy must have regular and periodic elections where the people can exercise their sovereignty.

Locke's contribution to Democratic Theory

Locke’s emphasis on constitutionalism, consent and toleration has been integral components of modern political theory especially in liberalism and democracy. In fact, his works influenced the American liberation so much so that his influence was seen as a self-evident truth. He was often described as America’s philosopher-King (Mukherjee).

From the foregoing therefore, it is clearly evident that the social contract theory advanced by Locke, have indeed had a significant impact on the development of democratic theory and practice.

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    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      John Locke was a very wise man, STANKA. His philosophy is being sorely tested these days. If only we had such wise men today...!

    • STANKA profile image

      Stanley Kamau 8 years ago from Nairobi

      if only we did!

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      Xander Dwayne Estano 5 years ago

      Very precise. I hope this philosophy of Locke be a reminder for all democratic nations.

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      Bavia Majeed from Ghana 3 years ago

      John Locke's philosophy is good. The doubt however is whether we follow him.

    • texshelters profile image

      texshelters 3 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      Too bad few elected official in the U.S. know Locke, especially in Congress.


    • profile image

      yourmom 3 years ago


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      Tyianna 19 months ago

      I don't like the way he did it or said it

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      cc1994 18 months ago

      I think lots of things are not mentioned in this article. for example, Locke's idea of right of property and its primacy. Also, his notions of equality were not the same as today's? He advocated the colonizing of America and was a shareholder of the African slave trade.

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      emilia 13 months ago

      what was John Locke's ideas on Liberal democratic state

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