John Locke on Trust and Government

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John Locke

Subtitle: Toward an Annual Article V Convention.

To most historians of the 17th Century Stuart era, John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government rationalized the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

At least one historian, Peter Laslett, disagrees. To Laslett, Locke’s texts were instead a call for revolutions yet to come. Not only did Locke’s philosophy call for our 1776 revolution, it reaches out to us today . . . but with a twist. Where Locke gave little attention to the nuts and bolts of how a community goes about restoring free government after its dissolution, our Framers provided the solution in Article V of their Constitution.1

Locke didn’t conceptualize free government as either a contract or compact. If governed and governors are equal and interchangeable, as they must be in a republic, trust in one another is essential.

He reasoned that “trust” was the best term to describe the relationship between the sovereign people and the government of their creation. It is simply in the nature of a personal assurance, a fiduciary trust of governors to keep within their enumerated limits to achieve the ends of any government, which is the good of the governed.2 The people themselves decide if their governmental trustees violate their trust. To remain interchangeable, those who wield this power, fellow citizens all, must not develop an interest distinct from that of the community.3

The community grants powers for attaining certain ends and no more. If the ends are neglected, or power is put to other purposes, government is dissolved and the authority devolves back to the people/community. “Governments,” wrote Locke, “are dissolved . . . when the legislative, or the Prince (executive), either of them act contrary to their Trust.”4

Once trust is broken, that’s it. Who trusts anyone after they broke their word? Is the community to be a battered wife who keeps going back to her husband in the full knowledge that his promises are empty and his abuse will continue?

Locke’s dissolution due to violation of trust doesn’t mean the government folds up shop and everyone goes home. It means their subsequent actions are no longer legitimate or binding on the community. On closer reflection, we see every day what Locke had in mind. How many laws are outside the limits of our Constitution? Every violation of Natural Law or the supreme law of the land harms our respect for statutory law and especially non-legislative regulations that never deserved respect or obedience in the first place.

When trust is substituted in this way for either a contract or compact, Constitutional change is sanctioned. It secures the sovereignty of the people who have the perpetual power to cashier their governors and remodel their government.5

The great danger to free government occurs when the people recognize a breach of trust and do nothing about it. Rather than put our governors on notice of dissolution, that trust is at an end, people are more inclined to be patient and endure accumulated outrages. Locke wrote that if the governors resist reforms, then the people cease to be a community and a State of Nature is at hand, with all of its disadvantages. Should the State of Nature return, then there is no final judge here on earth, and the ultimate appeal can only be to God . . . in revolution. A real mess.6

But we needn’t accept as inevitable the bloody conclusions so common to republics IF we are willing to call out and correct violations on a regular basis through an Annual Article V Convention. Open Deep State criminality is less a disease and more a symptom of accelerating corruption that began long ago. One breach of trust followed another. The Deep State criminals are brazen; they flip off Congress and dare the nation to put them down. This is our sorry condition, in which a government of others not only recognizes no limits and acts contrary to its purposes, it functions under a separate set of unspoken standards that immunize them from the law.7

To Article V COS opponents, to those who believe a regular review of the people’s sovereignty at an Annual Article V Convention can only cause turmoil, John Locke wrote that when magistrates openly violate the trust put in them, the cynic may as well say that honest men may not oppose robbers because it may occasion bloodshed. If any mischief ensues, it is not the fault of he who defends his own right, but he who assaults his neighbors. If the innocent man must quietly quit all he has for the sake of peace, what kind of peace can there be which consists only in violence and rapine maintained for the benefit of the robbers and oppressors?8

1. Locke, J., & Laslett, P. (2010). Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: University Press. 113.
2. Ibid., 114, 115.
3. Ibid., 108, 109.
4. Ibid., 109, 115.
5. Ibid., 115.
6. Ibid., 109.
7. Ibid., 411.
8. Ibid., 417.

1 thought on “John Locke on Trust and Government

  1. Concord Green

    I have been fussing over the difficulty of initiating Article V Conventions of States. The objective must be exclusively constraining government rather than any form of political action. Annual is likely too frequent. The current “on-demand” and as restrained is consistent, but has not yet been invoked in reality. I would suggest an eleven (11) year cycle with limitations on unratified proposed amendments to become null and void before the next Convention of States. The choice of 11 years comes from a) being a prime number, b) frequent enough to be recognized as a regular review of the Constitution itself, and c) seldom enough not to be treated as creating law. – Concord Green (Linked In)

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