John Locke on “perfect freedom” in the state of nature (1689)

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) wrote one of the most powerful defences of individual liberty in his Second Treatise of Government. According to Locke, in the state of nature (i.e. before the appearance of political institutions) human beings enjoyed what he called “perfect freedom” to enjoy their persons and properties “as they think fit”:

TO understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

These several passages in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government contain in summary form the essence of the classical liberal notion of individual liberty and private property. He states in unequivocal language that human beings have “perfect freedom” to act and use their property “as they think fit”; that this right to freedom is equal for all “without subordination or subjection”; and that “all men” should be restrained from violating the rights of others and that every person has the right to defend their life and property from such invasion. By the same token, Locke also introduces a couple of ideas which are troubling to modern classical liberals, such as the idea that the law of equal liberty among men might be suspended by “the lord and master of them all” (presumably God) who has the right to “set one above another” and make him the sovereign power; that the right of self ownership of each person is limited by the fact that “one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker” owns all mankind thus preventing one from “quit(ting) his station wilfully.”