Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 11 : Of the Extent of the Legislative Power | Summary



In a civil society, the legislature is the supreme power. This is because laws are the instruments for achieving the society's purpose: the safety and security of its citizens.

Locke discusses four things that the legislature in a civil society may not do. First, it may not exercise arbitrary power over the lives and fortunes of the people. Second, it may not confer on itself the power to rule by sudden and arbitrary decrees. Third, it may not take away the property of any citizen without consent. And fourth, it may not transfer its own legislative power to any other person or body.

Locke supplements these prohibitions with four additional exhortations. The legislative power in a civil society or commonwealth should govern by established, published, and consistent laws that do not vary. The law should be the same for rich and poor, for the court favorite and the humble ploughman. Second, the design of the laws should be directed toward only one end: the good of the people. Third, the legislative power should not raise taxes on the property of the people without the people's consent. Finally, the legislature must not—and cannot—transfer its power to any other hands. It holds its power only because the people have delegated authority.


Locke's central thesis in this chapter is that the legislature is the supreme authority in a commonwealth. This status of the legislature follows logically from the purpose of a civil society. It is to insure, through the instrument of law, the safety and security of citizens and their property.

Locke's four prohibitions all cohere. They are points to make certain that the legislature of a commonwealth does not assume powers that resemble or duplicate those of an absolute monarch. Throughout his exegesis, Locke consistently maintains that the consent of the people is vital for government. The people, in the last analysis, are the source and repository of sovereignty.

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