The relevance of John Locke’s “The Second Treatise of Government” in the modern Canada

John Locke, often referred to as “the Father of Liberalism,” is considered by many to be one of, if not the most, influential thinkers of the Enlightenment period. Throughout his life, he would contribute to many influential ideas, such as the concepts of the social contract, consciousness, and – perhaps most importantly – the Tabula Rasa1. Tabula Rasa, meaning “blank slate,” is the idea that human lives are not determined for them at birth, but rather through individual actions. Many of these ideas are conveyed through Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government.

Regarding the significance of this text, it is considered to have laid down much of the framework for Classical Liberalism2, a political stance that emphasizes civil liberties, the rule of law, and economic freedom. Classical Liberalism is an ideology that still exists today, as many modern states exemplify its ideas, particularly the United States of America.

So what makes The Second Treatise of Government significant today, centuries after its publication? In order to understand that, we must first understand the major ideas of The Second Treatise of Government. In his text, Locke first discusses the state of mankind before organized society, which he describes as one of freedom – men could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and were free to do whatever they saw fit with their possessions – so long as it was within the laws of nature.

Locke makes the argument that nigh-unlimited freedom leads to the necessary duty humans have to respect the rights of other humans -people can act however they like, as long as it does not hinder the same ability for others. This is practically identical to the nature of rights and freedoms in modern day Canada, specifically the reasonable limits clause3. The reasonable limits clause, or limitations clause, essentially allows the government to limit the Charter rights and freedoms of any individual.

In order for the government to enact the clause, they must first show that, on the balance of probabilities, that there is a justifiable reason and proportional response present. Typically, this means that the exercising of one freedom harms someone else’s ability to do the same. Most commonly, the limiting of rights is used regarding the right to free speech in order to prevent hate speech, which infringes on rights such as the right to equality. An example of this is R v Keegstra, in which free speech was limited, as

it went against freedom of equality4.

Locke also talks about the nature of government – he refers to it as a social contract that is made when people consent to their government – people who do not consent do not have to go along with the new government. This idea of consenting to government is also reflected by electoral systems and means to remove leaders from office, which exist in Canada and many other developed countries. Those who agree to the social contract give up freedoms in order for an executive and legislative body to be formed.

Locke also expresses distaste for monarchies – since monarchies have absolute power, discontented individuals have no way to go against their government, unlike a democratic system. This, like with the reasonable limits clause, has parallels in modern Canadian government. First, regarding the giving up of freedoms – as modern-day states still follow the outline of the social contract, this is absolutely still present5. We, as citizens of Canada, receive many benefits – for example, healthcare, equality, security, and the ability to select our leaders. And yet we also sacrifice individual freedoms for these rights – but note that individual freedoms here don’t refer to legally granted freedoms, but rather freedoms in the most literal sense. For example, we don’t have full financial freedom – mandatory taxes are needed to maintain our healthcare system.

As previously mentioned, we also don’t have full freedom of speech – after all, it must be limited to preserve the freedom of equality. In order to ensure our security, we give up the freedom of absolute privacy, which is violated by things like security cameras, mandatory searches at airports, and even something as simple as the monitoring of online activity. Even the charter right to move freely within Canada can be restricted, in the case of prisoners – after all, you cannot generally move freely while incarcerated. Ultimately, the restriction of these freedoms and rights ensures a better society for us to live in, and absolutely reflects Locke’s ideas.

So, to answer the question, “Is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government still relevant today?” Perhaps a more difficult question would be, “how is it not?” As previously shown, a significant amount of modern Canada’s policies and actions reflect John Locke’s beliefs and writing, showing the undeniable modern significance of the Second Treatise of Government.