Back to the future: a symposium on the continuing influence of philosophical thought on twenty-first century organizations: part II

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Editors: Peter L. Cruise and Cynthia E. Lynch

Copyright © 2003 by PrAcademics Press



Mark F. Griffith*

ABSTRACT. This article is about John Locke who was a British philosopher that profoundly influenced the founders of the United States, the principles upon which the United States was established, and the American system of administration. Many influential leaders in America today acknowledge that the government is Lockeian, which is only the beginning of the continuing importance of Locke for the 21st century. While Locke pre-dated the formal study of organizational theory and behavior many of his ideas directly influence those fields--particularly his ideas on education and economy.


John Locke (1632-1704), a British philosopher, profoundly influenced the founders of the United States, the principles upon which the United States was established, and the American system of administration. Many influential leaders in America today acknowledge that the government is Lockeian, which is only the beginning of the continuing importance of Locke for the 21st century. While Locke pre-dated the formal study of organizational theory and behavior, many of his ideas directly influence those fields--particularly his ideas on education and economy. He is most noted for his concept of separation of powers and for his ideas about property as the basis for prosperity.

Locke was a key figure in modern political philosophy because he moderated the more radical teachings of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo -----------------------

* Mark F. Griffith, Ph.D., is Professor of Political Science, Department of History and Social Sciences, University of West Alabama. His research interest is in British political thought, and he has published articles on Winston Churchill and John Locke.

Copyright © 2003 by PrAcademics Press

Machiavelli to make their ideas acceptable to democratic government. His theories generally fall between those of Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau--with all three philosophers formulating theories of politics from the concept of ‘a state of nature.’ Locke owed much to his predecessors: Niccolo Machiavelli, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes for his theories.

In addition, Locke reacts most often to Richard Hooker and Sir Robert Filmer. He often used their writings to shield his own more controversial ideas from the casual reader. For organizational theory and behavior, Locke wrote about such diverse topics as education, money, democracy, and liberalism.

Locke wanted to appear less radical than he was. If read superficially, his writings appear to contain many contradictory references; however, if read carefully, these contradictions can be reconciled. Locke used great caution and complex arguments, because his view of the philosophic origins of politics differed radically from the politics and culture of his times. His politics emerged from what he and others called a state of nature. Of particular importance for behaviorists, his ideas involved the modern premises about religion, virtue, morality, and the idea of what is good. All these beliefs challenged the established order. He was careful to write about these topics in couched language. He realized that his ideas could get him killed because of the appearance of atheism. In fact his beliefs eventually did lead to a period when Locke was exiled from England.

John Locke affected the principles upon which the government of the United States was founded. This article seeks to show how the various aspects of Locke’s theories about human understanding, religion, economics, and politics still influence the behavior, structure, environment, and operation of public institutions.


John Locke became an Oxford Don (college professor) in 1656. In 1666, because of his college medical teaching, he became the personal physician to Anthony Ashley Cooper who later became the first Earl of Shaftesbury and who was a prominent Whig politician. Locke’s relationship with the earl made Locke a force in the politics of his time. Through Cooper, he obtained numerous official positions and was

introduced to the political, medical, and social circles of London (Cranston, 1966). In 1683 Shaftesbury died. Locke, believing himself to be in danger, fled to Holland where he became embroiled in the most important controversy of his time, the English Glorious Revolution of 1688 (Laslett’s introduction in Locke, 1990, pp. 25-66). In 1685 James II ascended to the throne with the support of a Tory majority in Parliament. The opposition Whig party, which was overwhelmingly Protestant, feared James because of his Catholicism. In 1688 after James’s death, the throne would pass apparently to his Catholic son, not to one of his Protestant daughters. These circumstances set the stage for the English Revolution. The Whigs--using the political system to interrupt the divine line of kingly succession--helped give the throne to James’s daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. In return for the loyalty of the Whigs (including Locke), William and Mary accepted a bill of rights that gave Parliament sovereign powers including power over taxes and the military. This decision began the modern basis for executive and legislative power, resulting in the modern parliamentary system.

Locke’s Second Treatise in 1689 was regarded as a defense of The Glorious Revolution of 1688. The change was fundamental as it weakened the monarchy and increased the power of parliament. Not surprisingly the treatise was published anonymously (Locke, 1990, pp. 25-66). Locke’s major works include a wide range of influential writings. Some of his important works include A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Two Treatises of Government (1690), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money (1692), and Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693).

Human Understanding as the Precondition to Politics and Public Organizations

Locke is the founder of British empiricism. In his epistemology all knowledge must be based on experience. To understand Locke’s writings on organizational theory and behavior, one must begin with his ideas about empiricism. They provide the key to interpreting all of his writings. Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was an attack on the belief that human beings began life with some preconceived ideas about first principles (Locke, 1974, pp. 63-83).

Locke believed that human beings begin life with minds that are a blank slate.

For Locke the origin of ideas are experience, sensation, and reflection; therefore, morality has a rational basis. When we consider organizational theory, this has profound implications since all ideas people develop come from their individual learning, experiences, and growth. This concept separates Locke’s ideas from Christian and natural law traditions, which held that some kind of underlying basis for human understanding existed--such as first principles, God, or natural order--beyond human history and experience (Locke, 1974, pp. 89-90).

Locke’s emphasis on experience underlies his educational theory as well. Locke’s most complete presentation on education is contained in his book entitled Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which was the first book-length work on education by a philosopher (Pangle, 1990, p. 56). Locke’s thoughts on education were based on his own view that young men should be taught to be gentlemen. For Locke, women were relegated to the private world of the home, and he included no public role for women. Locke, in The Epistle Dedicatory to Some Thoughts Concerning Education wrote:

The well Educating of their Children is so much the Duty and Concern of Parents, and the Welfare and Prosperity of the Nation so much depends on it, that I would have every one lay it seriously to Heart; and after having well examined and distinguished what Fancy, Custom or Reason advises in the Case, set his helping hand to promote every where that Way of training up Youth, with regard to their several Conditions, which is the easiest, shortest, and likeliest to produce virtuous, useful and able Men in their distinct Callings: Though that most to be taken Care of, is the Gentleman’s Calling. For if those of that Rank are by their Education once set right they will quickly bring all the rest into Order (Locke, 1989, p. 80).

Locke’s standards involved a classical education combined with tolerant Christian principles -- a moral education, emphasizing social skills and self-control that students learn by imitating experienced teachers.

His educational theory is associated with his view of ethics. They include two contradictory ideas: a form of hedonism and the belief that ethics can be demonstrated in human actions. Locke’s hedonism relates to his belief that most human actions are linked either to pleasure or pain. So all human beings react to one or the other. Yet pain is clearly the more important motivating factor and the one factor that for both Hobbes and Locke leads to the need for government. According to Locke, ethics is learned by example, specifically, from the examples of teachers who themselves have had extensive life experience. Some examples can be drawn from the Bible or other sources of conduct, but these sources are less important than actual experience (Locke, 1974, pp. 442-443).

The most often overlooked point of Locke’s writings is his belief that something akin to an educational precondition to good government exists, in addition to what we would today call political socialization. For Locke an educated elite was necessary to promote government by consent (Pangle, 1990, p. 56). Locke most obviously differs from other writers by separating his educational theory, that seems conventional, from his political theory, that is actually quite radical.


Locke’s most political book, Two Treatises of Government, presents his case for what we would call modern liberal democracy. In the preface to the book, he claims to tell the complete story of politics. Yet, he realized that during his lifetime his teaching would be controversial, even punishable by death; therefore, he did not reveal his authorship until he was near death, although many people knew he was the author.

In any comparison between the two treatises, the First Treatise is clearly less dramatic and contains fewer obvious insights. For Locke the First Treatise provides the precondition, independent thinking, that is necessary for his teaching in the Second Treatise. The First Treatise illustrates the problem of merely accepting paternal power or religious authority as the basis of knowledge (Mansfield, Jr., 1989, p. 195). Furthermore, the First Treatise establishes the distinction between paternal power and political power. It advocates independent political thought, rather than following simple paternal or religious traditions in government.

The Second Treatise is the center of Locke’s teaching about government and begins with a discussion of political power. For him it is coercive and tied to law and the preservation of private property. Topics such as the coercive nature of popular government do not seem radical to us today but were very radical ideas for his generation. Locke believed that to understand political power one must comprehend that politics emerges from natural law and the state of nature.

Locke next must reinvent natural law away from its historic base of Christian or Greek natural philosophy to a basis of human reason. Locke made this change because his theory of human understanding involved the denial of anything outside of human reason. In two ways, Locke radically reoriented the basis of natural law to human beings themselves. First, by making it natural for individuals to indulge in their primary desire to comfortably preserve themselves. And second, by making it natural for individuals to care about others.

Locke’s natural law dictates that individuals take care of others. This is a situation that can only be enforced by government; so Locke turns to the creation of government. By emphasizing that natural law applies to all human beings, Locke deviated from the belief in the kinds of governments created in antiquity—which were more concerned with the few, such as the king and nobles, than with everyone—and moved toward the modern nation state idea that governments must consider all people.

The State of Nature

To understand Locke’s writings in the Second Treatise, we must understand his concept of the state of nature. The state of nature involves a philosophical thought experiment that reveals how human beings made the move from the prepolitical state of nature to a system of politics. The state of nature must be viewed in light of Locke’s theory on human understanding because this philosophical experiment revealed human rational thought as the real basis for understanding politics.

Locke followed Hobbes, who was one of the first to use the state of nature to investigate the origin of politics. For Hobbes, the state of nature was a violent place where people were naturally barbarous and warlike. Therefore government was essential for preserving their lives and establishing order. Locke accepted Hobbes’s view that the right to life was the first right government must preserve. Yet, Locke masked this similarity because the idea that human beings were naturally warlike was an unacceptable and even immoral thought to people of that day. He changed the common understanding of the state of nature by making it more complicated—more benign and moral—because only a more benign and moral state of nature was acceptable as the origin of government. Similarly, both Hobbes and Locke viewed the state of nature as a state that knew no common superior, where there was no one to enforce laws. Furthermore, for Hobbes and Locke no objective good or evil existed in nature (Locke, 1990, pp. 67-92).

For Locke, human beings in the state of nature are equal and have rights--the right to all things, the right to do as they want. Therefore, the state of nature is a state of war, because a constant threat of force exists; but through government the threat of force can be regulated (Locke, 1990, pp. 67-92). Locke’s view of property rights assumed that due to self-preservation, people need property. In order to claim and protect property, people created and need government. Locke’s view of property and rights exceeded Hobbes’s, but both Locke and Hobbes contend that government is necessary for self-preservation. For administrative theory, Locke’s concept that government is essential for protecting people, for protecting the first right--the right to life--is a reminder that police power is essential. Locke’s thoughts greatly influenced the new American regime.

For Locke, each individual in the state of nature has executive power. Each person is expected to carry out a fair standard of law and punishment; therefore Locke expected people to act far more responsibly and morally than Hobbes believed they would (Locke, 1990, pp. 347, 364-374). Locke’s discussion of executive power in government is somewhat dependent on our accepting that individuals have the power to punish crimes in the state of nature, physical punishment in a Machiavellian sense. People who harmed others would incur all the fury of the wrath that a person who exhibited their animal-like behavior could muster, including capital punishment if the crime was extreme (Locke, 1990, pp. 347, 364-374).

For Locke peace can only be achieved through government. Government creates peace and therefore is the only vehicle to true liberty, because freedom occurs only in a state of peace. Locke believed that international politics operated in an environment without rules, in a state of war, and is an example of the state of nature. He thought that domestic politics, through government, could operate in a state of peace. His view makes a clear distinction between domestic politics and international politics (Locke, 1990, p. 276).

According to Locke, the rights government must protect include the right to “Life, Liberty and Estate [property]” (Locke, 1990, p. 323). The right to life emerges from the necessity of self-protection, first in the state of nature and later under government. The right to liberty is related to the idea that governments are created and exist only by common agreement. Locke’s emphasis on property is his unique contribution to the history of political theory. These concepts profoundly influenced Thomas Jefferson’s conception that government’s purpose was to protect “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The emphasis on the pursuit of happiness is derived from Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke, 1974, pp. 173-174). In like manner; Jefferson’s idea that government is based on the consent of the governed comes from Locke. Locke was also popular with James Madison and other influential members of the founding generation. The founders frequently referred to Locke’s ideas during the constitutional convention of 1789 (McDonald, 1985, p. 7). Everything that Locke wrote, from his religious writings to his political writings, was part of the American landscape at the creation of America.

More generally, Locke is one of the founders of eighteenth-century liberalism; a form of liberalism concerned with rights and distrustful of government because government was powerful, and such power endangered individual rights. Eighteenth-century liberalism stands in counter-distinction to the liberalism of today that looks toward a powerful government to protect individual and group rights.

Locke’s emphasis on rights gives public administration its reason for existence. John Rohr (1986), discussing the administrative state writes, “By protecting individual rights on a mass scale--and despite the paradox, that’s what the administrative state does--the administrative state would seem to be a faithful servant of the original covenant by which we do the bidding of Hobbes and Locke and enter civil society to secure the protection of our individual rights” (p. 161).

Locke’s Moderate View of Revolution

Locke’s teaching about rights provides the justification for revolution when the government fails to protect rights. This view was his most threatening and controversial idea to the leaders of his time. Locke’s argument has been viewed as a justification for the Revolution of 1688, but it is much more than that. Interestingly, Locke’s view of revolution is more conservative than the other modern revolutions, which shocked the world with their violence, because it includes equality, rights, and private property (Locke, 1990, pp. 414-417). Locke’s teaching is the basis for the American Revolution, the most successful revolution in history. The difference between America and other countries is that Hobbes and Locke influenced Americans, while the French Philosophis, including Rousseau, influenced Europeans. The conservative property-rights nature of Locke’s teaching may have led the Americans to a successful revolution, without the horrible mob violence of the French Revolution.

For organizational theory and behavior, Locke’s theory of revolution is challenging. No administrative state can encourage revolution, so the state must provide the services that prevent revolution. More problematic, the bureaucracy must provide the means for change when the system moves away from the protection of rights, which is the basis for society. This is a serious challenge for public administration because the bureaucracy must then be proactive not reactive. A proactive bureaucracy must protect the people and realign the system according to the original principles. Then it must convince the rest of the political system, usually through the legislature, of the correctness and need for the realignment. A proactive bureaucracy is unusual, but Locke’s theories demand such action under some conditions.

With Locke, America and other governments must confront one of the basic problems that his teaching implies: How do we balance political power and individual freedom in governments that are created by consent? This question arises because we lose some rights when we enter society, and yet society is suppose to protect other rights.

Locke’s ideas on balancing power and freedom begin with his understanding of what we call modern executive power. A modern executive is a common superior, in contrast to each individual’s having executive power, that acts to provide the stability necessary for economic success. Although the executive should not have absolute power, he or she must have prerogative power: In a crisis the executive might need to assume the powers of a dictator. For Locke the executive’s powers must be particularly strong internationally, to deal with war and diplomacy, and limited nationally, so that the executive does not threaten the constitutional form of government. The constitutional structure limits the power of the executive, but at times, particularly during war, the executive must dominate (Locke, 1990, 374-380).

Locke’s conception of the executive problem highlights the dilemma of executive power, which is the kind of problem the United States is experiencing in modern times. How can our government be effective with weakened executive powers? Locke seems to indicate that a president must have the power to deal with a civil war the way Abraham Lincoln dealt with the American Civil War. The American system provides the president with several provisions for extraordinary powers in times of crisis, including the oath of office, the take-care clause, and the authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. These provisions give the president extra power, but power short of prerogative (Locke, 1990, 374-380).

Locke did not believe that the executive should have total authority. Instead, to limit executive power, he developed the idea of separation of powers. He envisioned a division of power between the executive branch of government and the legislative branch (Locke, 1990, 117-121). This separation of powers has special significance for public administration as practiced in America: It creates a bureaucracy with two bosses, the executive and the legislative branches of government. Related to the problem is what can be called the mom and pop leadership problem. When children want something, they go first to one parent; and if they are unsuccessful, they go to the other parent, playing the parents against one another. For bureaucracies with two bosses, the mom and pop scenario demonstrates that the bureaucrats can play the executive branch against the legislative branch and vice versa.

Government is created to assure the public good, an idea that runs through the Second Treatise. The public good involves settled laws. These laws are not natural but conventional because they are part of the consent upon which government is founded. Natural or religious laws are alien to Locke’s concept of human understanding; so he moved toward a consensual basis for law, severing the classic philosophical and religious foundations for law, similar to the way he severed those foundations for government, generally. Locke also realized the need for independent judges. These judges were powerful but were not part of the separation of power between the executive and the legislature. The judges functioned as mediators who settled disputes to avoid using force.

Locke was also necessarily concerned with legislative power. After 1688, Parliament became a legislative body with power, a monumental event; for before this time no such powerful legislature existed in the world. The royalty dominated the previous Parliaments. For Locke the separation of powers and protection of rights required a legislative branch that had power to balance out the strong executive. The legislature is the only check on executive power to prevent the executive from becoming a dictator.

Locke’s government is based on consent, and consent is always government by majority rule. Unfortunately, governments created by consent have the problems commonly associated with community and majority rule: In the state of nature, not everyone will consent to give up their rights to form a government that will guarantee some rights but limit others. For Locke it is enough that a majority wants to enter into government and the rest of the people grant what he calls tacit consent. The majority consent to government through simple participation. But this leaves the problem of minority rights in a majority government (Locke, 1990, pp. 111-112).

Locke’s solution to the problem of minority rights involves government’s role in preserving equality. Locke states that human beings in the state of nature are inherently equal. Therefore to protect minority interests, government must sustain the equality inherent in the state of nature, a somewhat vague solution but the only one Locke provides. He implies that if government sustains equality, minority protection becomes less important because minorities will receive equal treatment under law. Furthermore, minorities will also be protected because the laws must be fair; so Locke has a kind of primitive notion of both procedural and substantive due process.

Property as the Basis of Good Government

Locke’s teaching on property sets him apart from Hobbes and Rousseau, the two other famous writers who begin with the state of nature. More generally, Locke’s writings on property make him unique, separating him from his peers and the ancient religious and philosophic traditions. More than any other teaching, Locke’s understanding of property links him uniquely to America.

Locke was most concerned in the Second Treatise with private property and the needs that go with it. Economics, private property, money, and the resulting complications are at the heart of what Locke saw as the basis for politics. Locke’s views are unlike the idea of political virtue that drove so many other political philosophers.

The dominance of economic issues is a reduction in the end goals of society from the idealistic ends of the ancients. However, in many ways it made the end goals of society accessible. By making the end goals accessible, Locke stands as one of the founders of modern political economy. Locke linked economy and politics because economic success is tied to the social contract. He believed that private property was the way to stabilize human existence, because individuals who had private sources of wealth were capable of taking care of themselves. For any system to work, it had to provide individuals with a method to protect the private acquisition of property and hence some degree of wealth (Locke, 1990, pp. 285-302).

In the state of nature each person is his own judge according to Locke (1990, pp. 285-302). Nevertheless, individual judgment will not work for private-property claims or for business contracts because commercial contracts cannot be enforced without a fair way of judging claims, a way that is not based on self-interest. Governments begin to remedy the problem of self-interested judgment by providing the rules under which courts, including whether individuals have the standing to sue when their rights are in danger and ways to enforce contracts, may hear cases. In addition, Locke believed that for people to acquire and protect private property, government must establish settled laws. These settled laws are the conventional laws created by society. To establish private property, consistency of the law is critical. Next, impartial judges provide the necessary fairness to decide between competing claims. Impartial judges are particularly necessary for Locke, because land disputes are the kind of problem that could bring out violent behavior in human beings.

Locke believed that private property and labor were related. Work distinguishes what is held in common from what the individual owns. When people work the land, they are building something. However, their work is personal and significant only if people have title to their land, and only government can provide the means to make titles legal and permanent. These legal titles make the ownership of land and the protection of that land a government interest. If government supports the individuals, those individuals no longer must simply protect their land with brutal force, as they would need to employ in the state of nature. A person’s labor working the land brings a kind of consistency to existence that the state of nature did not provide (Locke, 1990, pp. 285-302).

According to Locke (1990, pp. 285-302, money changes all human relationships. It is conventional and not natural. When economy functioned on an agricultural barter system, people could not accumulate more than they could use, because of spoilage. But money allows people to accumulate more than they need. Accumulation of wealth is the reason Locke believed that people moved from a state of nature to government, so that government could regulate the unbridled nature of the accumulation of money. (1990, pp. 285-302).

Locke is not in favor of greed, which means the unlimited acquisition of wealth. He believed it could lead to a society in which people use all the wealth for themselves individually and leave no wealth for the common good. He believed that the attempt to acquire unlimited wealth was limited by three things.

First, people are limited to the accumulation of property that they can work with their own labor. This limit would dramatically reduce the amount of accumulated wealth, but modern investing techniques make work one of the least profitable ways to earn money. The industrial revolution and money made unlimited accumulation possible, and so Locke’s first limit is no longer relevant (Locke, 1990, pp. 299-301).

The next limit is the concept of spoilage, which Locke (1990, pp. 299-301developed from an agricultural economy. In agriculture if someone tries to accumulate too much produce it will rot, so there exists a natural limit restricting the quantity a person can use without waste. Locke uses the concept of spoilage as a limit to accumulation, even when money is introduced, and he implies that individuals should still accumulate only what they need. Locke’s first two limits, accumulation of only as much property as people can work themselves and spoilage, no longer limit acquisition in modern times, when money, mass consumption, and built-in obsolescence exist.

Locke’s third limit to the acquisition of wealth is his idea that after the accumulation of individual wealth there must be at least as much left for the common good. This limit is in most ways no longer possible in a world that is increasingly privately owned. The implication for organizational behavior is that common spaces, parks, and other open spaces must be preserved for the public good. Furthermore, zoning and building restrictions are clearly in line with Locke’s limits to accumulated wealth (1990, pp. 299-301).

Locke’s discussion of the limits of accumulated wealth fits well with his conception of equality, but Locke did not favor equalizing incomes. His concept of limits to accumulated wealth made Locke a favorite of the American founding generation, but he would not have been as popular if the founders had fully understood his ideas. The founders apparently did not comprehend that his limits on accumulated wealth did not work well in a monetary economy.

Locke (trans. 1990) believed in optimism, and he believed that the general welfare of the country is increased when private wealth is enlarged. Locke wrote “he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lesson but increase the common stock of mankind” (p. 294). Locke’s writing on the common good of private wealth make his limits on private wealth less meaningful, because Locke believed that if private business was hindered, the common good would be hurt as well.

For Locke, capitalism and private property are related to work: If society discourages or prohibits private property, it destroys the incentive to work, a view proven by the events in the former Soviet Union. Socialism destroyed the work ethic in the old Soviet Union, and the Lockean-influenced capitalism of the West now dominates. Yet, Locke goes beyond the simple idea of the good of private property, to a kind of ethic of responsible capitalism. Locke’s entire discussion about the limits to accumulated wealth is an argument for limiting the impact that private property has on the public good. It is clear that Locke’s theory would call for an activist bureaucracy to protect the common good. Locke believed that nations that merged capitalism with some kind of common good would be successful, in contrast to Marx’s belief that capitalism was a heartless system (which the early industrial revolution represented) and had corrupted society for the benefit of the few who had the wealth. While Locke himself had no teaching about the poor or about welfare, his liberal successors have had a profound influence on the creation of the modern welfare state. In addition, these Lockean regimes, more than any governments in history, have evidenced obvious concern for social issues and the environment.

Locke’s Influence on Organization Theory and Behavior

Locke’s influence on organizational theory and behavior relates to his extensive and wide-ranging influence on the founders of the United States and the principles upon which the county was established. Although public administration, theory and behavior have some French and German roots, these are essentially American ideas that have influenced other countries and spread worldwide. Locke created the modern emphasis on constitutionalism that defines, in part, the relationship between the political system and the bureaucracy. Locke was one of the creators of the idea of the separation of powers, which makes public bureaucracy unique, because it must balance the often-conflicting demands of the executive and legislative branches. He was an important link in the development of modern executive and legislative power. John Rohr (1986) writes that the origin of public administration can be traced to Frank Goodnow, who stated that the “inclusion of judicial authority as part of executive power finds explicit support in John Locke” (p. 88).

Locke also influenced modern educational theory, although not to the extent of someone like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Locke’s ethics and concept of hedonism have greatly influenced modernity: So many of the values evidenced in America are an amalgamation of Locke’s values. Ironically, Locke and Jefferson influence both American popular culture and the critics of American popular culture, especially by their concepts of individual rights and the “pursuit of happiness.”

Locke’s theories are especially strong when it comes to property, money, scarcity, and prosperity. Locke makes it clear that government must protect private property and business. This protection is what public organizations do through planning and zoning. Much of the other regulatory functions of the administrative state involve the regulation of wealth that resembles a Lockean limit on acquisition or, at the least, some regulation of wealth.

The administrative state also regulates welfare, which is a natural extension of Locke’s ideas about the common good. The prosperity of a broad-based middle class is directly related to Locke’s ideas about private property. Locke’s writings shed some light on the conflict between those who believe that economy is a zero-sum game and those who believe that the economy is able to grow its way out of problems. Clearly Locke believes in growth.

For Locke the increase in individual wealth is something akin to the recent belief in trickle-down economics, the belief that the general increase in wealth leads to a general increase for the common good.

Domestically Locke realized the importance to maintain order. Following Locke’s teachings, for public administration, maintaining order using police power, especially because of the many competing demands in society, must be the first item on the government’s agenda. The administrative state is vital to successfully maintaining peace within individual states, so security issues in public administration are important for prosperity.

The political structure that underlies the administrative state is clearly Lockean. Woodrow Wilson’s classic false distinction between administration and politics is clearly an error that Locke would have seen, because the administrative state provides the support the political structure needs to ensure rights, property, and equality (Shafritz & Hyde, 1987, pp. 1-28).

Finally, Locke’s liberalism influenced liberalism at the founding of America; yet it is different than the modern version of liberalism, because Locke believed that government was a potentially destructive power, while modern liberalism generally views government as the solution. Therefore, modern liberalism has more influence over public administration and supports growth of the administrative state. Clearly, Locke distrusted government power, so he would not identify with today’s liberals.

John Locke, one of the most influential writers in history, profoundly affected the principles upon which the government of the United States was founded. He leaves a legacy of theories on human understanding, religion, economics, and politics that still influence the behavior, structure, environment, and operation of public administration today.


1. This article is a revised version of the chapter, “John Locke’s Influence on American Government and Public Administration.” In Thomas Lynch and Todd J. Dicker (Eds.). (1997). Handbook of Organizational Theory and Management. New York: Marcel Dekker.


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