A nation can be considered to be sovereign when an individual or governing body is bestowed upon optimum and complete power to govern a people over a particular region. The nature of sovereignty has been debated about time and time again. John Locke (1689) formulated a social contract theory whose foundations are the source and validity of the sovereign, the foundation of the law, and the justifications of following the set laws. It’s also how people can hold accountable for the sovereign if he or she does not accomplish their duties. Some theorists contend that the sovereign’s authority should be absolute since the government stems from a social contract in which the people consent to an agreed superior authority to safeguard themselves from their vicious natures. In this essay, I will argue in favor of Locke’s postulation and show that sovereignty belongs to the people. The people for whom ruling bodies or individuals are simply custodians and they can be rightfully removed from power if they do not accomplish their duties to the people.
In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke (1689) began by pointing out that a social contract is an agreement between people whose objective is to abandon the state of nature where people live in the absence of a ruler or clear established laws creating ambiguity and complications of settling disputes. Therefore, the key to resolving the difficulties plaguing the state of nature is a social contract. A social contract is where the people decide to submit to an elected government and permit the government to formulate and implement laws for the betterment of the entire society. If the state contravenes the social contract in any way, then, lawfully, the people can revolt and remove it from power. Locke contends that sovereignty belongs to the people for whom ruling bodies or individuals are simply custodians put in place to carry out their duties to the people as stipulated by the social contract. He tried to formulate actual defenses against infringements on natural law by the state. His social contract was dedicated to governance and law with the sovereign acting as dominant and ultimate, but only if it was confined to societal and natural law (Locke, 1689).
Therefore, following social contract formulations that lead to the establishment of sovereigns, authority is wielded not by the state but by the people. A ruling state only arose when every person in the community voluntarily gave up their natural rights directly or indirectly and bestowed them upon the hands of the state for safekeeping and the discharging of duties that benefit the entire society (Locke, 1689). A government of the people by the people for the people. Nonetheless, this authority cannot surpass that which the people possessed in a state of nature before formulating a social contract and transferring it to the state since nobody can offer more than what they have. Thus the sovereign is simply ruling by the will of the people, and as such the governed, lawfully possess the right to revolt and overthrow the government.
Those in favor of the sovereign wielding absolute power insist that the state of nature is possibly riddled with contentious struggle. Every person’s control over things provided in nature attracts conflict, particularly due to people’s competition for available resources. They portray the image that man is profoundly brutal which would ultimately result in a state of incessant conflict of every man for himself in a “dog eat dog” society. In a life plagued with continual clashes and terror, the advancement of civil society would be practically unachievable. The existence of man would be unsociable, deprived, foul, ruthless and short. Therefore, the social contract under the eventual brutal living conditions in the state of nature should establish an absolute sovereign. Whereby the people consent to a common absolute ruler to safeguard against their vicious tendencies and thereby facilitate the establishment of civil society. With an optimum and ultimate government as the final judge of disagreements and the source of all civil laws and justice in the state, the problems that plague the state of nature and the state of conflict which follows it are circumvented. To refuse the state to bear absolute authority would permit the occurrence of circumstances that would undo the benefits of an absolutist government and plunging the people back into the state of nature that is susceptible to chaos.
The argument for absolute sovereignty is widely erroneous and not convincing. The postulation made that human behavior under the conditions of the state of nature inhibits people from using their reasoning and thus reducing the society to a situation of “every man for himself” is flawed since the same conditions would also inhibit them from misusing their capabilities. This is because the intent of self-preservation is more likely to encourage harmony than cause destruction to others. Locke (1689) accurately differentiates between state of nature and state of conflict, where the state of nature is a situation where the society is in harmony devoid of a common ruler and the state of conflict only occurred following the rise of power from an individual upon another individual without the presence of a greater authority to offer assistance. The proponents of absolute sovereignty fail to distinguish between the state of nature and state of conflict and thereby fail to justify the establishment of absolute sovereignty.
In conclusion, since every individual is born equal and free in a society, any establishment of governance over a person necessitates their approval to be valid. I agree with Locke that the main reason for establishing and yield to a common ruler is to safeguard a person’s right to life, freedom, and property. Since the state only arose due to the establishment of an agreed social contract by the entire society, then sovereignty ultimately belongs to the people for whom ruling bodies or individuals are simply custodians put in place to safeguard people’s rights to life, freedom, and property. In every society that has an established government, there exists a constitution that constitutes the will of the people and therefore no individual or body can exist with absolute sovereignty surpassing societal and natural law. The main problem plaguing many nations is the state contravening the established social contract standards as proposed by Locke.
- Locke, J. (1689). The second treatise of civil government, ed. Jonathan Bennett. Broadview Press.