John Locke - "Express and Tacit Consent"

May 25 2018

Disclaimer: Locke published this piece in 1690. He never claimed authorship, since he was at the time in exile and knew his writings were dangerous. Two years prior, James II of England had been overthrown in the Glorious Revolution and replaced by William III, James II’s Dutch nephew - John Locke would claim to have written Two Treatises of Government which contained this excerpt in defense of William III’s claim to the throne.

John Locke sets out be reiterating his most important belief about the freemen: by nature, men are free, equal and independent. Unlike Thomas Hobbes (his almost-contemporary), he believed people to be reasonable and able to consent to be governed. Locke thinks that this ability alone makes a society possible.

He argues that if any number of men have, by consent of each individual, made a community, they’ve thereby made the community one body, able to act as such.

Why would one want to be part of a community? Because, Locke explains, without a community there is no protection.

Once one has moved from one’s state of nature (“free, equal and independent”) to be an individual embodying a community, one is bound by the rule of the majority. Thus, becoming one body which is able to act, this body is of one voice - that of the majority - and moves in one direction to accomplish governance and such peaceful living.

The problem, of course, is how one consents at all.

Some consent in an ideal way: expressly. Express consent is given through positive engagement such as taking up citizenship. Those who expressly consented are bound by their oath.

There is another type of consent, however, one that is implied only. Tacit consent, according to Locke, is when one benefits from any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominion of any government.

This does not only apply to permanent possessions, but even temporary ones, those acquired while travelling through a dominion, and even by being born into one.

This does not mean that tacit consent makes one automatically part of the community one has consented to be included by, but only that one has to follow the rules of such a community as one enjoys benefits from. A foreigner can live in a community for a long time and even feel compelled by the community’s stance and still not be a full member. To become a proper part, an outsider must take positive action.

The way to extract oneself from such tacit consent is to evacuate one’s space in such a community. For example, one may sell of one’s land and emigrate.

To withdraw ones express consent is almost impossible. The only way Locke allows for extrication from express consent is in case of a government or community folding.

Thus, Locke presents us with a simple notion of what consent is and is not and why we have already given it.