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John Locke

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Locke is now in a position to explain the function of a legitimate government and distinguish it from illegitimate government. The aim of such a legitimate government is to preserve, so far as possible, the rights to life, liberty, health and property of its citizens, and to prosecute and punish those of its citizens who violate the rights of others others and to pursue the public good even where this may conflict with the rights of individuals. In doing this it provides something unavailable in the state of nature, an impartial judge to determine the severity of the crime, and to set a punishment proportionate to the crime. This is one of the main reasons why civil society is an improvement on the state of nature. An illegitimate government will fail to protect the rights to life, liberty, health and property of its subjects, and in the worst cases, such an illegitimate government will claim to be able to violate the rights of its subjects, that is it will claim to have despotic power over its subjects. Since Locke is arguing against the position of Sir Robert Filmer who held that patriarchal power and political power are the same, and that in effect these amount to despotic power, Locke is at pains to distinguish these three forms of power, and to show that they are not equivalent. Thus at the beginning of Chapter XV Of Paternal, Political and Despotic power considered together he writes: "THOUGH I have had occasion to speak of these before, yet the great mistakes of late about government, having as I suppose arisen from confounding these distinct powers one with another, it may not be amiss, to consider them together." Chapters VI and VII give Locke's account of paternal and political power respectively. Paternal power is limited. It lasts only through the minority of children, and has other limitations. Political power, derived as it is from the transfer of the power of individuals to enforce the law of nature, has with it the right to kill in the interest of preserving the rights of the citizens or otherwise supporting the public good. Despotic power, by contrast, implies the right to take the life, liberty, health and at least some of the property of any person subject to such a power.

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