The Private Society and the Liberal Public Good in John Locke's Thought


This Article interprets John Locke's mature writings on politics, ethics, and philosophy to identify his teachings on liberal freedom of association.  The conventional wisdom probably holds that Locke propounds a theory of toleration specific to the church-state problem--not a comprehensive theory of associational freedom.  In reality, Locke defends religious toleration as one particular application of a much more encompassing theory of associational freedom.  Presumptively, in Locke's account, private associations enjoy the rights to associate on whatever terms they want, to set and to enforce their own policies, and to control their own membership.  But private associations lose this presumption of freedom if they promote common opinions antithetical to respect for life, property, family, and the other the material interests on which the Lockean commonwealth focuses.  More controversially, private associations also lose this presumption if they propagate opinions inconsistent with the common political opinions a Lockean political order inculcates to reinforce the moral conditions for liberalism.

Although this Article is primarily interpretive, it does defend Locke's position enough to make it clear why that position is worth interpreting.  To that end, the Article shows why Locke's defense of associational freedom accords more with our experiences and observations than do deontological accounts of associational freedom by John Rawls and Robert Nozick.  Also to that end, the Article suggests how Locke's position may protect associational freedom more and less than contemporary practice.  On one hand, Lockean associational freedom gives the political community wide latitude to bar and expel seditious associations.  Here, Locke's account presents a tougher-minded theory of liberalism than theories influential in modern law and practice.  On the other hand, Locke's account provides strong reasons for giving associational freedom immunity from public anti-discrimination policies.  Here, Locke's account explains the public-private distinction in greater depth than modern law and practice.