FOUNDATION: Unit II. What Are Human Rights and Where Do They Come From? 6 of 15

John Locke and Liberalism

Locke believed that people had natural rights to “life, liberty, and property”, and that the role of government was to preserve these rights. If a government does not preserve these rights, then the people have a right to change their government.

This is what scholars refer to as the political theory of Liberalism. Liberalism in this sense differs from the way the term is used in today’s media in American politics (i.e., referring to the opposite of “conservative”).

A Liberal government’s power is limited and justified by the solemn pledge to:

  • treat individuals with respect,
  • pass laws that more effectively guarantee individual freedom and liberty, and
  • avoid unreasonably infringing upon these liberties.

A Liberal government is one whose authority is justified by its respect for human rights. Liberal democracies rely heavily on majority rule through elections and legislative decisions, but they also limit majorities by protecting individual and minority rights.

Which of these US presidents is/was a philosophical Liberal?


Should Locke’s three rights (life, liberty, and property) always be applicable in all circumstances to all people? How should a government balance the rights of an individual v. the rights of the people as a whole?

Liberalism by F. A. Hayek
The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism by Amy H. Sturgis
The Soul of Classical Liberalism by James Buchanan