WWJLD: What Would John Locke Do?

Greetings, everyone!

Recently, there has been a lot of media attention focused on immigration, citizenship, the DREAM Act, and what qualifies as being “American.” Undoubtedly, much of this press was inspired by Independence Day celebrations, but I hope the holiday does not overshadow the political fireworks spurred by the legislative crackdowns on undocumented immigrants in Georgia, Alabama, Utah, and Arizona. While I do not intend to engage in any form of advocacy here, I believe the new state immigration laws, television specials, such as

as they are all extremely powerful instruments to reinvigorate the discussion on citizenship and consent—a discussion that immigrants and friends of the immigrant community have shared in for centuries.

In my last blog post, I promised to return to the issues of migration, consent, and citizenship, and to provide a Lockean interpretation of these events. I believe that if you take a few moments to review the sources noted above, you will see they do not vary widely from the fundamental issues I discuss below, not the least of which is family—an institution that has both pushed and pulled, threatened and protected, buttressed and unwoven the relationships between parent and child, nation and national, and state and citizen for centuries.

To be sure, an ideal relationship between a parent and a child is built on mutual communication, respect, and trust; but, fundamentally, parents’ duties include nurturing, protecting, and defending their children until they are sufficiently independent. If it seems that a parent is not providing for a child, compelling the child to “grow up early,” one can imagine a scenario in which the child takes matters into his or her own hands at a very young age, and leaves. (The documentary referenced in my previous post, Which Way Home, provides a stellar example of this exact situation.)

However, while the rapidly expanding knowledge and willpower of children is enough to surprise anyone and parents may not be fully equipped to perform their role as educators and protectors, I maintain that there is something larger at work. Many of the forces prompting young people to migrate are systemic, rooted in the backwards, corrupt governments in Central America and the urbanized, capitalist establishment that has subordinated and exploited so many of these underdeveloped countries.

The United States, the so-called “Land of Plenty” and “Beacon of Democracy,” attracts migrants while the devastated or decrepit native towns and villages provide few reasons (if any option at all) to stay.

To some degree this migration mirrors a movement that Locke discerned from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth century, at which point villeinage crumbled under feudalism, which then, in turn, succumbed to engrossment and enclosure. Over the course of these events, many serfs who initially possessed a small share of property, some legal rights, and independence were divested of everything. Thrust into wage-labor, which was insufficient to sustain themselves or their families, these individuals had little choice but to abandon their homes and migrate to cities in search of employment. However, when they arrived, they often lacked the skills to begin working in the existing industries. This translated into a proliferation of homelessness, illness, and crime. High birthrates yielded a sizeable population of unproductive youngsters, so laws became more restrictive and hostile toward the migrants to restore social order and relieve the unreliable, unstable market flooded by young, inexperienced workers.

Though the borders these young people crossed in Locke’s time were intrastate, between the rural villages and urban cities, this migration’s result has very similar effects to the international migration we observe today. Unable to receive the physical, economic, or legal support they need, individuals travel to wherever they perceive the greatest potential benefits to be. Thus, rather than dwelling on the relationship between the parent and the child at an individual level, I suggest examining the relationship between the United States and many of its underdeveloped, southern neighbors.

To be clear, I do not suggest the United States should adopt a paternalistic role over the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (among others), or that these countries even be viewed in that way. Rather these international, yet delicate, relations are critical to understanding the motivations of migrants young and old, past and present. Situating Cammisa’s subjects’ experience in this context, it seems that, for the desperate migrant, reason is superfluous and consent irrelevant.

Only reason in the sense of having a purpose is a necessary condition for migrants, while reason in the sense of logical cognition is not (unless viewed from a utilitarian perspective). Even among older individuals who have reached this age/stage of reason, the extraordinarily dangerous journey and the act of illegally entering a country borders on absurd. In light of this, when focusing on children, it seems that they also need not possess reason, nor the ability to reason, but merely a reason.

Likewise, by virtue of having a reason and pursuing that reason to migrate to a particular country, individuals are consenting to it. If they are not able to choose where they come from, what does it matter if they tacitly or expressly choose where they are going, as long as they are willing to subscribe to that country, state, and/or locality’s laws and social mores when once they arrive? Thus, I suggest the type of consent is initially irrelevant, and the subject of consent only problematic unless one lacks a reason for migration, which is true of only the very young and wanderers. In the case of undocumented migrants, like every other migrant or traveler before them and Locke’s conception of the “trespasser,” whether explicit or implicit in these initial actions, need not be categorized.

Presumably, Locke would be in agreement on this count, though he is careful to make the distinction (as I would also like to make, and will expand upon in forthcoming posts) that once a migrant decides to take up residency and settle in the host country, explicit consent must be obtained. Locke’s argument is reducible to the idea that government is created to protect men’s natural rights—specifically to, life, liberty, and property—and functions solely by consent of the governed.  Locke acknowledges that these are precious entities that are in everyone’s best interest to preserve because, “God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience” (Locke V.26).

Hence, individuals “unite for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates” by contracting with one another to form a government (Locke IX.123). Though Locke does not develop a theory regarding individuals who would like to engage in this system, but are not present at the formation, nor does he specifically address youth migration, I believe his emphasis on liberty and natural rights would make any criteria for admission established by the founders of this liberal, civil society rather lax.

Moreover, I suspect Locke would posit that an individual’s entry into the host country would be an expression of implicit consent to adhere to the government’s rules, laws and social mores; but, “submitting to the laws of any country, living quietly, and enjoying privileges and protection under them, makes not a man a member of that society …and thus we see, that foreigners… do not thereby come to be subjects or members of that common-wealth” (IX.122). This advanced stage of membership requires an individual to, in Locke’s words, “actually enter into it by positive engagement, and express promise and compact” (IX.122); and, as society has become more complex, it is reasonable to suspect that the conditions to contract with society for an immigrant would be more demanding now than during the time to which Locke referred.

It seems now that we have moved away from the motivations of young immigrants to initially migrate to the conditions and status of their immigration, topics that I will expand upon in the posts to follow. In the meantime, I would love to hear any feedback you may have and (for all the Locke-lovers out there) am eager to hear how you might apply his theories to this project!


Best wishes,




  1. pbterenzioiii says:

    I always thought Locke posed some interesting problems regarding how to treat impoverished immigrants, especially those who were culturally different from those already residing within the nation’s borders. While Locke is certainly more supportive of pluralism than Hobbes, he had his own banned groups: Catholics and atheists (see “A Letter Concerning Toleration”). And Locke may not exactly be as liberal as we would like to think-after all, the government that he designs isn’t necessarily one that is amendable to foreigners or to the poor, or even that democratic-there could very well be a king or dictator in charge, so long as he protected the property rights and lives of his citizens and didn’t claim to receive his power from God. So maybe you wouldn’t want to immigrate to a Lockean state. It certainly would be better than a Hobbesian one though.