The constant danger of the state of nature degenerating into a state of war is the principal reason advanced by John Locke to explain why individuals may transform a state of nature into a political society:
“The great and chief end therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property. To which in the state of nature there are many things wanting.” (Locke II, para.124)
In Locke’s view, man is born free in the state of nature, and is not born into a political society. Individuals are not naturally citizens but must choose explicitly so to become. By agreeing to leave the state of nature and to enter into civil or political society, individuals necessarily sacrifice their right to judge and to punish breaches of their natural rights by others. This is no small sacrifice, and will not be countenanced by property holders unless political society is strictly limited with respect to the powers that it is granted:
“The supream power cannot take from any man part of his property without his own consent. For the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property, without which they must be suppos’d to lose that by entring into society, which was the end for which they enter’d into it, too gross an absurdity for any man to own.” (Locke II, para. 138
According to Locke, governments do not possess rights naturally; only individuals have that capacity. There is only one process through which political ‘rights’ can be secured, and that is voluntary alienation of rights by the right-holder’s consent, contract, or trust:
“Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent ” (Locke II, para. 95).
Locke’s political philosophy provides individuals with strong moral claims rights within political society, empowering them to resist an illegitimate government that encroaches on their property rights. When an aggrieved citizen defends his rights, those who oppose him wrong him by breaching their duty with respect to his rights. In so doing, they place themselves outside political society, and into a state of war against the people:
“The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorise a legislative, is that there may be laws made, and rules set as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of society, to limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of society.” (Locke II, para. 222)
According to Locke, whenever the legislative violates this limitation, it puts itself in a state of war with the people, who are then absolved from any further obedience, and who are returned to their former liberties. The people are then free to establish a new legislative. Those who have abused their authority forfeit all rights under the law of nature and may be dealt with at will by any other person.