Sounding the Alarm: Machiavelli, Locke and States of Emergency

22 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 7 Aug 2011

See all articles by Tyler Curley

Tyler Curley

University of Southern California

Date Written: 2011


Leaders have long sought to redefine the legal and political order in states of emergency. In this paper, I detail the theoretical formulations of emergency powers provided by Machiavelli and Locke. These theorists offer contrasting accounts about the tolerable use of executive authority to define when emergencies arise and to rule accordingly. Even though they both discuss these powers as inevitable features of political life, I argue there should be a distinction between the authority to delineate what situations constitute emergencies and the permissible executive powers during these times. Extralegal power automatically flows from the determination of an emergency for these theorists, which I find problematic and disquieting. I warn against Machiavelli’s idea that self-interested princes alone should determine when emergencies exist and the extent of powers to eradicate these threats. While I am more sympathetic to Locke’s attempt to limit extralegal executive authority, I find he does not adequately account for abuses of emergency powers. Both theoretical accounts lead to disturbing political communities wherein the same person is given the dual authority to determine when a situation constitutes an emergency and the scope of powers in these times.

Suggested Citation

Curley, Tyler, Sounding the Alarm: Machiavelli, Locke and States of Emergency (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

Tyler Curley (Contact Author)

University of Southern California ( email )

2250 Alcazar Street
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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