John Locke Institute Essay Competition - 2020

Announcing the 2020 essay questions.
Deadline for submissions is Wednesday, 15 July 2020 at 11:59pm, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

The John Locke Institute encourages young people to cultivate the characteristics that turn good students into great writers: independent thought, depth of knowledge, clear reasoning, critical analysis and persuasive style. Our Essay Competition invites students to explore a wide range of challenging and interesting questions beyond the confines of the school curriculum.


Entering an essay in our competition can build knowledge, and refine skills of argumentation. It also gives students the chance to have their work assessed by experts. All of our essay prizes are judged by senior academics from the University of Oxford. The judges will choose their favourite essay from each subject category and an overall 'best essay' across seven subjects: Philosophy, Politics, Economics, History, Psychology, Theology and Law.


2020 Essay Questions


Q1. Is intuition to philosophy as observation is to science? 


Q2. Are there circumstances under which an employer has a moral duty to pay her employee more than they agreed in the employment contract? 


Q3. Can good art make one a better person? (Professor Roger Teichman, University of Oxford)  


Q1. Governments do a lot of things, such as collecting taxes and drafting people into the military, that we would object to individuals doing. Can this be justified? (Professor David Friedman, Santa Clara University) 

Q2. There are some things it is legal to give away but illegal to sell. Should this distinction exist? 

Q3. American citizens give away more than $300 billion each year in charitable donations. Only a tiny fraction of this (less than 0.001%) is donated to federal, state, and local governments. Politicians claim that they spend taxpayers' money efficiently, to accomplish the most good with the budgets at their disposal. But if this were true wouldn't governments be able to compete more successfully with private charities? What are the implications of your answer? 


Q1. What is the socially efficient level of crime? (Professor Daniel d'Amico, Brown University)  


Q2. Does unilateral free trade serve a nation's economic interests? (Professor Donald Boudreaux, George Mason University)


Q3. What are the most important economic effects - good and bad - of forced redistribution? How should this inform government policy?


Q1. How is the modern world different from previous periods of history and why did it come into existence when and where it did? (Dr Stephen Davies, Institute of Economic Affairs)


Q2. Is a strong state a prerequisite or an obstacle to economic growth? (Professor Terence Kealey, economic historian, University of Buckingham)

Q3. How did there come to be so many prisoners in the United States? 


Q1. Isn't all reasoning (outside mathematics and formal logic) motivated reasoning?

Q2. According to evolutionary psychology, we are evolved to believe what is useful, whether or not what is useful is always also what is true. How can we resist the tendency to believe what is evolutionarily adaptive at the expense of truth? And would it increase or diminish human flourishing to do so?


Q3. Are the psychological differences between genders greater or smaller than those between sexes? 


Q1. According to C.S. Lewis, 'a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.' If Jesus was not God Incarnate, what was he?


Q2. Many people have committed acts, execrated and deplored by others, in obedience to sincerely held beliefs. Can we reasonably ask anyone to do better than simply to obey his own conscience? 


Q3. Is Islam a religion of peace?


Q1. Do the underlying principles of common law require that juries be informed about jury nullification?  


Q2. Why is racial discrimination illegal on employment websites but not on social websites such as Facebook or Tinder?


Q3. Does a law that prohibits the selling of sex protect or infringe women's rights? 

Junior Category

(Entries are invited from candidates whose fifteenth birthday will be after the date of the submission deadline, 15 July 2020.)

Q1. The government funds opera and ballet, but not Call of Duty or Super Mario. Should citizens be forced to subsidise entertainment? And, if so, why some people's but not others'? 


Q2. Who should own your data? The companies with which you agree to share your data, everybody, just you, or nobody? 


Q3. How socialist is Sweden? 

Q4. Who was the best leader of all time? 

Q5. What's wrong with slavery? (Professor Roger Teichmann, University of Oxford)

Entry requirements and further details



Entry Requirements

Entry is open to students from any country and any school. Candidates must be eighteen years old, or younger, on the date of the submission deadline, 15 July 2020. (Candidates for the Junior Prize must be fourteen years old, or younger, on the date of the submission deadline.)


Each essay should address only one of the questions in your chosen subject category, and must not exceed 2000 words (not counting diagrams, tables of data, footnotes, bibliography or authorship declaration). Please submit your essay, saved in pdf format, through our website. The title of the pdf attachment should read SURNAME, First Name (e.g. POPHAM, Alexander). 


Key Dates

Wednesday, 15 July 2020: Submission deadline


Friday, 31 July: Short-listed candidates notified


Winners will be announced at the award ceremony in Oxford (date to be advised).



There is a prize for the best essay in each subject category. Each subject prize is worth £100, and the essays will be published (with the authors' permission) on the Institute website. The prize-giving ceremony will take place in Oxford, at which winners and runners-up will be able to meet the judges and other faculty members of the John Locke Institute. Family, friends and teachers are also welcome, subject to capacity constraints.


The candidate who submits the best essay overall will be awarded an honorary John Locke Institute Junior Fellowship, worth £500.


The judges' decisions are final, and no correspondence will be entered into.




Essays will be judged on the level of knowledge and understanding of the relevant material, the quality of argumentation, the structure, writing style and persuasive force. Candidates are advised to answer the question as precisely and directly as possible.






"I hope you will find this year's questions thought-provoking, and that you will be one of the thousands of contestants from over a hundred different countries to submit an essay to what has become the world's largest essay competition. Not only will the experience of researching and writing the essay be a valuable learning experience, but the shortlisted candidates will be invited to Oxford to join with other talented young people who have thought carefully about the same question, for a unique series of precepts under the experienced leadership of an academic expert."


Martin Cox, Director of the John Locke Institute


I haven't received an acknowledgment that my essay has been submitted. Have you received it?

We receive a great many submissions. We will write to all candidates by Friday 31 July when we announce the Short List. If you have not received an email by that date, you are welcome to email us to confirm that we did receive and consider your essay, but please check your spam folder first.


Are footnotes or bibliography or reference list counted towards the word limit?


No. Only the body of the essay is counted.  

Are in-text citations counted towards the word limit?

If you are using an in-text based referencing format, such as APA, your in-text citations are included in the word limit.

Is it necessary to include footnotes in an essay?

You don’t need to include footnotes, but you should give your sources of any factual claims you make, and you should acknowledge any other authors on whom you rely.

Should citations be footnotes or in-text citations?

We don't impose any rules for citations, and in fact we will edit the essays we publish if the citations need a bit of tidying up.


How strict is the age eligibility criteria?


Only students whose nineteenth birthday falls after 15 July 2020 will be eligible for a prize or a commendation. 


May I submit more than one essay?


Yes, you may submit as many essays as you please in any or all categories.

Do I have to attend the award ceremony to win a prize?

Nobody is required to attend the prize ceremony. You can win a prize without travelling to Oxford. But if we invite you to Oxford it is because your essay was good enough - in the opinion of the First Round judges - to be at least a contender for First, Second or Third Prize. Normally the Second Round judges will agree that the short-listed essays are worth at least a commendation.

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