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John Locke: Liberal, Libertarian, or License to Kill?

Proto-liberal John Locke. Credit: Giorgios Kollidas / Shutterstock.com

Matt Bruenig of the liberal think tank Demos recently enlisted John Locke’s First Treatise in making the case for “freedom from want,” which provoked a combox and Twitter rejoinder from Cato’s Jason Kuznicki. Here’s the passage Bruenig quotes:

a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.

Kuznicki responded by invoking the Second Treatise as a development of Locke’s thought—which Bruenig finds problematic, noting that the First Treatise was actually composed later. (A full account of how and when the two treatises were written gets complicated.) In any case, Kuznicki need not have looked so far afield, when Locke’s elaboration of his thought is to be found just one paragraph later:

Should any one make so perverse an use of God’s blessings poured on him with a liberal hand; should any one be cruel and uncharitable to that extremity; yet all this would not prove that propriety in land, even in this case, gave any authority over the persons of men, but only that compact might; since the authority of the rich proprietor, and the subjection of the needy beggar, began not from the possession of the lord, but the consent of the poor man, who preferred being his subject to starving. And the man he thus submits to, can pretend to no more power over him, than he has consented to, upon compact.

Read on and you’ll find that Locke brings this back to a refutation of those (like Filmer) who ground political authority in God’s grant of the earth to some particular lineage. What Locke is at pains to explain here is that owning land does not mean one owns the people on the land—they may not be reduced to slaves; they also may not be reduced to feudal vassals—but rather whatever legitimate governing there is must derive from the subject’s consent at some level.

Libertarians who don’t like contractarianism object to Locke precisely because of this myth: whether or not real-world consent is given, Locke builds his system so that consent is invoked as a justification for authority. These passages show Locke pulling the same trick with respect to economic power: the renter is subject to the owner not because the owner has inherent absolute power over his land and what’s on it but because the renter is in effect consenting by renting. The renter or the citizen may be under the authority of the owner or government, but he is only under that authority because he consents to it—thus the weaker party remains free in the way that matters most to Locke, if not to us. This right of consent (or not) is inalienable, which has implications for Locke’s larger scheme of politics and political economy, and it’s not nothing. But it’s far short of guaranteeing what a modern liberal is likely to mean by “freedom from want.”

Locke obviously is concerned about material needs, however, and believes that every man has a right to have those needs met, including by other people. The thing that has to be considered carefully is how those needs are to be met. There are at least two possibilities: other people can set aside enough wilderness—in North America, say, or the English commons—that any man whose needs are unmet at present may have use of open resources and thus provide for himself. Another possibility, however, is the one brought to the reader’s attention as Locke points out that the vast lands of North America are rather poor, whereas the very limited, already homesteaded lands of England are rich. To supply a surplus sufficient for everyone, then, what’s important is not open land but enclosed land: private property whose surpluses may be obtained by the needy through consensual exchanges. How big a role political arrangements (which are another outcome of consent) may play in this, either in Locke’s own view or in a modern adaptation of his theory, is open to some interpretation.

Without delving into much more detail for now, suffice to say that libertarians and modern welfare-state liberals alike may be troubled by a closer examination of Locke’s views of government and property. Consider, for example, Joseph Stromberg’s provocative reading of Locke as arch-imperialist:

No stranger to mercantilism and colonial imperialism, Locke nevertheless argued that land is not rightly acquired by conquest unless it has been lying idle. This exception is extremely important, since Locke artfully fitted his “natural” right to property to English Protestant practices. Non-Europeans need not apply. Locke conceded that God had given land to mankind in common. On the other hand, the “industrious and rational” can—indeed must—prevent its being “wasted.” They can “mix” their labor with land to acquire it but must maximize the product. Anyone failing to maximize could rightfully be dispossessed—Indians in America, non-enclosing peasants at home. In effect, Locke promoted freedom for a minority of industrious Englishmen—a freedom to be paid for through constant growth premised in part on overseas empire.

(A similar interpretation is developed in great detail is here.)

There was a religious side to this colonialism as well. Recall that Locke’s toleration did not extend to Catholics. This was in part ye olde English prejudice—think Titus Oates and that kind of thing—but there’s also a deep Protestant sectarian basis for Locke’s ideas about consent and legitimate institutionalization of authority. Catholicism was not just historically incompatible with English ways, but Locke’s theory is very particularly a politics wedded to a religious tendency.

All of which is to say that there are many layers to Locke. His notions of liberty may not, on examination, be for everyone.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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