Mar 1, 1980
John Locke’s Theory of Property: Problems of Interpretation
“Locke made extensive use of efficiency arguments in his economic and political writings because he valued wealth and economic growth as important human goals.”
The Problem: Locke, Liberalism, and Property
John Locke’s major political analysis, The Two Treatises of Government (1690), has long been hailed as a seminal work in the history of political liberalism. In the Second Treatise especially, it is generally recognized, Locke argues the case for individual natural rights, limited government depending on the consent of the governed, separation of powers within government, and most radically, the right of people within a society to depose rulers who fail to uphold their end of the social contract. While the history of the writing of the Treatises shows that it was first conceived and executed as a revolutionary tract, its importance has far exceeded the specific revolutionary machinations which occasioned it. Although the nature of its influence on subsequent ideas is debated among scholars, few question its powerful influence on French, American, and, to a lesser extent, Spanish revolutionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a work in political philosophy, its theoretical influence is no less acknowledged.
Despite the familiarity which even casual students of the history of political theory have with this much discussed and quoted work, there is little about it that has not aroused controversy among Locke scholars. What may seem obvious to the occasional reader provides a bone of contention for endless debate within academia. While this scholarly dissension may not distinguish Locke’s writings from those of any other important thinker, it does create (or rather reflect) interesting problems of interpretation for anyone who would understand the roots of political liberalism. This is especially true in one of the most debated and controversial areas of Locke’s political philosophy, his theory of property.
For most of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Locke’s theory of property as found in theSecond Treatise of Civil Government was regarded as the cornerstone of classical liberalism. His attempt to ground the right to property in natural law was seen to be an important device for asserting the rights of individuals against the state and for limiting the moral authority of the state in a crucial area of human endeavor. The theory of property was understood to be central to the structure of Locke’s argument in the Second Treatise in that it serves as an explanation for the existence of government and a criterion for evaluating the performance of government. Locke’s individualist, private property stance was not always admired or believed to be without flaw, but criticism was leveled within the context of Locke’s claim to a place as a liberal philosopher. He was understood as a constitutionalist liberal who provided a mediocre defense of private property.
In the middle part of the twentieth century, the whole constitutional-limited government-liberal enterprise has been called into question, and part of the questioning process has been a renewed interest in the political philosophy of John Locke. Heralding the new interest in Locke were three studies that challenged Locke’s credentials as a classical liberal and all based their challenge on a reading of Locke’s theory of property. The works of Willmoore Kendall, Leo Strauss, and C.B. MacPherson all argued that Locke was not at all what he was supposed to be, and they thereby opened up a new investigation of the meaning and importance of Locke’s theory of property in his political thought.
Locke’s Theory of Property In Outline
The outline of Locke’s theory of property in the Second Treatise is well-known. He begins his discussion of the origin of property in the state of nature, that pre-political state so familiar to seventeenth century philosophers. In this state of nature, according to Locke, men were born free and equal: free to do what they wished without being required to seek permission from any other man, and equal in the sense of there being no natural political authority of one man over another. He quickly points out, however, that “although it is a state of liberty, it is not a state of license,” because it is ruled over by the law of nature which everyone is obliged to obey. While Locke is not very specific about the content of the law of nature, he is clear on a few specifics. First, that “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it,” and second, that it teaches primarily that “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life liberty or possessions.” Hence, right from the beginning of the essay, Locke places the right to possessions on the same level as the right to life, health, and liberty. While the right not to be harmed in one’s life or liberty might have seemed self-evident to Locke’s readers, the right not to be harmed in one’s possessions might have seemed less so. Hence, Locke devotes all of Chapter V of his Second Treatise to tracing the steps by which reason teaches that men ought not to be harmed in their possessions.
Appropriation in the State of Nature: Self-ownership and Labor
In Chapter V, Locke’s premise, which he shared with most seventeenth century writers, was that God gave the earth and its fruits in common to men for their use. The problem he faced was to explain how commonly available resources can become legitimate private property which excludes the right of other men. Locke begins his argument by identifying the one form of property against which no other man could possibly have a claim in a world of political equals, the property each man has in his own person. The idea of one having a property in himself was not peculiar to Locke. It was fairly common in seventeenth century writing and had been used extensively before Locke by Hugo Grotius. It was a definition of personality—that which constituted the individual, and it included one’s body, actions, thoughts, and beliefs. Locke built on this concept of self-ownership when he used it to explain how one derives a right to possess objects outside of one’s self, his famous (or infamous) labor theory of property:
… everyman has a property in his own Person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men.
Although Locke uses the term labor to characterize the act by which men create property, it is clear from the examples which follow that labor is defined very broadly. Labor, for Locke, includes picking up acorns from the ground, gathering apples from wild trees, tracking deer in the forest, and catching fish in the ocean; labor ranges from simple acts of appropriation to production involving planning and effort. It is a creative and purposeful act that extends the limits of personality to physical objects previously in the common stock.
After having established an individual’s right to own property in the state of nature, Locke goes on to define the right to property broadly enough to include both “the fruits of the earth and the earth itself,” both the goods one creates and the land one cultivates. Furthermore, perhaps to justify this strange doctrine to his readers, that “the property of labour should be able to over-balance the community of land,” Locke goes on to claim that the right to private property worked to the advantage of the population as a whole. Locke argued that private property was not only moral, but useful, because “’tis labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing; and let any one consider, what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco, or sugar, sown with wheat or barley; and an acre of the same land lying in common, without husbandry upon it, and he will find, that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value.” The implication is that unassisted nature really provides very little that is useful to mankind. This can be interpreted tautologically since labor includes every act of appropriation and acorns lying on the ground have no value to human life until they are picked up and eaten, but Locke means more than this.
“I think it will be but a very modest computation to say, that of the products of the earth useful to the life of man, 9/10 are the effects of labour: nay, if we will rightly estimate things as they come to our use, and cast up the several expenses about them, what in them is purely owing to nature, and what to labour, we shall find, that in most of them 99/100 are wholly to be put on the account of labour.” In fact, he argues that the raw materials of the goods men consume daily are really the least part of the pleasures enjoyed from them since “labour makes the far greatest part of the value of things we enjoy in this world.” Hence it should be no cause for complaint if natural law dictates that labor guarantees the right to property since labor is at least 9/10ths responsible for the value of goods created. God may have given the world to men, but in order to enjoy the gift, men have to create property by exercising their creative intelligence and their bodies in physical labor.
Limits on Property in the State of Nature
While Locke argues that men have a right to create and enjoy their property, he also argues that there are limits to that right in the state of nature. The first limit is alluded to when he describes how property is created. He says, “Labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others.” The implication is that one’s right to property is only clear and exclusive so long as it doesn’t jeopardize anyone else’s ability to create equivalent kinds of property for himself. Locke does not stress this limitation, but puts most of the force of the limitation on property on his next argument. As much property “as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others.” The reason for this limit is that “Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy.”
Locke infers that as long as men heed the injunction not to allow anything to go to waste uselessly in their possession, there will in this early state of nature, be plenty of land and resources to go around for everyone. He argues further that originally in the state of nature, there was no incentive for anyone to try to accumulate more property than he could use since most goods were perishable. In fact, Locke seems to describe an early state of existence in which populations were small and resources abundant although the general level of wealth was probably very low. There was no accumulation of wealth and relatively little land ownership in a basically nomadic population.
The Money Economy as a Means of Overcoming the Limits on Property
He apparently believes men found this original economic organization to be inconvenient because he describes a process by which men find a way to accumulate wealth by developing a money economy:
He that gathered a hundred bushels of acorns or apples, had thereby a property in them; they were his goods as soon as gathered. He was only to look that he used them before they spoiled; else he took more than his share, and robbed others… . If he gave away a part to any body else, so that it perished not uselessly in his possession, these he also made use of. And if he also bartered away plumbs that would have rotted in a week, for nuts that would last good for his eating a whole year, he did no injury, he wasted not the common stock; destroyed no part of the portion of goods that belonged to others, so long as nothing perished uselessly in his hands. Again, if he would give his nuts for a piece of metal, pleased with its color; or exchange his sheep for shells, or wool for a sparkling pebble or a diamond, and keep those by him all his life, he invaded not the right of others, he might heap up as much of those durable things as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in it.
And thus came in the use of money, some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.
Thus, although nature puts both a moral and an effective limit on the amount of property anyone can accumulate, the amount he can use without allowing anything to spoil, the limit is not defined by the amount of anything a person owns, but by the consequences of ownership. As long as nothing spoils in one’s possession, it doesn’t matter how much property anyone owns. Consequently, Locke reasons, men will try to find ways of storing their excess products by trading perishable goods for more durable ones that can be used in the future. In the course of this trading process, he implies, one commodity, the most durable and easily tradable one, eventually becomes commonly acceptable as a money commodity. Locke describes this process as men consenting to use money, a form of agreement which enables men to avoid the disadvantages implicit in the original natural limits to property ownership in the state of nature.
The Need to Protect Property Leads to Government
While the use of money is a reasonable way of getting around the difficulties of storing wealth, its consequences are profound. Money permits the more “industrious and rational” and therefore the more productive, to accumulate the products of their labor and thus to increase their wealth relative to the less industrious or talented. Furthermore, the growing accumulation of physical property and land puts pressure on natural resources and makes it increasingly less likely that any individual could find “enough and as good” land left over after appropriation by others. Hence overcoming the spoilage limitation also implies the end to the certainty that no one will be adversely affected by property ownership. Locke seems to argue that the consequences will be property disputes and increasing concern for personal safety, although these consequences follow as much from the growth of population as from increasing resource scarcity brought about by the introduction of money into the state of nature. The result, however, is that men will find it greatly to their advantage to come together to form a contract to enter into civil society and establish a government.
The reason, then, that men form societies and governments is to protect their property which Locke takes to include life, liberty, and estate. In the state of nature, with resource scarcity and men “no great observers of equity and justice,” the ability to enjoy life, liberty, or one’s estate becomes limited indeed. By agreeing to give up his right to be a judge in his own case, each man gains the benefits of increased order and security. Hence the ownership of private property is one of the major causes of the existence of the state. Once men form states, the government is expected to rule in the public good and not for its own good, and one of the ways it fulfills this charge is by regulating property so as to make it secure. Should the government fail to meet its obligations, for instance by arbitrarily confiscating property, the citizens have the right to change the government.
Difficulties of Interpretation in Locke Scholarship
This outline of Locke’s theory of property and the relationship to the origin of government conceals a plethora of difficulties. Almost anyone who has taken the trouble to study carefully Locke’s theory of property comes away with a great sense of puzzlement. The exposition seems fraught with inconsistencies and partially explained ideas. Locke seems to raise more problems than he solves and one cannot help but wonder not only what Locke meant to say, but also what he actually said. The problems are by no means trivial ones. The kinds of questions Locke scholars try to answer are some of the most profound in political philosophy: Did Locke believe in natural law? What were the characteristics of the state of nature where men were presumed to live without government? Was it peaceful or chaotic, poverty stricken or comfortable? The answer to these questions implies a view of the contribution of government to human welfare. How much property did Locke think any one individual was entitled to own? Did he approve of acquisitive behavior? Why should men be willing to trade their natural freedom for the restrictions of civil society? Once they do, what is the status of property in civil society? Each of these questions appears to have conflicting answers in the text of Locke’s Two Treatises.
It is, as a result, a fairly simply matter to justify any of a number of interpretations of Locke’s theory of property by claiming that his statements which support one interpretation are the ones he really meant while the apparent contradictory statements were slips of the pen. It is a frustrating problem of Locke scholarship that such an interpretive process might be necessary and might even lead to a correct analysis of Locke’s meaning. How one decides which statements Locke means and which are unimportant or slips is another question. Some have relied on minute textual exegeses, others have argued that Locke’s Treatises can only be fully understood in relationship to his other work, and still others have argued that the text is a cover for a hidden meaning that must be ferreted out by breaking Locke’s code.
The difficulties inherent in trying to discover what a thinker “really meant” apart from what he happened to write down can be well illustrated by examining the three unusual, even eccentric interpretations of Locke already alluded to, all of which claim to provide the real key to Locke’s political philosophy: Willmoore Kendall’s interpretation of Locke as a majority rule democrat, Leo Strauss’s (and Richard Cox’s) view of Locke as a secret Hobbesian, and, most important for Locke scholars, C.B. McPherson’s analysis which labels Locke as a capitalist apologist by revealing the possessive nature of his individualism.
Kendall’s Locke: the Rule of the Majority vs. Individual Property Rights
Willmoore Kendall’s study, John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule (1941) was intended to illuminate the general problem of the status of the principle of majority rule in societies. Kendall himself is obviously antagonistic to the doctrine insofar as it implies the ability of the majority to trample on the rights of minorities, so his characterization of Locke as “the captain of the team” of majority rule democrats is not intended to be flattering. Particularly irksome to Kendall is the more common view that Locke was the “prince of individualists,” the champion of individual rights against the state, of limited government and the sanctity of property: in short, the interpretation which we are advancing. Kendall makes his case for Locke’s essential majority rule collectivism by examining “the most crucial of the ‘natural’ individual rights which he is thought to have defended,” the natural right to property.
Kendall argues that far from championing inalienable individual rights, Locke saw rights to be derived from social duties, that rights “inhere in the individual as related to other individuals in a community whose characteristicum is a complex of reciprocal rights and duties.” Hence, rights can be withdrawn by the community should the individual fail to perform the duty which guaranteed his right in the first place. The primary case in point to Kendall is the right to property. Although he agrees that Locke seems to give individuals an unquestioned right to the property they create by the mixing of their own labor with land in the state of nature. Kendall claims that “when Locke has to choose between the individual’s right of property in that with which he has mixed his labor and the common right of men to their preservation, he unhesitatingly sacrifices the former to the latter.”
The crux of Kendall’s argument is his reading and interpretation of Locke’s justification of private property. Kendall argues that a truly individualistic natural right to property should include the assumption that a person’s right to property is inviolable and that it can never legitimately be set aside for “the convenience and welfare of others.” This, Kendall correctly points out, Locke never meant to argue. It is fairly easy to show that Locke believed each man had a duty to preserve the lives of others “as much as he can” and “when his own Preservation comes not in competition.” Locke clearly places a moral responsibility on the part of property owners to engage in acts of charity in life-threatening situations. This in itself does not mitigate the individualist nature of the right to property, however, since it is not clear that a moral duty should be enforced by an agency outside of the individual.
More convincing evidence for Kendall’s position are all the passages where Locke describes the benefits of property ownership for mankind as a whole. Kendall argues that the import of these passages is to make of property nothing more than an expedient for improving the lot of mankind; property ownership is justified not because it conforms with natural law per se, but because it is the best means to the end of preserving mankind. Kendall further strengthens his claim by arguing:
Indeed, in his discussion of property in land, Locke’s language appears to commit him to the view that the burden is always upon the exerciser of the right of property to prove that “others” will not suffer from the appropriation; and it is abundantly clear that he is thinking of the right of property simply as a function of one’s duty to enrich mankind’s common heritage.
Here, Kendall has gone too far. It is unquestionable that Locke believed property ownership would always benefit society as a whole, but the justification was not one of expediency. The burden of proof was not always upon the property owner to prove that others will not suffer from the appropriation as Kendall claims.
Locke’s Two Arguments for Property: Natural Rights and Social Benefits
Locke’s discussion of the origin of private property includes two sorts of arguments in favor of property. The first is the natural rights argument where self-ownership implies ownership of those goods created by men through labor. This right is absolute in that it follows from natural law and reason, although it is bounded by the limitation that no one may permit resources to spoil in his possession, and, possibly, that there be alternative opportunities for others to create their own property. The fact that there are limits to the right to property does not make it less individualistic, however. God may have given the world to men in common for their use, but God also gave to individuals the rights to create their own property and to make use of it “to any purpose.” This is one of those happy occasions where natural law and individual rational perceptions of natural law generally coincide.
The second kind of argument in favor of private property is what Kendall calls the expedient. As we have seen, Locke calls attention to the productivity of labor by pointing out in various instances how labor contributes to the greatest part of the value of all things.
Let anyone consider, what the difference is between an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley; and an acre of the same land lying in common, without any husbandry upon it, and he will find that the improvement of labour makes the far greater part of the value.
Labor produces far more of the value of products than does land:
’tis labour then which puts the greatest part of the value upon land, without which it would scarcely be worth anything: ‘tis to that we owe the greatest part of all its useful products: for all that straw, bran, bread, of that acre of wheat, is more worth than the product of an acre of as good land, which lies waste, is all the effect of labour.
These passages establish the relative importance of the contribution of labor to the production of things people value and help to explain why natural law would permit the “property of labour to over-ballance the community of land.” Locke further points out that the increased productiveness of private land over common land implies an increase in the economic well-being of the community as a whole:
He that incloses land and has a greater plenty of the conveniencys of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind. For his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres which were but the product of an hundred lying in common.
From passages such as these, Kendall concludes that Locke means to justify property ownership by the social benefits it confers, that the expediency arguments take precedence over the natural right arguments for property. This is not the case. The social benefits Locke describes are dividends of property ownership which he points out to quiet any grumblings from the “quarrelsome and contentious” who might be apt to challenge the natural right to property. In fact, Locke’s discussion of the right to property is characteristic of his thought on many issues. There is both a natural right dictated by natural law (and obvious to anyone who will take the time to think about it) and a benefit that flows from observing natural law; everyone is better off with private property in the state of nature where “right and conveniency went together.” When right and conveniency don’t go together, as happens in the state of nature after money comes into use, men establish civil governments to protect their right to enjoy the property created by each of them in the state of nature.
There may still be an argument to be made for Locke as a majority rule democrat within government where governments regulate the right to property, but the case cannot be supported with Locke’s theory of property in the state of nature.
Leo Strauss’s Locke: Hobbesian Individualism, The Spirit of Capitalism, and Property
Whereas Kendall sees Locke as a majority rule democrat who does not deserve his reputation as an individualist champion, Leo Strauss offers the exact opposite interpretation in his influential Natural Right and History (1953). Here Strauss argues that Locke’s theory of property is reflective of the individualism that leads to the “spirit of capitalism,” an individualism that was a more advanced expression of the political philosophy of Hobbes. Although Locke used the language of natural law and natural rights, of limitation on property and of charity, the language was simply a cover that allowed him to convey his true message while avoiding hostility on the part of the reader. According to Strauss, Locke really believed there is no genuine natural law, only conventional law, and there are “no natural principles of understanding: all knowledge is acquired; all knowledge depends on labor and is labor.” Locke in this reading is a hedonist, for whom the greatest good is “in having those things which produce the greatest pleasure” —a materialist hedonist at that. Locke’s true message in his theory of property, according to Strauss, was that “covetousness and concupiscence, far from being essentially evil or foolish, are, if properly channeled, eminently beneficial and reasonable, much more so than ‘exemplary charity’”. Strauss makes of Locke an early Mandeville when he claims “By building civil society on the ‘low but solid ground’ of selfishness or of certain ‘private vices,’ one will achieve much greater ‘public benefits’ than by futilely appealing to virtue, which is by nature “unendowned.’” Going even further, Strauss makes Locke an early Adam Smith when he argues that Locke believed “restraint of the appetites is replaced by a mechanism whose effect is humane,” the mechanism being money or, more accurately, a money economy.
Strauss’s reading of Locke as a Hobbesian individualist is impressionistic at best. He communicates a feeling about the import of Locke’s message with very little evidence produced from Lockean texts. Strauss’s interpretation would not even be mentioned here did it not raise some interesting questions for Locke scholarship addressed by later writers. The first question is methodological and asks to what degree can we read through an author’s published words to the underlying real meaning. Strauss reasons that if Locke appears contradictory, perhaps he was deliberately contradictory to serve his greater purpose. Strauss believes that Locke used the language of natural law and natural rights, charity, and restraint to make his message more pallatable to his audience. By reading Locke this way, of course, Strauss ignores or discounts all those passages which drove Kendall to see Locke as a collectivist in individualist clothing. Strauss and Kendall cannot both be right.
The second question raised by Strauss is substantive. Surely the elements Strauss chooses to emphasize are present in Locke’s writings. To what degree, then is it correct to view Locke as embodying the “spirit of capitalism”?
Richard Cox and the Problem of Order in the State of Nature
The methodological question raised by Strauss was addressed with unmatched exuberance by Richard Cox in his relatively little known work, Locke on War and Peace (1960). Cox argues that Locke wrote the Two Treatises on two levels. The first level uses the conventional language of natural law and biblical teaching to convey the impression that he had a perfectly orthodox view of man’s nature and his relationship to his fellow man. The second, deeper level of writing, however, actually was meant to convey exactly the opposite view, that man was a Hobbesian creature ruled by passions whose life would be at best “nasty, poor, brutish, ugly and short” without the institution of some kind of government to improve his lot, and that, to act effectively the government in power would have to take account of the natural base passions of man.
Cox’s Hobbesian Locke: The Circumstantial Evidence
Cox bases his case for Locke’s “secret writing” on two kinds of evidence. The circumstantial evidence that Locke hid his true meaning is marshalled from a reading of Locke’s personality and the historical circumstances within which he wrote. All Locke scholars have remarked on Locke’s extreme caution with regard to political matters. He rarely uttered a controversial word in the political arena, and when he did commit himself to writing, he refused to acknowledge his authorship. The same can be said about his views on religion which were suspected of being heterodox in the extreme. He did not relish open debate, and neither would he have been willing to lose his political influence as a result of being embroiled in too much public controversy. Even more importantly, where political writings were concerned, controversial doctrines were frequently held to be seditious doctrines and could lead the author straight to the gallows. This was the sad fate of Algernon Sidney, another writer of controversial political doctrine resembling Locke’s.
Locke’s caution with regard to his political views reflects his rational response to the political uncertainties of his age, and provides acceptable evidence of his desire to write as much as possible in the language of the majority view. That the views Locke was trying to insinuate in his writings were Hobbesian, as Strauss and Cox maintain, does not necessarily follow. Recent research has established that Locke’s immediate purpose in writing the Two Treatises happens to have been exactly the one he described, to refute Filmer’s divine right of King’s doctrine, and “to establish the true, original and extent of civil government.” The work was an integral part of his patron’s, the Earl of Shaftesbury’s, plot first to exclude the Catholic James II from the throne and finally to establish the Duke of Monmouth as the next King of England. Shaftesbury’s plots were clearly treasonous and Locke had ample reason to exercise caution concerning the publication of his essays. Although originally written around 1683, he waited until 1689–1690 to publish the esseys after James was deposed and Prince William of Orange safely ensconced on the throne. By then, it was safer for writers to propose that governments rested on contracts, but to add an extra margin of safety, Locke wrote an introduction presenting the Treatises “to make good the throne of King William” to be certain William couldn’t perceive the Treatises as a threat to his sovereignty. Locke nevertheless continued vehemently to deny his authorship of theTreatises until he was on his death bed and had nothing further to lose by disclosure. His caution is adequately explained by the radical nature of his arguments for government by contract, the limited powers of even elected officials and the right of oppressed populations to change rulers. Given the historical background of the Treatises, it is unlikely that Locke would have gone to all that trouble of concealment solely because his views may have had some affinity to those of Hobbes.
Cox’s Hobbesian Locke: The Substantive Evidence
Cox’s substantive evidence for the Hobbesian nature of Locke’s thought depends upon a careful attempt to sort out the inconsistencies in the Two Treatises in order to break Locke’s code. His reading is ingenious and partially, if not wholly convincing, resting as it does on Cox’s interpretation of Locke’s state of nature and the conditions of men in that natural state. Cox claims that far from describing an orderly and peaceful state of nature, Locke really intends to describe a natural state where conditions are so stark and dismal that individuals willingly escape to government.
Cox, as does Strauss implicitly, raises an interesting question. If the state of nature is so congenial as many readers of Locke believe, why do men give up their freedom willingly to government? Locke clearly states that there are inconveniences in the state of nature where men are all judges in their own disputes, and that “men are no great lovers of equity and justice.” He also states that men have a natural sociability that drives them into society. Virtually no Locke scholar believes that Locke thought individuals could persist in the state of nature for very long. But why not? Cox argues, as we have seen, that Locke held a very Hobbesian view of the state of nature characterized by ongoing battles and extreme poverty. As evidence of the poverty, Cox points to Locke’s many statements about the great value of labor and the relative worthlessness of land; and he cites Locke’s observations about the failure of men to observe the law of nature as evidence of their inherent brutality outside of civil society. He insists that, given Locke’s description of men in their natural condition, although they may in principle have a right to life, liberty, and property, they can meet the objective conditions necessary to enjoy these rights only in government.
Problems with Cox’s View of Locke
Cox carries his reading of Locke a bit too far to be completely persuasive. In Locke’s state of nature there is certainly relative poverty and some strife, but the level of each is inversely correlated to the level of the other. In the earliest stages of existence before the introduction of money, there was no property accumulation, little land ownership, and, one can infer, a great deal of poverty (although this is not completely clear. Locke does talk as if men have as much as they “need” in this early time). We have seen that the introduction of money increases wealth both for the “industrious and rational” who accumulate large amounts of property, and for those who benefit only indirectly from the spillover benefits when others create property. However, the cost to mankind of the use of money is the increasing dissension brought about by increasing resource scarcity and greater inequality of income. Although by using money, men tacitly consent to the unequal distribution of wealth and hence should have no cause for complaint, in fact “menare no great respectors of equity and justice” and the enjoyment of property becomes less and less secure. Contrary to Cox’s argument, however, it isn’t necessary that everyone act contrary to natural law: or to be in a constant state of war with everyone else in order for the state of nature to be intolerable. The level of disorder could conceivably become intolerable if only a small percentage of the population engages in criminal behavior.
An even more interesting problem concerns the possibility of disputes among otherwise law abiding men in the state of nature. If increasing populations and accumulations of wealth lead to a disappearance of the common property, as Locke supposes, there will no longer be “enough and as good” left for everyone, and there could easily be an increase in the number of property disputes in which the title to property is not immediately obvious to everyone. (Remember, it isclear that labor grants a title to property only where there is enough and as good left in common for others. Where this is no longer the case, perfectly honorable men could be unable to settle disputes about property ownership when each is judge in his own case. This reading would still result in rational humans desiring to leave an inconvenient state of nature, but it allows them to do so with more dignity. It also makes it seem more plausible that they could be rational enough to create property in the first place, and to enter into a contract as formal as necessary to begin civil society. Furthermore, this reading gives more credibility to the emphasis Locke places on the limitations of government. If the state of nature is really as mean and miserable as Cox believes, any government is better than no government, even for a short period of time, and Locke clearly did not believe that to be the case.
That Locke believed civil society to be preferable to the state of nature is unquestionable. However, it is equally unquestionable that he believed there were limits to the powers of government, which limits derived from men’s condition in the natural state. When government tramples on the rights of individuals, especially when it confiscates the property it was organized to protect, men might very well reason that they would be better off with another government. Locke argued that men would never again revert to a state of nature once they contracted into civil society, but they would replace one government with another. In an age accustomed to claims of absolute monarchs, this contractual theory of government was a revolutionary statement. Men do have rights and they do have power to control the government to insure that the government operates in their interest rather than in its own interest. This is the radical political message of theSecond Treatise, and a message that is not primarily Hobbesian.
MacPherson’s Locke: Possessive Individualism and Property
The question of how much of Locke to take seriously in assessing his theory of property arises again in the work of C.B. MacPherson. In 1962, MacPherson published one of the most original and provocative studies of Locke’s political philosophy. MacPherson’s study of Locke was presented within the context of a treatise on The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism in which he argued that the distinctive feature of the individualism espoused by the classical liberal philosophers was its possessive nature: its focus on the importance of private property to individualist political philosophy. Hence, in MacPherson’s work, the theory of property took center stage in his overall evaluation of Locke. MacPherson argued persuasively not only that Locke’s political philosophy reflected the “spirit of capitalism” as had Strauss, but he claimed even more strongly that Locke consciously designed his theory of property to provide a rationale for the developing capitalist society of seventeenth century England. He saw Locke as one of the first apologists for capitalist appropriation and an advocate of the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”
Because MacPherson’s interpretation of Locke is radical and undeniably Marxist both in the structure of his argument and in his moral attitudes, it has aroused a good deal of adverse criticisms. Nevertheless, the exposition is so tightly argued and the interpretation so coherent that it has significantly altered the course of Locke scholarship. No one can write about Locke after MacPherson without carefully considering his position. It is necessary for serious Locke scholars to contend with MacPherson, moreover, not because he is necessarily correct, but because he has managed to ask many significant questions that arise in Locke’s theory of property and civil government.
Locke’s Hidden Assumptions: “Possessive Individualism”
Despite the many inconsistencies which have been the bane of generations of Locke scholars, MacPherson claims that Locke’s political theory becomes completely intelligible and consistent once Locke’s hidden assumptions are made explicit. Locke’s alleged hidden assumptions are all elaborations of what MacPherson calls “possessive individualism,” the assumptions that people relate to each other primarily as owners, that individual freedom is a function of the possessions of individuals and that society is nothing but the sum of the “relations of exchange between proprietors.” The culprit responsible for such a philistine society according to MacPherson is the very concept of self-ownership wherein the individual himself is seen as a property and as neither a moral whole nor a part of a larger social whole.
The question of whether or not it is legitimate to interpret a scholar by relying on “hidden” or implicit assumptions is one that need not detain us here. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that a writer may innocently fail to state all of his assumptions, as MacPherson says, either because he believes they will be taken for granted by his readers or because he, himself, doesn’t fully realize they are his assumptions. The pitfall of this kind of scholarship, however, is that one may inadvertently substitute one’s own assumptions for those of the author and hence be severely mistaken about the author’s true intent. This, I believe, is the case with MacPherson. His own judgments about the nature of the capitalist economy lead him to gross errors regarding Locke’s view of the moral nature of society and man. The unfortunate result is that while his reading of Locke’s theory of property is sound in many important particulars, his overall interpretation of Locke’s theory of political society is mistaken.
Property and the Class Society
According to MacPherson, Locke’s major achievement in his theory of property was “to base the property right on natural rights and natural law, and then to remove all the natural law limits from the property right.” He believes that Locke wanted to justify unlimited right to property in order to ground the primary feature of capitalist society, unequal ownership of property, in natural law. Further MacPherson sees Locke’s justification of unequal ownership leading to the reprehensible conclusion that only property owners were full members of society, while the propertyless had fewer rights and an inherent incapacity to make the judgments and acquire the information necessary to function fully in political society. In other words, MacPherson’s Locke envisions a society divided into two classes with the capitalists on top and the downtrodden workers scraping along the bottom under the yoke of political and economic oppression. MacPherson buttresses his case by pointing out the flaws in the Locke-as-constitutionalist approach: this approach emphasizes the limits Locke places on government in the interests of property, yet it overlooks the very great power Locke gave to the political community (his civil society) over individuals, e.g. the aspect of Locke that gave Kendall cause for complaint. To MacPherson, both features of Locke’s work are consistent when it is realized that only property owners are full members of society and therefore have mutual interests which eliminate the need to specifically guarantee individual rights. All full members of society would thus agree on the content of individual rights, the foremost of which would be the right to property.
MacPherson’s careful reading of the origin of property in the Second Treatise is especially interesting, because he was the first to emphasize the great importance which the introduction of money makes to Locke’s account of property in the state of nature. Hence, he divides his analysis into two parts: the early stage of nature before the introduction of money, and the post-money stage.
The Pre-Money Stage and Property Accumulation
In the first stage before the introduction of money, he notes the potential limitations to the ownership of property remarked on earlier, the spoilage limitation (“as much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labor fix a property in”), the sufficiency limitation (“For labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.”), and he tentatively adds a third, the labor limitation (“Whatsoever he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, he hath mixed his labour with, and rained to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property”). He correctly points out that the spoilage limit was the most important (and confining) in Locke’s system. If all men obeyed this limit in the early stage of the state of nature, sufficiency was assured.
MacPherson also correctly discerns that the introduction of money transforms the character of the limits to property ownership. He sees money as “transcending” the limits of property by enabling men to accumulate as much as the want without fear of spoilage. Instead of viewing this as a benefit to men: however, MacPherson questions why anyone would want to accumulate more than he can make use of in the first place. Why do men want to store wealth when there is originally as much land as anyone could possibly want to work with? While anyone who considers the problems of poor harvests, the uncertain futures, and the pleasures of greater comfort, security, and convenience could readily supply an answer to this question, MacPherson claims Locke does not supply it. He specifically denies that Locke assumed men wanted more pleasure from the wealth they accumulate and instead argues that they want the wealth for its own sake. He claims that Locke was a mercantilist who believed the sole purpose of investment is to “beget further investment,” and that the primary function of money is to serve as capital. The goal of accumulation, according to MacPherson, is wealth and power, and hence Locke “justified the specifically capitalist appropriation of land and money” as a natural right in the state of nature.
Although there are grains of truth in MacPherson’s description of Locke’s mercantilism, his reading is far too simplistic to do justice to Locke. It is true that Locke did not offer an explanation for why men wish to accumulate property in the Second Treatise most likely because he took it for granted that his readers would be able to supply the reason from their own experience. MacPherson builds his case on Locke’s hidden assumptions, yet this most obvious one he overlooks. The desire for wealth is not unusual among men. It is certainly not generally conceived to be irrational. In Locke’s economic writings, to which MacPherson selectively turns to support his argument, Locke clearly states that it is the plenty of the necessaries and conveniencies of life that constitute riches. Wealth consists in the ability to enjoy an abundance and variety of goods. To claim that Locke believed in accumulation for its own sake is bad enough, but to further make him guilty of believing that money alone constituted wealth is to attribute to him an absurdity unfound in the history of economic thought. Locke did favor capital accumulation as a means of increasing wealth, and he did have a definite preference for an increasing money supply because he though it would be an aid to capital accumulation and increased wealth, but he never confused one with another in any meaningful sense. MacPherson, however, accuses Locke not only of believing in a totally nonsensical view of accumulation, he also claims that Locke believed this to be the only true form of rationality.
The Post-Money Stage and Property
MacPherson goes on to discuss the sufficiency limit and again points out that it is overcome by the introduction of money into the state of nature. The consent to use money implies men’s consent to the consequences of a money economy: an unequal distribution of wealth and an end to economic sufficiency, or in our terminology, an end to resource abundance. In fact, we have already seen that population growth is as much responsible for the end of sufficiency in land as money, but certainly the introduction of money is a contributing factor. MacPherson correctly states that Locke does not find this situation troubling however, because of his belief that the other benefits of money economy more than compensate. Because of the increased economic activity made possible by the use of money, MacPherson agrees it will always be possible to find a way to make a living through commercial exchange even if all common land is appropriated, and hence Locke substitutes “sufficiency in making a living” for “sufficiency in land” as a requirement for legitimate property. In fact, we can take this one step farther. Once money becomes a proxy for accumulated real wealth, as Locke understood, the total value of the stock of wealth that can be owned by members of a community is no longer limited by the amount of land to which it has access and hence everyone can be better off.
MacPherson complains, however, that even though Locke allows for the entire value of the wealth of the community to increase as a result of private ownership, there is no guarantee that this wealth will be equitably distributed. He shows that Locke makes the assumption that the standard of living of everyone will increase regardless of who owns the property (“a king of a large and fruitful territory there [in America] feeds, lodges and is clad worse than a day laborer in England”), yet MacPherson still believes that Locke assumed landowners would gain at the expense of the landless masses who will be forced to alienate their labor in return for a subsistence income.
Evidence of the inferior status of the landless MacPherson finds in Locke’s discussion of wage labor. MacPherson correctly points out that Locke took the existence of wage labor for granted even in the state of nature and hence never meant to describe strict labor limitation to property ownership. In the very beginning of the property chapter of the Second Treatise (Chapter V) when Locke is establishing the connection between labor and property rights he says, “Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property.” While it might seem strange in a passage aimed at showing how labor creates the title to property to argue that the product of a servant’s labor should belong to the employer, Locke seems to have treated it as entirely natural and understandable. If each man has a property in his own person, he has the right to sell the use of that property if he so wishes. In fact, Locke specifically describes the nature of the wage relationship as contractual:
for a Free-man makes himself a servant to another, by selling him for a certain time, the service he undertakes to do, in exchange for wages he is to receive: and though this commonly puts him into the family of his Master, and under the ordinary discipline thereof; yet it gives the master but a temporary power over him, and no greater, than what is contained in the contract between ‘em.
Obviously, a servant (or wage-earner) chooses to give up his right to the property he creates in return for a guaranteed wage. His labor subsequently is at his employer’s direction and is a result of his employer’s initiative, and the property which emerges from their productive efforts belong to the employer. Locke does not give a specific reason why a freeman would want to sell his labor to someone else when he could work for himself and acquire his own property. Presumably he believed a man would sell his labor only if it were to his advantage. Locke believed that not all men are equally capable, so he might have believed also that a less capable man would prefer working for another rather than taking the risk of having to live on what he could make for himself. MacPherson, as one might predict, sees the existence of wage labor in a much less benign light. He sees landless laborers forced to sell their labor to landed property owners, and concludes that “the continual alienation of labour for a bare subsistence wage, which he [Locke] asserts to be the necessary condition of wage-labourers throughout their lives, is in effect an alienation of life and liberty.”
Problems with MacPherson Class Rights Reading of Locke on Property
All the rhetoric in MacPherson’s examination of Locke’s theory of property aside, he shows a fine understanding of the mechanics of Locke’s system. Although MacPherson is mistaken in his reading of Locke’s view of the unlimited accumulation of property for its own sake, and the degree and source of inequity of property ownership in the state of nature, his basic analysis of the development of the property argument is correct. However, when MacPherson tries to show the implications of differential property ownership within civil society, he seriously distorts Locke’s intentions. He tries to argue that beyond justifying unlimited accumulation of property, wage labor, and the implicit capitalist economy in the state of nature, Locke also “justifies, as natural, a class differential in rights and in rationality, and by doing so provides a positive moral basis for capitalist society, implying thereby that capitalism requires differential rights.” It is in this part of his exposition that his negative assessment of capitalism most interferes with his understanding of Locke’s intentions.
MacPherson claims that Locke assumed first “that while the labouring class is a necessary part of the nation its members are not in fact full members of the body politic and have no claim to be so; and secondly, that the members of the labouring class do not and cannot live a fully rational life.” He includes both laboring poor and idle poor in his “labouring class.” His argument is essentially that the poor (which includes “all who were dependent on employment or charity or the workhouse because they had no property of their own by which or on which to work”) because of the very poverty of their condition cannot lead a fully rational life in Locke’s eyes. He substantiates his claim by pointing to the several passages in Locke’s economic writing where Locke describes laborers as living from hand to mouth or at subsistence. Like Adam Smith later on, Locke also alludes to the mind dulling effects of most routine labor. MacPherson further argues that when rationality implies property accumulation. those without property cannot be fully rational.
Locke’s View of the Laboring Class
There are several grave errors in MacPherson’s interpretation. First of all, Locke did not equate the laboring poor with the idle poor in his assessment of their moral status. He spared little sympathy for the idle poor who he believed were responsible for their own poverty. In fact, he recommended severe treatment of beggars by twentieth century standard, advocating forcing them into workhouses to teach them to earn their own living and to keep them from the public charge. For the working poor, however, Locke had great respect, and he believed it was the government’s repsonsibility to create a climate wherein workers had every opportunity to improve their income. The context of his statement about workers living from hand to mouth suggests that they were unable to save anything from their income, not that they were in dire economic straights. MacPherson, however, quotes a particularly damning passage from Locke’s economic writings, which seems to support his contention that Locke wanted to keep the workers down:
the labourer’s share [of national income], being seldom more than a bare subsistence, never allows that body of men, time, or opportunity to raise their thoughts above that, or struggle with the richer for theirs, (as one common interest) unless when some common and great distress, uniting them in one universal ferment, makes them forget respect, and emboldens them to carve to their wants with armed force: and then sometimes they break in upon the rich, and sweep all like a deluge. But this rarely happens but in the male-administration of neglected, or mismanaged government.
The import of Locke’s statement here, however, isn’t to argue that governments should see to it that workers remain poor; it is to argue that only mismanaged governments disrupt the economy to the extent that workers are so badly off that they take to the streets in armed insurrection.
Locke Opposed to Rigid Class Standards
It is true that Locke believed workers would generally live at subsistence, that they would be poorer than merchants, farmers and landowners. It may even be true that he thought the laboring poor to be on the whole less intelligent and less industrious than those who are well off, although there is no direct evidence for this. It is not true, however, that Locke believed they were inherently less rational and had fewer political rights than property owners. For one thing, Locke realized that in a money using (MacPherson’s capitalist) society, anyone could be a property owner. Everyone was a property owner by virtue of his self-ownership and this property in self could be extended to property in things and in money. Locke’s real achievement was to extend the definition of property to include all forms of wealth, and hence to extend the possibility of property ownership beyond that of land. The capitalist economy that MacPherson is so bent on denigrating, enables men not only to make a living by “alienating” their labor, but also enables them to accumulate wealth if they are “industrious and rational” enough. Fortunes can be made and lost, and wealth transferred from the less able and lucky to the more able and lucky regardless of “class” background.
The assumption of rigid class boundaries is a major deficiency in MacPherson’s reading of Locke. It is true that Locke never specifically described the upward mobile process, yet his economics is full of examples of changing fortunes. Merchants especially become wealthy because they are adventurous and able, and there is no presumption that they all come from some predetermined merchant class. Simple day laborers may be poorer than other groups in society, but they are better off than they would be without a “capitalist” economy, and they have the possibility through diligence, to pull away from the pack and make their way in the world, an alternative they would not have under a more feudalistic social structure.
MacPherson, however, denies that this could ever happen. He argues that Locke was inconsistent in his view of human rationality. On the one hand Locke assumed that men are equally rational and capable of looking after themselves. Here, he claims, Locke conceived of man in the image of the “rational bourgeois.” However, MacPherson also argues, that as an elitist, “The seventeenth-century bourgeois observer could scarcely fail to see a deep-rooted difference between the rationality of the poor and that of the men of some property. The difference was in fact a difference in their ability or willingness to order their own lives according to the bourgeois moral code. But to the bourgeois observer this appeared to be a difference in men’s ability to order their lives by moral rules as such.” Hence Locke was forced to conclude that even in the state of nature, some men were moral and rational and created property, and others were immoral and irrational and made the enjoyment of property “unsafe and insecure.” Hence, according to MacPherson, differences in property, not only reflected differences in ability, but also differences in morality and in rationality. Once the ownership of property divided men into two classes, the differential rationality became inherent in the class. Thus within civil society, the less rational were to be tolerated, and well-treated, but were not to have full rights within a civil government aimed at protecting property.
Locke’s Expansive and Classless View of Property
This analysis fails as a reading of Locke primarily because it takes a very narrow view of the meaning of property as every other Locke scholar has commented. To Locke, property was not simply land. Although Locke specifically reiterates in several places within the Second Treatisethat the cause for entry into civil society was the protection of property, by which he meant life, liberty, and estate, MacPherson consistently interprets him to mean solely estate, and landed estate at that. But even if Locke meant only estate by the term property, to him estate included the property one had in one’s own person. This was in jeopardy for everyone in the state of nature, rich or poor. Furthermore, property ownership was not conceived of as limited to a few wealthy individuals on great tracts of land, as MacPherson seems to envision. He seems to suffer from some feudalistic preoccupation with great manors. In seventeenth century England, property, even landed property ownership was fairly widespread, and when one considers the forms of property not tied to land (e.g. the commercial property belonging to the important merchant class) clearly Locke was not describing the principles of government which protect the few at the expense of the many. Rather Locke was concerned with the protection of the many from the excesses of the few who happened to wield political power. In his zeal to portray Locke as the wicked defender of an even more wicked capitalism. MacPherson misses the real thrust of Locke’s argument which is to protect people, all whom are property owners in one sense or the other, from the wicked use of political power.
Seliger’s Locke and the Welfare State
The approach of Strauss, Cox, and MacPherson in interpreting Locke has been attacked from many quarters. Peter Laslett calls MacPherson’s reading “thoroughly unrealistic and occasionally unhistoric.” Alan Ryan provides a devastating critique of MacPherson by stressing the shared interests of the laborers and capitalists in political society in Locke’s thought. He points convincingly to the absolute, arbitrary power of monarchs as Locke’s real target and observes that all men have property that is subject to government encroachment. John Dunn argues that MacPherson’s reading misses the traditional Christian elements in Locke’s thought, specifically the importance of charity and duty, and presents as evidence Locke’s notes on the just price to support his contention that Locke was concerned with economic justice in the Scholastic tradition. However, by far the most complete and convincing refutation of the whole Strauss-Cox-MacPherson reading of Locke as Hobbesian and Marx-style capitalist is presented by Martin Seliger in the context of his investigation of The Liberal Politics of John Locke (1969).
Seliger’s detailed reading of Locke is probably the most comprehensive treatment of Locke’s political theory in the literature today. His volume is both an exegesis of Locke’s writings and an attempt to investigate the nature of modern liberal political thought. Here, we will be most concerned with his reading of Locke’s theory of property which he, too sees to be the linchpin of Locke’s political thought.
Political Equality vs. Inequality of Property: the Need for Political Regulation of Property
Seliger begins by observing that most of the “confusions” found in Locke’s theory of property stem from misinterpreting Locke’s attitude toward equality. While it is clear that Locke positedpolitical equality, in the state of nature, he never assumed there would be equality of possessions. Hence, he had no need to “transcend” the law of nature to justify unequal wealth as MacPherson would have it. Locke presumed that differing natural capacities would lead to different amounts of property, and the use of money would simply enable men to enlarge their possessions, not to create inequality per se. Seliger is unique among Locke scholars in that he sees no problem with Locke’s assumption that men would want to enlarge their possessions. Refreshingly, he understands the desire to accumulate property evidences good sense. He also challenges MacPherson on the supposed inferiority of wage-labor in Locke. He, too, points out the contractual nature of the wage relationship and  makes the important observation that in order for a person to hire labor, the employer must be able to exchange the fruits of his own labor acquired at some time past. He further stresses, as we have noted, the Lockean assumption that there will be social and economic mobility. Seliger’s critique of MacPherson is devastating, yet Seliger’s own interpretation of Locke’s political philosophy is open to some criticism.
Seliger affirms that both the economic and political spheres depend upon consent and agreements among adults. However, he further argues that of the two spheres of agreement, the political sets limits for the economic and so is above the economic in importance. While Locke seems to emphasize the right to property above all other rights, his emphasis was symbolic. Just as his use of the broad definition of property is symbolic of the rights to life, liberty, and estate. Rather than having any special status, then, the enjoyment of property is subjected to political decisions just as any right is regulated by the political process.
Seliger supports his contention by showing that Locke always describes freedom as bounded by law, either natural law in the state of nature, or conventional law within civil society. Law is necessary to “maximize” freedom, that is, to protect individuals from the arbitrariness of their fellow man. Law, according to Seliger’s Locke, is a formalization of the public will, which itself is a resolution of the conflict among private wills. Within the legal code, one major tenet is that “people should have property” and should not have it subjected to the will of the government. To Seliger, Locke’s major concern was to protect property from arbitrary political ruling, not simply to protect property per se. His reading exactly captures the essence of Locke’s understanding of the relationship between freedom and law, and it brings Locke once again into the tradition of placing constitutional limits on the ability of governments to control the property of its citizens. Seliger goes on, however, to claim further that Locke describes a moral supremacy of the political sphere, and it is here that his interpretation is open to serious challenge.
Seliger’s Argument for Regulating Immoderate Holdings of Property
Seliger supports his view by once again going back to property in the state of nature. Here, he claims, Locke believes that the economic contract, (the agreement to use money) allows men to satisfy irrational desires and distorts intrinsic value of things while the political contract serves to overcome and regulate the anti-social results of these basically irrational pursuits. He further contends that equality is a virtue and since there is a natural political equality postulated in Locke’s writings but not a natural economic equality, he must have believed the economic sphere to be inferior to the political.
At first glance, Seliger’s statements seem to make sense. Locke does use the language of irrational desires and distortion of intrinsic values. He describes an early stage of human existence “before the desire of having more than men needed, had altered the intrinsic value of things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life of man,” and later he argues that “The greatest part of things really useful to the life of man… are generally things of short duration… . Gold, silver and diamonds are things that fancy or agreement hath put the value on, more than real use, and the necessary support of life.” In interpreting these passages, however, we can use a small dose of Strauss-Coxian reasoning. The language of intrinsic value is not an integral part of his argument and perhaps can be read as a sop to tradition. Even if we accept the premise that Locke really believed in some philosophical hierarchy of values, however, this does not necessarily imply that he disapproved of the changes in values brought about by money, or that the changes were irrational. In fact, all the evidence presented so far in this essay supports exactly the opposite view. Certainly, the concept of an intrinsic value of things that is morally superior to market values plays no role in his economic thought. In Locke’s economic writings, market price is specifically portrayed as reflecting the value of goods, and he sneers a bit at those who would try to connect prices with some preconceived view of intrinsic value.
Seliger’s Argument for the Superiority of the Political over the Economic
Seliger’s second argument for the moral superiority of the political over the economic realm is even less convincing. He claims that equality is a virtue and since Locke posits a natural political equality and not a natural economic equality, Locke must have been showing the moral superiority of political life over economic. This is a somewhat surprising argument because there is no presumption in the Two Treatises that equality is a deciding factor in evaluating the moral status of a social order. Even if that were the case, it is not self-evident that the actual political order is more conducive to equality than the economic order. The whole issue is muddied by the fact that Seliger gives no discussion of the nature of equality (but then, neither does Locke). There is evidence, however, that if the equality Seliger has in mind is some notion of equal treatment, Locke did see a rough and ready sort of equality in economic interactions. In his short piece on the just price (mentioned earlier in connection with Dunn’s criticism of MacPherson) Locke states that the market price is the just price, and that the economic activities of entrepreneurs in the marketplace will lead to a pretty “fair and equal account.” Locke, with a minimum of stretching of context can be interpreted to have presumed some kind of equality of opportunity existing in the marketplace.
Seliger’s Argument that Locke Favored State Regulation of Economic Activity
Seliger goes on to argue, however, that the supposed moral superiority of the political order over the economic order is further evidenced by Locke’s attitude toward economic regulation. This is a particularly important problem since Locke explicitly stated that labor gives title to property in the state of nature, but “in governments the laws regulate the right of property.” Obviously, Locke means by this that ownership rights are subject to the protection of the laws of civil society, but Seliger also takes Locke to mean by the regulation of property, regulation of economic activity per se. Since Locke did not mention any instances of economic regulation in the Two Treatises, Seliger turns to the economic writings for specific instances of Locke’s attitude toward state regulation of economic activity, but reads far more into Locke’s statements about regulation than can be supported by the texts.
Seliger asserts that Locke did not in his economic writings oppose all forms of economic regulation, only ill-advised ones. While this may be true in principle, in practice, it is difficult to find any regulation he did not describe as ill-advised. His opposition to interest rate regulation is well-known as is his conviction of the futility of price regulation in general. Yet Seliger claims that Locke favored “not only legislation that removes encumbrances to all private initiative but… also [favored] limiting some for the benefit of others.” His only example of a direct control favored by Locke is the statement that it may be necessary to set legal rates of interest when “a kind of monopoly, by consent, has put this general commodity [money] into a few hands.”Here, Locke was conjecturing that previous legal interest rates had been set below market and had fostered a monopoly of loanable funds among London bankers which he then thought might justify setting a legal rate of interest below the monopoly rate. This is clearly not a laissez-faire policy prescription, yet neither is it an argument for “credit regulation” as Seliger suggests, nor is it typical of an attitude that favors limiting private initiative to “discourage the concentration of capital.” The message of this particular example seems to be that previous attempts to “limit private initiative” led to a perverse result and that England would have been better off had interest rates never been set below market rates in the first place. It certainly is stretching the passage beyond the breaking point to argue that it shows Locke’s concern for preventing too great a concentration of capital for the sake of the public interest.
Locke Subordinates Government to Human Rights
Seliger’s attempt to show the moral supremacy of the political over the economic sphere misses the point of Locke’s writing. Locke’s Treatises, like his economics contain both normative and descriptive passages. Much of Chapter V of the Second Treatise, the property chapter, is descriptive. It describes how autonomous individuals with the desire for ease, comfort, and enjoyment operate within the constraints set by nature to overcome the limitations of the economic environment. In Locke’s thought, government is the logical arbiter of conflict exacerbated by economic growth. Government is not superior to the economic institutions evolved by reasonable men, government is a means to accomplish a desired end.
In his attempt to counter MacPherson’s characterization of Locke as a partisan of an evil, unlimited, oppressive capitalism, Seliger has taken the tack of showing how Locke really believed in a limited, restrained form of welfare statism. Seliger’s Locke endorses government which controls the alleged excesses of capitalism and metes out a measure of charity to those in distress. He sees the importance of the original contract to involve the limitations on the arbitrary exercise of government power, but he does not stress, as Locke did, the limitations on the moral authority of government over at least one large area of social life: property creation and enjoyment. Seliger’s Locke would be quite comfortable with modern western-style democratic governments where government undertook all manner of economic regulation and property transfers so long as it could be shown to represent the “manifest advantage of the public”. Seliger takes for granted that the advantage of the public will necessitate such measures.
Perhaps this is one more instance of a modern commentator anachronistically reading contemporary ideas back into the writings of an early political thinker, or perhaps Seliger is correct that the nature of contemporary liberalism was shaped by the implications of Locke’s theory of property. Whichever alternative is the case, it is clear that Locke himself would have been horrified by the excesses of the modern welfare state on grounds both of efficiency and equity.
Locke the economist would have recognized the absurdity of much of the bureaucratic maze that controls current economic life, and would have railed against the foolish and inefficient forms of economic regulation to which the individuals within the modern welfare state are subject. Leo Strauss was essentially correct in his claim that Locke believed effective government would have to take account of the passions (or interests) of individual citizens in framing legislation. Locke’s own economic pamphlets drive home the point again and again that regulation which fails to take incentives into account is worse than useless. Current legislation that erects disincentives to economic growth would probably have set him to writing tract after tract with titles like “Some Considerations of the Disastrous Consequences of Setting Up a Department of Energy and Lowering the Supply of Petroleum Products.” Locke made extensive use of efficiency arguments in his economic and political writings because he valued wealth and economic growth as important human goals.
Locke would also very likely have been horrified by the fiscal structure of modern governments and here, his objection would be primarily on the grounds of equity. While he believed that governments had the right and duty to regulate property for the good of the whole of society, his basic premise was that “people should have property.” Citizens owned their property apart from the laws of the state; they voluntarily agreed to tax themselves through their elected representatives; and however one chooses to evaluate the true “voluntary” nature of such taxation, the principle Locke was establishing was that property owed its origin to individual right and initiative and not to the sufferance of the King or political concession. The King had no right to arbitrarily confiscate or reallocate property among citizens unless there was an overriding public interest. It is no doubt true that the “overriding public interest” without clear agreement on what constitutes such an interest provides the loophole for the modern welfare state. Locke himself presumed such an interest would be obvious, and limited to alleviating starvation and defense against the princes of other countries with whom Britain existed in a state of nature, or at worst, a state of war. C. B. MacPherson was essentially correct in arguing that Locke believed most people would agree on the proper limitations on government control over property, but not because he excluded all the poor and laboring classes from his definitions of “the people.” Rather, Locke believed that most people would be property owners and would perceive that their wealth, lives and freedom would depend on limiting the prerogative of the King.
Much has been made of a passage in the Second Treatise in which Locke refers to “amor sceleratus habendi, evil concupiscence” as a cause of corruption in societies. It is generally taken to refer to the lustful greed of selfish men and used to argue Locke’s aversion to acquisitive behavior. Seliger considers this one more evidence of the irrational nature of economic wants. However, when the reference is taken in context, it clearly refers to the greed not of productive property owners, but to the greed of princes who lust after the wealth of their subjects and who need to be restrained by the wary public.
Locke could not imagine men living long in a state of nature because he couldn’t imagine those ends being satisfied in a civilized manner without a government to referee disputes and to provide a legal setting. However, it is incumbent upon government to abstain from subverting the economic ends of its citizens by overstepping its mandate. In this important sense, government is subservient not to the economy per se, but to the wills of the people who above all desire to protect their lives, liberties and estate. This is the overriding message of the Two Treatises of Government and the relationship between government and the citizen’s property rights.