Social Justice, Libertarianism

A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarian Thought – John Locke

Few political philosophers have had an influence comparable to that of John Locke.  In his own time, he was a revolutionary whose ideas ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 with the overthrow of King James II.   And not too long after his death, his ideas would have tremendous influence in the American colonies.  The path for the American Revolution was paved, in no small part, by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in their popular series of essays known as “Cato’s Letters,” which popularized key Lockean ideas and applied them to the American context.  And, of course, Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government would have an even more direct effect on Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence not only expresses Lockean themes, but does so at several points in something very close to Locke’s original language.

More importantly, at least for the idiosyncratic purposes of this blog, Locke's ideas were the single most important influence on the development of 20th century natural rights libertarian thought.  His work is cited favorably, and the influence of his ideas is apparent, in the work of both Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.  And, of course, the most well-known academic libertarian philosopher of the 20th century, Robert Nozick, explicitly and self-consciously followed Locke in much of his methodology, foundational moral assumptions, and political conclusions.

But if Locke was one of the founders of contemporary natural rights libertarianism, he was also, or so this post will argue, one of the founders of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism.  Locke's writings frequently express a deep concern for what has been described at various points on this blog as social justice.  Moreover, for Locke the compatibility of a property regime and political institutions with the requirements of social justice was an essential element in their justification.  It is not merely a happy coincidence that respect for natural rights happens to benefit the poor; the fact that it does so is an important part of the reason we have to think those natural rights really are natural rights!  That Locke takes this claim seriously is shown by the fact that in those cases where libertarian institutions fail to accord with social justice, it is the libertarian institutions, and not the commitment to social justice, that Locke is willing to discard.

Libertarian Elements in Locke’s Political Thought

The basic elements of Locke’s political philosophy are well-known to most libertarians.  Locke believed that human beings are governed by a natural moral law, and that we can discover this law through the use of reason.  This law tells us that human beings are equal in the sense that there is no natural “subordination or subjection” among persons (II. 2, 4).  And that they are “perfectly free to order their actions and dispose of their possessions as they think fit,” so long as they refrain from harming others in their “life, liberty, or possessions” (II. 2, 4 and 6).

One of the things that individuals are free to do is to appropriate land and other natural resources as private property.  For though God has given the Earth to “mankind in common” (II. 5, 25), he has given it to them to “make use of … to the best advantage of life and convenience,” (II. 5, 26) and the fruits of the earth can be of no use to men unless they are able to appropriate them in some way or another.

How can this process of appropriation be legitimate?  Locke notes that while the earth is common to all men, “every man has a property in his own person” (II. 5, 27).

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 joined to it something that it his own, and thereby makes it his property.  It being by him removed from the comon state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men.  For this 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 (II. 5, 27).

I will have more to say about this last clause – the so-called “Lockean proviso” – later.  The content of the law of nature, too, will need some clarification.  But at least superficially, the elements of Locke’s theory that I have set out so far have a very libertarian character to them.  Indeed, Murray Rothbard believed that these elements provided a sufficient foundation for the whole libertarian position:

These two axioms: self-ownership of each person, and the first use, or ‘homesteading’, of natural   resources, establishes the ‘naturalness’, the morality, and the property rights underlying the   entire free market economy.  For if a man justly owns material property he has settled in and worked on, he has the deduced right to exchange those property titles for the property someone else has settled in and worked on with his labour. For if someone owns property, he has a right to exchange it for someone else’s property, or to give that property away to a willing recipient. This chain of deduction establishes the right of free exchange and free contract, and the right of bequest, and hence the entire property rights structure of the market economy (Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, p. 316-317).

Note the highly rationalistic character of Rothbard’s gloss on Locke.  Self-ownership and the homesteading principles are “axioms” from which the rest of libertarianism can be “deduced.”  On this view, hose libertarians or proto-libertarians who accept these axioms but fail to follow Rothbard to their anarcho-capitalist conclusion are either making a logical mistake or are too terrified (in Benjamin Tucker’s language) to face up to the radical implications of their premises.

I shall have something to say in critique of this approach at a later point.  For now, however, let us take it for granted that Locke’s political thought has some strongly libertarian elements.  In addition to his belief in self-ownership and the legitimacy of private property, Locke also seems to allow for the moral legitimacy of considerable inequality (in II. 5, 36-51), holds that political authority is only legitimate with the consent of each individual (II. 8), upholds the right of the people to depose of their governments when those governments transcend the strict limits of natural law (II. 18).

As we shall see, however, these libertarian elements in Locke have bleeding heart foundations.  And those foundations set strict limits to just how libertarian Locke’s position ultimately really is.

Bleeding Heart Foundations

It is fashionable today in libertarian circles to draw a sharp distinction between natural rights libertarians and consequentialist libertarians.  The latter hold libertarian political and economic institutions to be justified because those institutions produce better consequences than any alternative institutions.  The former, we are told, support those institutions because they are just, regardless of the consequences. Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

Whatever merits this distinction might have as a matter of abstract philosophical analysis, however, it is certainly not a helpful way of thinking about Locke’s political philosophy.  For Locke, the consequences of property rights and limited government were of crucial importance in thinking about their moral justification.  Especially the consequences for the poor and vulnerable.

We have already seen, for instance, that Locke’s justification for the moral right to private property is conditioned upon a “proviso” that requires “enough and as good” be left for others.  The point of this proviso, for Locke, is to ensure that one man’s appropriation of land to himself is not “any prejudice to any other man” (II. 5, 33).  It is to ensure, in other words, that my taking resources from the stock of what God has given to mankind in common does not set back the interest of my fellow human beings.  And indeed, Locke takes great pains to show that the conversion of resources from the common stock to private use characteristically does not set back the interests of other human beings, but rather advances them.

he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies 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 (II. 5, 37).

This idea in this passage is, today, standard consequentialist libertarian fare: private property is good because people who own private property have the incentive to use it productively, incentives which are for well known reasons often absent in cases of common ownership.

But it is important to recognize the significance of this passage in Locke’s overall moral argument.  That private property produces these consequences is, for Locke, not mere gravy on top of an independent moral justification for the institution.  Because the Earth and its resources exist for the benefit of all persons, it is crucial for Locke to show that one person’s appropriation of a part does not set back the interests of others.  Each of us must appropriate resources in order to make use of it for our own preservation, but the self-preservation of the person who happens to come upon a resource first is of no greater moral significance, from the point of view of God or of morality, than the self-preservation of everyone else.

Notice, also, that Locke does more than simply point out that the general consequences of private ownership are good.  He makes a special point of noting that private ownership is good for the poor.

There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniencies we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England (II. 5, 41).

In other words, a king in America will be rich in all the bountiful natural resources that country has to offer.  But he will lack the benefits of the system of private property and the consequent incentives to productive labor that exist in England, and for this reason will fare worse than a common laborer in that latter country.

When Markets Aren’t Enough

And what about the laborers – or would-be laborers – who don’t fare better?  What about those whose boats are not lifted by the rising tide of wealth created by private property?  Locke is clear that we, as individuals and as a society, have a moral obligation to aid such individuals.  And he is clear that such a duty is not some minor and imperfect obligation of charity, but an essential element of the very same law of nature that gives each individual ownership over himself.  “Every one,” he writes, “as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another” (II. 2, 6).  Locke draws out the implications of this idea even more clearly in a passage from the First Treatise:

But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and 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 (I. 4, 42).

The language in this passage is significant.  Locke is not merely saying that a wealthy individual would be acting in a virtuous but supererogatory way if he were to give some of his wealth to someone else whose “pressing wants” call for it.  He is saying that he has no right not to give.  He is saying that the needy person has “title” to the rich person’s surplusage – and it’s hard to see how “title” could mean anything short of an enforceable right.  If, then, the purpose of the state is to enforce natural rights, then it looks very much like it will be permissible, perhaps obligatory, for the state to have some redistributive policies.  [We need not speculate regarding what Locke might have thought about this issue.  He addressed it explicitly in his “Essay on the Poor Law.”  I cannot find a copy of this essay online, but it is available in Cambridge University Press’s collection of Locke’s Political Essays.]

If the (extremely?) poor have a right to the surplusage of the wealthy, then perhaps this redistribution can be legitimately carried off with or without the consent of the wealthy.  But the consent requirement turns out to be, on closer examination, not nearly as restrictive as it might appear.  For while Locke does hold that governments must abide by the consent of the governed, on closer examination the explicit universal consent of each and every individual is only required to establish political society.  Once that society is established, those who enjoy its services even to the extent of travelling on public highways are held to have given their tacit consent to the government (II. 8, 119).  And so long as the government has even just the tacit consent of its members, any actions it undertakes with the sanction of a majority vote are held by Locke to be undertaken with the consent of each and every person.

It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them (II. 11, 140, emphasis added)

This principle, of course, rather weakens the libertarian implications of Locke’s theory of property.  If government cannot take my property without my consent, then the powers of government are extremely limited.  In effect, they are no greater than the powers of any other citizen or organization.  But if “my consent” just means “the consent of the majority of voters,” then, well, almost anything goes, and the door is opened up not only to redistributive taxation but also all kinds of property-limiting regulation, even beyond those necessary to enforce what some have seen as the monopoly-limiting implications of the Lockean Proviso.


The overview of Locke’s political thought that I have given here is far from exhaustive.  Moreover, I am not by any means a Locke scholar, nor can I claim to have read through all or even most of the vast secondary literature that has developed just over the last fifty years on Locke’s political thought.  So whatever conclusions I have argued for here are far from definitive.

Nevertheless, the main message I hope readers will take away from this essay is the following.  There are, to be sure, certain elements in Locke’s political thought that make it attractive to those of us with broadly libertarian sympathies.  But it would be a mistake to read Locke as a strict libertarian in the Rothbardian, or even in the Nozickian, sense.  Locke was a classical liberal who believed in the importance of property rights and of individual liberty.  But a significant part of his reason for believing in the importance of these things was his belief that they are at least compatible with, and perhaps essential to, the ability of all persons, especially the poor, to lead good lives.  When they do not – when, for instance, one person is able to acquire by a mix of appropriation and exchange a monopoly over some needed resource, or when a person through bad luck or imprudence is left without the material resources necessary to function as a human being – Locke is not only willing but insistent that libertarian principles give way for regulation or redistribution to serve the common good.


What follows are some resources that have proved especially useful to me in thinking about and understanding Locke’s political thought, especially its connections to libertarian and classical liberal political theory.  I’m sure the list will omit many items that others have found useful.  If I’ve left of your favorite, I’d encourage you to share it in the comments.  More exhaustive bibliographies can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia links below

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    “Locke’s justification for the moral right to private property is conditioned upon a “proviso” that requires “enough and as good” be left for others”
    Matt, a slight disagreement with a terrific post. I don’t think the proviso is a condition on the moral right to property. It’s a condition on initial appropriation in the S of N. Once we have a society, the proviso is met pretty much automatically, since you only acquire new resources by trading with people who have them. (Exceptions might include de novo creation, but I can’t think of any examples offhand.) Your right to property follows without condition from your right to live and be free, which are based on our equal moral status. The proviso can’t be seen IMO as a qualifier on your right to property any more than it is a qualifier on your right to live, since indeed Locke defines “property” as “life liberties, and estates.” The proviso means that the sovereign can’t claim an entire continent by sending an expolrer to its shores. But it’s not a condition on an individual’s right to live.

    •  Locke’s proviso does not just apply to the initial act of appropriation, but to the continued exclusive possession. He gives an example of a person claiming land already held by another when there is *still* enough and as good left, and showing that this shows the claimant does not merely want the benefit of the land, but also of the improvements.

      “He that had as good left for his improvement, as was ALREADY taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was
      already improved by another’s labour: if he did, it is plain he desired
      the benefit of another’s pains, which he had no right to, and not the
      ground which God had given him in common with others to labour on, and
      whereof there was as good left, as that ALREADY possessed, and more than
      he knew what to do with, or his industry could reach to.” [Emphasis added]

      A heavily misinterpreted passage at the end of his passage on property is that, prior to the advent of money, this was not a problem, because nobody would want to hold property out of use. However, with the advent of money, people held land in order that others would buy or rent that land from them. Ricardo’s Law of Rent shows that rent arises just as the Lockean proviso is violated, and that rent is actually a measure of the difference between the desired land and the best land available for others to take up for free.

      That is one of the reasons many libertarians (prior to the neolibertarian shift to Rothbard, Rand and Mises) advocated a tax on the rental value of land. Such a tax would tend to equalize the after-tax market value of land. That is, the better land, after taxes, having no market advantage over the best free land, selection would be a matter of individual preference. Those who could make exceptional use of the better land would do so, and those who could just as well take up the poorer land would do so. Thus, Lockean morality jibes with economic rationality.

      Locke himself advocated land value tax, saying,

      “It is in vain in a country whose great fund is land to
      hope to lay the public charge on anything else; there at last it will
      terminate. The merchant (do what you can) will not bear it, the laborer
      cannot, and therefore the landholder must: and whether he were best to
      do it by laying it directly where it will at last settle, or by letting
      it come to him by the sinking of his rents, which when they are fallen,
      everyone knows they are not easily raised again, let him consider.”
      [“Some Considerations on the Lowering of Interest”]

  • Great Post Matt!
    I like especially your handling of charity, though I prefer to consider it a proviso (I can see reasons not to). On the other hand, I think you leave out another important proviso Locke has on property: the too-often overlooked proviso that disallows spoilage or waste. Simmons and Waldron recognize its importance, but many others ignore it or think its easily satisfied since we can now save the value of our products in money form. Locke says “if either the grass of his inclosure rotted on the ground, or the fruit of his planting perished without gathering, and laying up, this part of the earth, notwithstanding his inclosure, was still to be looked on as waste, and might be the possession of any other” (II.38). To my mind this reads like a limit to what an individual can call their own property.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    @Andrew-I agree that Lockean theory gets you to homesteading etc. I don’t think that’s incompatible. My point was that the proviso can’t be a qualifier on material acquisition period without also thereby being a qualifier on the right to live, so it makes more sense to see it as a limit on what you can appropriate from the S of N.
    I would also note that money doesn’t spoil, and so the no-spoliage qualifiers wouldn’t apply to that. Scrooge McDuck notwithstanding, people with heaps of money are not analogous to landowners with fields laying fallow; their money is doing various things in the economy.

    • Damien RS

      But people owning land, buildings, factories, and intellectual property, and not making use of them or even renting them out when others could use them, could fall under no-spoilage.  If you hold land idle in speculation,  you’re quite literally holding wastage in his sense.

  • Good work on this post. It’s been a long, long time since my last political theory class.

    What did Locke have to say about inheritance? Just like Rousseau and Hobbes argued over the state of nature, it seems like these philosophers, in the interests of getting to first principles, have to design and justify a society at its starting point.

    We had this luxury in America for decades as homesteaders fanned across the continent. Libertarians on this blog use analogies of campsites in a virgin forest. Libertarians elsewhere conceive new societies on boats or artificial islands.

    Locke’s proviso appears to me to create some complications in a society already long underway. Now, plenty of people own land they did not labor on, but or trade for. They have it exclusively because they had the good fortune to be born rich.

    So does property become virgin land ripe for the taking upon the death of its owner? That doesn’t seem fair to widows and children, but it also creates an advantaged class that will inevitably “subordinat[e] or subject[]” those less fortunate in birth by means of superior resources (and depriving the poor of the chance to take advantage of the limited supply of land).

    What gives? Does the libertarian just say this doesn’t matter?

  • Carlos F. Véliz

    I really like what the late G. A. Cohen has said about Locke:

    “Somebody once said to me that the reason why the thought of John Locke was full of tensions, and maybe sometimes contradictions, is that Locke saw all the problems.” (Cf. Rescuing Justice and Equality, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 12).

    Indeed, Locke saw all the problems.

  • @Aeon: What do you think about Robert Nozick’s claim that the proviso casts a “historical shadow” over acts of transfer after the initial appropriation? (around p. 180 of ASU)

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    @Matt-I’m on home duty today; will have to get back to this tomorrow, sorry!

  • John

    For TheOtherChuckD, Locke was okay with inheritance: “As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him;”

    Matt, you make your primary point well. I do think there are some leaps that might not be justified.

    It’s not clear the the title charity gives requires government redistribution, thought it clearly doesn’t prevent it. It speaks also to application of laws governing, and punishments related to, theft as well as opportunistic contracts. Neither of these two aspects require any taking of property by the state/government.

    I also think the issue of majority decisions and where they apply needs some further investigation. I’m not sure that the field is wide open as suggested. It seems to be saying that we apportion the cost of government by majority vote — presumably based on some fair basis of benefit enjoyed — it’s not saying majority rule can change the prior agreement regarding which rights people unanimously agreed to transfer to government. Unless people previously agreed to give government their right of charity the government cannot claim from the surplus to spend charitably.

  • @John,

    How does that square with the proviso? The inheritor mixed no labor with the property. He has it just because of who he is. So where does that leave the justification for private property? What of the lazy scion of rich parents – isn’t that wasteful?

  • Mark LeBar

    Excellent discussion, Matt. Two quibbles, though.

    1. That consequences are bad seems to be an explanation for the law of nature being what it is, not for the first-order duties asssociated with property and appropriation. Those duties are, as all duties are, products of the law of nature, as I read him. That’s not a consequentialist argument, it’s a natural-law argument though with benefits we can readily appreciate.

    2. I’m not sure about two things in your discussion of the First Treatise passage on need. For one thing, at the same time he is speaking of “title” in both cases (to what what has produced, and to what one exigently needs), he speaks of the first being justice and the second “charity.” I don’t know enough about Locke to know whether that distinction matters, and if it does, what is signifies. But prima facie it also introduces questions about what he means by “title.”

    The other is the question whether it is right to tie together title, duties of justice, and coercive enforcement. Even if the first two go together, coercive enforcement might not. Of course, if you read “justice” as a property of institutions or societies, you get that conclusion readily. But he doesn’t use the term that way that I know of; he is using the term as a predicate of individual conduct and the like, It’s actually striking that you use a passage built around the traditional meaning of “justice” to argue that he is making a case for the “social” application of “justice.” I don’t see that he ever thinks anything trumps the normative force of the law of nature, which doesn’t make claims about properties of political societies, but only has implications for them through the obligations it lays on individuals.

  • Chuck: I take Locke’s point about labor-mixing to be a necessary condition on the original appropriation of resources. But of course, once you’ve legitimately appropriated them, you’re free to transfer them via exchange or gift (perhaps within the constraints of the “historical shadow” of the proviso). I don’t know if Locke ever addressed the issue of inheritance explicitly, but I imagine he would look at it as primarily a function of the rights of the person who gives the inheritance, not those of the person who receives it.
    1) I certainly agree that Locke is making a natural law argument, and not a consequentialist one. But it does seem that the consequentialist considerations are for him (as they are for Nozick) essential in applying the law of nature in a way that justifies standard cases of original appropriation. But I might be missing your point (not sure what you’re referring to with “bad” consequences).
    2. You’re right that he uses the term “charity,” and perhaps this is more significant than I have it credit for. But (and I hope this responds to John’s point as well), the tone and overall substance of the passage certainly seems to establish a presumptive case for an enforceable duty of “charity,” even if it’s not decisive, and even if we’d need to think much more about the best way for that enforcement to be carried out. If your title to the property that you acquire through legitimate labor mixing is enforceable, then why shouldn’t my title based on need be similarly enforceable? Note also the example Locke uses in the last line of the quotation. I can certainly enforce a prohibition on you holding daggers to poor people’s throats; if Locke thinks that this is essentially what the rich who deny the needs of the poor are doing, then why shouldn’t we be able to use force to resolve that wrongdoing as well?

  • John

    TheOtherChuckD, I’m not entirely sure how it squares with the proviso. The quote Matt provided clearly indicates the transfer is as legitimate as the initial acquisition via laboring.

    I’m not sure where the reversion to nature of improved property after the initial owner dies comes from. Why would one assume that? Moreover, if property can be transferred during one’s life, why not upon one’s death?

    I think there would be two cases for the “lazy scion”:
    1) I’m lazy so sell the most of the inheritance so I can live off the money, and
    2) I’m so lazy I don’t do anything with some property because I have enough money to live.

    In the first case it’s merely a transfer of private property like any other and no waste at all. In the latter case Locke was pretty clear that the wasting/abandoned property basically reverts to the commonly owned state of nature. I think in this case though only those without really have any right to appropriation.

    That’s my best off the cuff response about what might be consistent with Locke’s thinking.

  • @John & Mat:

    It certainly makes sense under Locke’s framework that people should be able to do with their land what they please, whether selling it, trading it or giving it to his kids.

    However, it isn’t spelled out what moral claim the kids have to it.

  • aaron


    I’m not entirely certain Locke would necessarily care about this question. I have been thinking about this since I read the earlier comments and I cannot even think of a hypothetical in which you can seperate the will of the inheritor from the will of the inheritees.

    Though, if you wish, his justification would be in the same lines as his words on charity. The giver has, at minimum, the right to give his property, but there is nothing particularly there about the recipient’s right to accept being explicity laid out. The right to receive is simply derived by necessity from the right to give.

  • Locke’s and Nozick’s theories of property are not the only ones a Libertarian might find congenial.
    Cf. the Retributive Theory.

  • Let me suggest that the best book for understanding Locke’s own views (from an intellectual history perspective- that is, as Locke understood them himself and not philosophical reconstructions of them) is almost certainly John Dunn’s _The Political Thought of John Lock_. He stresses the essential element of Locke’s religious thought for his self-understanding and for why Locke argues the way that he does in a way that seems clearly right and necessary for really understanding Locke. (Peter Laslett’s long [120+ page] introduction to the Cambridge edition of the Two Treaties is also excellent and essential for understanding Locke in his own terms.) Simmons is, of course, excellent as a philosophical reconstruction of Locke’s thought, but it clearly is a reconstruction in many ways. Rawls’s lectures on Locke in his _Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy_ are somewhere in between the type of account given by Dunn and Laslett (who Rawls draws on) and Simmons, very useful and enjoyable to read, but not as rigorous as Dunn as intellectual history or Simmons as philosophical reconstruction.

    It’s also essential to not read back later economic thought into Locke, I think, if you want to understand him. He’s writing before the vast majority of what we consider normal economic thought was normal and so using importantly different ideas. This is one reason (as well as the deeply religious elements of parts of his argument) why I think it’s at least somewhat distorting to take Locke to be a liberal of any sort, though of course he’s important for the development of Liberalism that was to soon come after him.

  • Dan Kervick

    So do you think Locke was on the up-and-up about the natural rights business. Or were natural rights just an captivating mythological framework within which to insinuate a more practical, consequence-oriented argument?

  • Dan- I think that Dunn makes an absolutely convincing case that Locke not only believed in natural rights, but that he thought they were essentially religious in nature. This doesn’t mean you can’t reconstruct his argument in other ways, but I think that Dunn is right about how Locke understood himself.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    I had a chance to look at the passage in AS&U you mentioned. Nozick seems to me to be here ruling out monopoly (e.g. I own the only watering hole in the desert), but I’m not sure he’s adequately distinguishing the use of the proviso as a limit on initial appropriation from the S of N from the use of the proviso as a limit on rights in civil society. His point in this section, IMO, is to be able to ground the compensation from the DPA to the outliers from ch. 4. But maybe I’m reading it wrong.

  • Matt: Good points, both! Thanks!

    Aeon: I think Nozick believes that the proviso serves as a limit both on initial appropriation and on subsequent acts of transfer (inside or outside of civil society). The same concerns that motivate the proviso as a limits on original acquisition, he’s arguing, also require it to limit subsequent transfers. Hence the proviso’s “shadow.”

  • Ben Southwood

    Excellent post Matt, but quick point I’d like to make. When you say:

    “It is fashionable today in libertarian circles to draw a sharp distinction between natural rights libertarians and consequentialist libertarians,”

    you might do well to note that this is if anything, just as common/fashionable in many non-libertarian circles, e.g. pluralist liberal egalitarian Will Kymlicka in his widely-read introduction to political theory/philosophy going so far as to state that consequentialists cannot be libertarians (even if their consequentialism has libertarian conclusions).

  • Wonks Anonymous

    Murray Rothbard deemed Willmoore Kendall’s majoritarian interpretation of Locke as the Enemy:

  • Bogdan Enache

    Very interesting essay! This sort of mild, borderline justifications for redistribution can be find in the work of virtually all classical liberals. All of them believe that the highest degree of liberty is compatible, or even fosters solutionsd for all other virtues/values/concerns.

    The tacite consent, through majority decision by represdentatives is also limited for Locke by the original contract establishing the Commenwealth, whence the right of rebellion when it is broken. But it is not clear in Locke what is the extent of respect/direspect for property and justice due by the Government after the establishment of the Commonwealth before a revolution is morally justified.

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  • Damien RS

    “There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several
    nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in
    all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as
    any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil,
    apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and
    delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth
    part of the conveniencies we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful
    territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in

    This strikes me as profoundly ignorant on Locke’s part, through no fault of his own.  AIUI laborers in the early Americas frequently defected to the Indians, who had more attractive lives, and were taller and healtheir until the smallpox it. They also improved their land quite a lot, cf. _1491_, but not in European ways. They farmed different crops in different ways, they managed forests with fire. Jared Diamond seems more apropos regarding relative material wealth than whether the Indians had individual property.

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