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
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “John Locke“
- The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “Locke’s Political Philosophy“
- John Locke, Political Essays
- Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”
- Edward Feser, Locke
- Eric Mack, John Locke
- Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
- A. John Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights
- A. John Simmons, On The Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent, and the Limits of Society
- Gopal Sreenivasan, The Limits of Lockean Rights in Property
- James Tully, An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts
- Jeremy Waldron, The Right to Private Property