Did Locke Really Justify Limited Government?

By Stromberg, Joseph R. | Freeman, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Did Locke Really Justify Limited Government?


Stromberg, Joseph R., Freeman


John Locke (1632-1704) was a physician, statesman, and political philosopher, filling that last office in a dry, "empirical," and militantly antipoetic English mode. Locke's stock has risen and fallen over the years. Contemporaries called him a Socinian (a precursor of Unitarianism), a deist, a Muslim, and an opportunist. Later critics have seen Locke as the Whig Oligarchy's spokesman (Basil Willey), abandoning the authentic natural law (John Wild), and leaving behind "right" and "left" Lockeans stressing either property or its labor justification (Christopher Hill).

Locke's fame rests on his Two Treatises of Government. Thanks to Peter Laslett's introduction (1960), we know Locke wrote his First Treatise answering Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha (1680) at a time when his Second Treatise was well underway. The Second Treatise defended (prospectively) the conservative revolution of 1688. Its argument owed much to a Calvinist political tradition in which certain political authorities oppose other authorities that are breaking the social compact. Seeking to justify government by consent regardless of historical specifics, Locke deployed a version of natural law.

The point of the rights adduced - labor-based property and so on - was to buttress an argument that the king could not (should not) expropriate English gentlemen-a rather meager result, unless of course all their rights eventually "trickle down" to the rest of us. To reach his goal Locke undermined the natural-law assumption that God gave the earth to men "in common." First, Locke set up each individual as a selfowner, rightfully appropriating natural resources to sustain life. By "mixing" their labor with resources (land), individuals rightfully acquired property, provided enough was left for others: the famous "proviso." (You could not, for example, grab all the acorns and then leave them to rot.) Next, he introduced money, an "invention" of civilized men, which can accumulate without "spoiling." A monetized economy overcame the problem of "waste" (spoilage) and allowed men to build large estates through production, exchange, and purchase. The increased productivity of larger estates assured that enough was left for others (provided bare subsistence from wage labor is "enough"). Arguing from economies of scale, Locke built an apology for the land enclosures into his system (not to mention a kind of Lockean multiplier whereby enclosed lands yield 10 times the product of commons). Paying wages made other men's efforts count as "mine" in appropriating property out of common resources ("The turfs my servant has cut," and so on).

These market activities precede the creation of states. Since individuals' personal "execution" of the natural law caused predictable problems, property holders created government through a social contract to provide impartial judicial services and common defense, putting their rights in trust. Accordingly, Locke held that property cannot (normally) be alienated even by conquest. Locke's applied system was less obviously liberal. From the theoretical high ground we suddenly descend to actual English property holdings in the late seventeenth century, with Locke pretending they rest on individual labor and free exchange rather than on conquest and expropriation.

So far Locke appears to be an advanced Whig and founder of liberalism with a nice rationale for infrequent and minimally disruptive uprisings by a consensus of great landholders, gentry, merchant capitalists, and bankers, duly supported by respectable tradesmen, shopkeepers, and farmers who survived enclosure. These are "the people," moderately and prudently redressing their grievances, even if (as Christopher Hill notes) Locke never actually defined who "the people" are. Americans took Locke fairly literally during our Revolution, and as a result his ideas sometimes seem the only American political tradition, as Louis Hartz complained.

Locke's Problems

Since at least the eighteenth century, frustrated readers of Locke have "corrected" his system to purge it of apparently foreign elements. …

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