John Locke is probable the most important enlightenment thinker when it comes to modern Anglo-American Liberalism, which has come to dominate the world. The second book of his “treatises of government” is one of the seminal works of Liberalism, creating a philosophical framework on which both Democracy, Capitalism, and Liberalism have built upon. John Locke is, in my opinion, hugely mistaken when it comes to the nature of man and the nature of rights (especially property), this mistake shakes the entire foundation of John Locke’s Liberalism and I think it is unfortunate that modern ideology more or less takes John Locke’s political philosophy as axiomatic, despite it being extremely problematic when examined. Anyone interested in modern Liberal ideology should examine John Locke’s “two treatises of government,” since it is so important to the development of Liberal ideology. In this post, I’ll be critiquing what I find problematic in his political theory found in “Two Treatises of Government – Book 2”, specifically on the nature of man and rights.
To start with let’s take a look at his concept of a “state of Nature,” he says in Chapter 2:
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
At the very beginning of his work we find a problem. The idea that the natural state of man is perfect freedom in the sense of a kind of alienation from others is of course historically and empirically ridiculous but also philosophically ridiculous. Freedom is a concept that can only exist in a social context, if you are alone on an island, it can be said that you are free, but that freedom is trivial. The freedom to pick your nose and pee wherever you want and eat whatever you want, because no one is there is not what we generally mean when we say freedom. The most important “freedoms” in any society are freedom of speech and freedom of association, in other words social freedoms, freedom to interact with others, communicate with others, build relationships and so on.
Even if we grant the concept of a “state of nature” (which is problematic in itself), we have to think of what that would be? Is it really a man by himself with absolute autonomy? Or is it an individual within a family, with a father and mother who cared for him, and who he has a duty to care for? With brothers and sisters with whom he must associate with and negotiate and have relationships of mutual Aid? Is it not also the case that this family would be imbedded within a community of families who, at the very least, interact so as to match up future fathers and mothers? We have to remember that the state of nature begins, not with absolute liberty, but with love, the love of a mother of a father, of friends, which are what make a person.
What about the alleged equality? I presume this is based on the concept of the Tabula Rasa which John Locke promoted, but which we all now know is scientifically false. But even so, we know this is not the case, a child is brought into this world as physically unable to care for himself, and an adult is on the way to being unable to care for himself. At any moment, in any interaction, you will have inequalities, I may be stronger than my neighbor, but perhaps he’s faster than I am, it depends on the interaction that is taking place. Nevertheless, Locke defends his idea of natural equality by quoting theologian Richard Hooker:
The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature? To have any thing offered them repugnant to this desire, must needs in all respects grieve them as much as me; so that if I do harm, I must look to suffer, there being no reason that others should shew greater measure of love to me, than they have by me shewed unto them: my desire therefore to be loved of my equals in nature as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to them-ward fully the like affection; from which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn, for direction of life, no man is ignorant, Eccl. Pol. Lib. 1.
The idea of Love must begin with Gods’ love of man, if we are to think theologically that is. God’s love in creation and redemption is by no means equal. The very point of the sacrifice of Christ is that he did not give reciprocally, he gave what he did not owe, and he gave what cannot be returned in equal measure. The same is for the love of a parent to a Child, it is not reciprocal, and the same goes when we extrapolate this idea up to other relationships in society. Absolute equality occurs when there is no love, when no relationship is expected in the future. If I interact with you, but I have no relationship with you, anything I give to you will depend on you giving me something equal (or more) return, and you will give as little as possible while hoping to gain the most. In the end the exchange will, in cases of more or else equal power, end up being more or less equal. This, however, is not a relationship of love. Relationships of love are always about giving more than you have been given, or receiving more than you have given, since it is the very inequality that holds the two together, they need each other; they are in constant debt to each other. The very notion of quantifying what one has given or been given is anathema to the idea of love.
These two fallacies, the idea that the state of nature is one of individual autonomy, and the idea that it is one of equality, and that this equality is in fact the basis of love, put the whole project of liberal ideology on shaky grounds. Let’s move on to his theory of property; in Chapter 5 he, strangely enough, admits to the theory that God gave mankind the earth in common based on Psalms 115:16, but he then goes on to argue:
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man 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.
Now here we have a problem, do I “own” my body or myself as a property? I submit that such a statement is nonsense. Property is a relationship between an individual and society over the use of a certain piece of the external world, if you live on your own on an island the concept of property is meaningless (much like the concept of freedom) since there could be no distinction between when is yours and what is not yours. A distinction can only come into play when there is another person around, and even then it’s only possible for the concept of property to come into play if both of you desire to exclude the other from same piece of the world, something that would only happen in an antagonistic situation. When it comes to your body, you are your body, you cannot own your body, if someone wants to enslave you, what they want is total obedience under threat of violence, which is not the same as “owning” you in the same way one can “own” a tea pot. The whole starting point here is flawed. It assumes a kind of substance dualism (a difference between you and your body) as well a concept of property that is a relationship between an agent and an object, rather than what it is a relationship between two or more agents concerning a non-agent.
Now if we say the work of his hands are his, we would have to ask what that means. If the earth were common, as Locke agrees it is, why would labor change that?
Remember the false presupposition of man in an autonomous individualist state, if we accept that this state cannot exist, then what we would have is an individual creating from the common resources, while being in relation to others. If that is the case, no production is really just a man making something by himself. Not only is one borrowing from the common resources, he’s also borrowing from common knowledge, passed on knowledge, things he has learned, ideas and possibilities. The producer is also producing for others in almost all cases, it is only when production is for another than an economy exists. If some person raises chickens by himself, and eats the eggs, no economic activity has taken place, it’s when he shares the eggs with his neighbors that an economic activity takes place, this is when real production happens.
In a very real sense, all economic production is for others. To take an example outside of modern Capitalism, let’s look at someone who likes to bake. If a person bakes 20 muffins it will be impossible for him to eat them himself, that would hardly seem to be a problem, in fact it’s quite likely that the baker won’t eat any of the muffins. The entire process of baking the muffins is for the purpose of sharing with others, a failed bake is not one where people eat too much, or people eat without reciprocating, a failed bake is one where people don’t eat. Now let’s look at what the founder of Liberal economics says about Baking, Adam Smith in his wealth of Nations says:
He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
Notice the assumption here, the assumption is that production is made just for productions sake, and then completely autonomous people come up to strangers and attempt to get some of the excess production of the baker. It’s assuming a state where people are not neighbours, and markets already exist and property is already established. I think that the much more basic human economic activity is the former kind of baking, where one person bakes in order to share. Production where markets would come into place is the only kind of production where “ownership” of one’s production is relevant. That kind of production only comes into a situation where individuals are not neighbours and are antagonistic to each other.
If, at a church, event, a party, or whatever, a person who baked some muffins suddenly cries out “these are my muffins, I may dispose of them as I wish,” it would seem very strange, in fact it would take away from what the whole point of making the muffins seemed to be. It is only in a situation where individuals expect to be taken advantage of, expect that any relationship being had is not only temporary but also not wanted, and where there is no common ground between the individuals where questions of ownership need to come up. I hesitate to do it, because I quote this book so often, but it’s such a good book so unfortunately I feel I have to do it here yet again, but David Graeber says in his book “Debt the first 5000 years”:
it begins to be clear why there are no societies based on barter. Such a society could only be one in which everybody was an inch away from everybody else’s throat; but nonetheless hovering there, poised to strike but never actually striking, forever.
Swapping one thing directly for another while trying to get the best deal one can out of the transaction is, ordinarily, how one deals with people one doesn’t care about and doesn’t expect to see again. What reason is there not to try to take advantage of such a person? If, on the other hand, one cares enough about someone-a neighbor, a friend-to wish to deal with her fairly and honestly, one will inevitably also care about her enough to take her individual needs, desires, and situation into account. Even if you do swap one thing for another, you are likely to frame the matter as a gift.
This is why, the assumption of the autonomous individual is so important for the Liberal worldview. In order for Liberalism, and thus Capitalism, to make sense human interactions and material exchanges need to be seen as intrusions. The sharing of muffins must be seen as “cost” to the baker for which he must receive a “benefit.” But that is only the case if the baker is an autonomous individual, with no need for human relationships, who doesn’t care at all about the individual for whom he bakes. It is only in this situation where the question of property and ownership over production becomes relevant.
However, this situation is not the natural situation, humans are not autonomous individuals, they start from being loved and loving and being dependant on others and they end that way as well. People are relational before they are selfish, they want recognition from others before they want to use others, they desire to be loved before they desire to gain. Therefore, our starting point needs to be completely different.