Locke and liberalism

I do not recognize the Locke or classical liberalism some critics of each claim to find. A good example is a recent post by Patrick Deneen, in which he claims to find the joint roots of “individualism” and “statism” in classical liberal thought, drawing at least in part on Locke’s work. The mashup of ideas Daneen attributes to Locke and classical liberals seems absolutely foreign to my understanding of both, certainly of any plausible form of classical liberalism, but Deneen is hardly the first to offer such a mashup. It’s worth considering just how deeply wrong it is.

One immediate indicator that something has gone seriously wrong is Deneen’s claim that Hobbes is like Locke a founder of “liberal theory.” Hobbes is not a common source of ideas for bodies of political doctrine that lay claim to being “liberal.” There’s a good reason for that: Hobbes maintained explicitly that justice (and thus injustice) are the creations of the state. Without the state, we have no obligations whatsoever to each other, nor is it even possible for us to contract with each other, since without the state there is no credible mechanism of enforcement. Hobbes’ remedy is a Sovereign with absolute and total authority and power to do literally whatever he wishes. Sound like a liberal theory to you? Me neither. So a political theorist who lumps that in with “liberalism” is taking us down the primrose path already.

Things get worse on Locke. Locke (like most great thinkers) said lots of things. Some of it is profoundly insightful, some mistaken, some just best forgotten. What liberals who cite Locke as their inspiration (I would certainly count myself as one) point to is the early sections of The Second Treatise of Government, where Locke squarely and explicitly repudiates not only Hobbes but the entire tradition of seeing some men as born to natural authority over others. This is what we are thinking of:

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 wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that the 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… (Second Treatise of Government, §4)

This is not, pace the reading Daneen seems intent on foisting onto Locke, a sociological claim. It is not a claim about the forms of life human beings characteristically or often undertake. It is a moral claim. It is the claim that nobody has the natural authority to command or subordinate another human being. Locke explicitly repudiates “lawlessness.” We are under this law of nature in any condition we are in, political or otherwise, on Locke’s view because God has put us there. Liberty is the state of being subject only to reciprocal exercises of authority or command. On Locke’s view, unlike Hobbes’, it has nothing to do with doing what you like or “satisfying your appetites.” (Locke goes out of his way to make this clear, but somehow that too escapes Daneen’s notice.) That is the sense that we are “naturally ungoverned.” With these claims Locke imposes a constraint on what can count as a legitimate state that endures as a significant challenge. Locke thought it was possible that a state could meet it; I myself doubt it, but there is no question that it is exactly the right test. Which social institutions suppose that one person is entitled to exercise non-reciprocal authority over another? Institutions that fail that test are, ipso facto, illegitimate institutions. This is precisely the opposite of the progression to statism that Daneen claims is built upon classical liberal individualism. I think he can maintain that only because he somehow mistakes a moral claim for a sociological one. There is a long tradition of doing so, but you have to have a tin ear for ideas to do so. Certainly you have to ignore not only what Locke says, and what Mill says, but e.g. Adam Smith’s brilliant work on our essentially social natures, to try to make that charge. It certainly can’t be made with a straight face.

The antidote, apparently, is the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition of community, or some such. I bow to no one in my respect for Aristotle, but his political theory is a particularly mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the same work where he claims that we are political animals, he also insists that women and “barbarians” are “natural slaves,” fit only for subordination. Even polis-born laborers are not fit to be self-governing. I’m not clear on what Aquinas makes of that mess, but there is nothing insightful or enlightening about it. It is a recipe for those who know how our social (and individual) lives should go to command those of us who are not so fortunate.

When I teach this stuff (viz. Aristotle), I say that Aristotle was not so lucky as we are. We have Aristotle and 2500 years of history of politics to learn from, and he did not. He was unable to make a distinction between the political and the social, but we can. The only form of social life he could conceive of was life in the polis — that is, political life. We know that we are capable of all kinds of social life and organization that have nothing to do with politics, and are far the better for it. It’s inexcusable that people still defend the political as though that was the only form our social natures could take. It is even worse that classical liberalism’s critics can’t be troubled to get the ideas right in the first place.

3 thoughts on “Locke and liberalism

  1. But the very problem with Locke is his claim about humanity’s natural state–specifically, his moral argument fails along with his premise that humanity’s natural state is “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.” Daneen is right to challenge that fundamental claim. And he’s not warping Locke’s morality into sociology as much as he is presenting a sociologically-(or perhaps even anthropologically- or biologically-)buttressed counterargument to Locke’s fundamental moral claim.

    A counterargument which, at its essence (though perhaps not in the details of Daneen’s piece in particular), I’m not sure that Locke can stand up to.

  2. I’m not sure how there is a counterclaim here. Is the idea that, because some people are in fact subject to the power of others, Locke’s claim is false? That counterclaim gets traction only if you see Locke as making a descriptive, sociological claim. That claim would be false, and obviously so. Indeed, it was obvious to Locke that some people subordinate others (that’s precisely the problem with monarchy, as he argued in the First Treatise). It doesn’t take Deneen to make the case that people command other people all the time! Ascribing the denial of that idea to Locke makes him to be not just wrong, but an incoherent idiot out of touch with the reality around him. I don’t see a reason to ascribe that intent to him unless there is compelling reason to do so.

    And there is not. None of the facts about what people actually do to each other has anything to do with the truth or falsity of the normative claim, which is explicit in the closing sentence of the paragraph, and implicit in what comes before and after. Locke is talking our standing under the law of nature, equally subjects before God. If that claim is right, then we have exactly the diagnostic tool we need to understand what is wrong with the subordination of some people to other people. That has been liberalism’s hallmark from the outset.

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