John Locke: Equality, Freedom, Property, and the Right to Dissent


Oil painting portrait of John Locke / Wikimedia Commons


Lecture by Dr. Iván Szelényi / 09.10.2008
Professor Emeritus of Sociology
Yale University

Locke in a Historical Context

 

Left: Charles II, by John Michael Wright  c.1660–1665 / National Portrait Gallery, London
Right: A 1656 Samuel Cooper portrait of Oliver Cromwell / National Portrait Gallery, London

John Locke was another major scientist and another major founder of political and social philosophy and theory. I’ll do again what I did with Hobbes. We will again do briefly, for those who are not interested in lives and history. So first I introduce you, our friend today, John Locke. He was born in 1642 in Somerset. His father was a captain in a parliamentary army; a kind of small gentry, not particularly wealthy but not poor either. In ’52, he went to Oxford, and it was noted that he was “idle, unhappy and unremarkable” in Oxford. Well if you do not have a 4.0 at Yale, don’t panic. Right? You still can be John Locke. There are somebody who blossom later; he was a late blossomer. But by the end he was doing well, and in fact he became an official; you know, English universities called teachers officials. Officers–even at Yale, you know, we are called officers of Yale Corporation–kind of, I think, an old English tradition. Anyway, he was admitted, and then in ’64 he gave an address to the college.

And this is a very important address because this is when we can learn the views of young John Locke. And quite clear from this address that, in fact, early in his life he was very traditionalist and quite authoritarian: The kings are good and the people are beasts. So in a way he was Hobbesian. In fact, you know, in the Two Treatises he stays away discussing Hobbes. But, of course, the ghost of Hobbes is all over the place. Right?

Well, a little about the times–’49, I already mentioned, Charles I was executed. The monarchy was abolished for a time. Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England. But though he was very popular among many, he really could not control the struggle between the military and the parliament, and the chaos–what Hobbes experienced in the ’30s and early ’40s–in some ways continued. It was probably not as bad as before but was still very bad.

Well when Cromwell died, his son tried to become Lord Protector–did not succeed, and finally it was decided to call back Charles I’s son, Charles II, to become King of England. So the monarchy was restored. So these will remain turbulent years, and, of course, the kind of turbulence does color what Locke stood for.

Well, just a picture of Oliver Cromwell for you, and then Charles II, who was King of England for twenty-five years. Well there is a New Haven connection to all of this. Not all of you may know that. But I’m sure everybody knows where Whalley Avenue is, and where Goffe Street is. Well this has something to do with England and John Locke. Two of the judges of the trial of Charles I, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, were accused of regicide. And they escaped England in 1660, and they went to Boston. Well they did the wrong choice, right? They went where Harvard is, rather than going where Yale is. Okay? But Boston was an unsafe place, too much under the control of the crown. So therefore they went to the right place, right? And where can it be? Of course, New Haven. So they came to New Haven. And you probably know where West Rock is. Anybody was up on West Rock? A few of them. Well, in West Rock you see a sign which says “Judges’ Cove.” So if you go there, there is a little cove and, according to the legends, Whalley and Goffe hided in this cove. So here you go, history comes back home. Then they moved actually to Milford and lived in a house there, and I have a picture of this house. I don’t swear my life on it that this is really the house in which they hided, but that’s what some historian tells me.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury / National Portrait Gallery, London

Okay, then there is a turning point in the life of John Locke in ’66 when he meets a formidable person, whose name was Anthony Ashley Cooper. Well, he was a high aristocrat, but he nevertheless was anti-Royalist. He joined the parliamentary forces against Charles I, and was also a member of the State Council during the republican times. But he supported the restoration of the monarchy in ’66 [correction: 1660], and held very high offices between 1660 and ’73, including the position of Lord Chancellor. Well he became the Earl of Shaftesbury, out of the grace of the King, and usually he is referred to as the Earl of Shaftesbury. Well in ’66, he went to Oxford to have a cure for his liver disease, and this is when he met John Locke as a doctor. And John Locke became his physician and, let’s put it this way, his friend. Probably a bit of a strong statement because the social status difference was too big to really call it as a friendship, but I will say a word about their relationship. And here is the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Now in ’67, Locke moved to Ashley’s house at Exeter House in the Strand in London. And I’m sure those of you who’ve visited London know exactly where the Strand is; that’s still where sort of the legal establishment can be found in London. So he lived there in his household. Like, you know, in feudal times clients lived with their master’s house and ate on the master’s table, or with other servants’ table; even high-ranking people occasionally were not allowed to eat with the lord. Well he became Ashley’s confidant, advisor and surgeon. He performed a surgery, and I think medical scientists are still puzzled whether this was some path-breaking surgery or whether he just had good luck–that he’d helped Ashley. Ashley had a surplus production of his liver and he implanted a tube into his abdomen area to let this surplus flow out, and certainly Ashley felt much better after the surgery. Well we know that occasionally the doctors say the surgery was successful and the patient died. Now this was a case when the patient was cured, but we don’t know whether the surgery had anything to do with it. Right?

But for those of you who are in sciences, this is just a proof that in the seventeenth century, you know, there was really no distinction yet what sciences are: what philosophy is, and what social sciences are. There was a difference what theology was and the rest of knowledge was. But the rest of the knowledge was all the same, and sort of Locke was also a scientist. In ’67, he wrote an essay, the “Essay on Toleration.” And this is a departure now from Hobbes. This actually advocates the right to dissent. As we have seen, not that Hobbes at all cost would have resisted every dissent. Right? You remember we discussed that–that Hobbes also considered if the king does not deliver, you can transfer your loyalty from the king to another sovereign. But the “Essay on Toleration” does not simply make it as such an exceptional case, you know, but it makes a big argument that the right of dissent is an important individual right. He was also then elected in ’68 as a member of The Royal Society. The Royal Society is like what in the United States we’d call the American Academy of Sciences–pretty hard to get into it; was then and it is now.

In ’79, he was already working on the Second Treatise. [correction: The Two Treatises] Assumedly to some–I will talk about this–there is some debate when the First Treatise and the Second Treatise were written. And that’s not irrelevant, actually, the timing of the two essays. Well there was, on the other hand, a conflict between Charles II and the parliament and the Earl of Shaftesbury and, of course, by implication John Locke. Charles II had only illegitimate children; he had quite a few of them, right? I don’t know whether he liked children, but it looks like he liked the technology, at least. Well therefore, you know, since the children were all illegitimate, the legitimate heir to the throne was his brother, James, and the only problem with James was that he was Roman Catholic. And we already know from Hobbes that this was a big trouble at that time in Britain. So the parliament, and Shaftesbury himself, feared that Roman Catholics will restore their influence, and therefore the parliament’s role will be reduced.

And then in ’73, the parliament was considering a so-called Test Act. And this is really an ugly act, because the Test Act meant that you have to be tested whether you are Roman Catholic or you belong to the Church of England, and if you are Roman Catholic then you should not hold certain offices. Right? This is just straight discrimination. But, you know, at that time it was kind of a defense against the Vatican and the role of the Pope. Well, because of Shaftesbury’s support for this, he was dismissed as Lord Chancellor. Nevertheless, a few years later the parliament does pass the Exclusion Bill, and they are supporting James, one of the illegitimate children of Charles, as a successor to the throne. Well, and this is James Stuart, the brother of Charles II, and this is the other James, the Protestant, Shaftesbury’s protégée.

Well, the Commons passed the law. And what did Charles II do? He dismissed the parliament. Well, Shaftesbury was arrested–put into the Tower of London. You probably, if you were in London, you visited the Tower, or at least had a look at it. And after he was released, he was smarter than to stay in England; he went to a right place–I actually like his taste–he went to the Netherlands. If I had to be exiled, I would prefer to be in Amsterdam, of all places.

Okay, in ’83 the Whigs–the Whigs at that time were kind of the Democratic Party. The Tories were the Republican Party and the Whigs were the equivalent of the Democratic Party. Well the Whigs were accused to have been involved in a plot to overthrow the king, and some of them were executed. That was the Rye House Plot. Well Locke was smart enough. He knew he may be next in line so he also made the right choice; he ran to Amsterdam. Right? Well again, I don’t swear that this was exactly the house where the plot took place. I’m even not sure that the plot took place at all, or whether this was an invention by the authorities.

Well then there is a revolution in ’88, and William of Orange becomes the king. Well the problem was that James II did not realize that even the Tories will not support his religious agenda. So he was actually overthrown, and then the Republicans and Democrats–I’m sorry, the Tories and Whigs–came together and they invited William to become King of England. And here is, William III, and the co-ruler, Queen Mary, his wife–was very much involved in politics and important. And Locke then now can return to England, and he felt safe in 1690 to do so. Well I will talk about this later; the Second Treatise may actually be a reflection of the change to the House of Orange, which is a change from absolutism to constitutional monarchy. And therefore the Second Treatise can be read as an ideology for a constitutional monarchy rather than absolutism. Whether this is the case, it is being debated.

Locke died in 1704. Interestingly, you know, his major book, the Two Treatises on Government, was published in 1690, but it was published anonymously. He was concerned enough, even at that time, that he may run into trouble if he publishes this book. Okay, now I will be talking about the Two Treatises and the work now.

First Treatise

Title page of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government / Wikimedia Commons

So this is the Two Treatises of Government, which actually was–appeared in print in 1690, as you can see on the First Edition. Now, as I said, there is a debate about it, when the First and the Second Treatise was written. And there are two major Locke scholars; both spent all of their life studying Locke. Peter Laslett suggested that the Second Treatise was written really first, in 1679; it was all engaged in the debates about the Exclusion Bill. While Richard Ashcraft–he was my colleague at UCLA at one point; died unfortunately very young; a brilliant scholar–actually he argued that the Second Treatise was written in 1683. And it is a revolutionary work–that this is really the theory of constitutional monarchy and kind of popular sovereignty is being formulated for the first time.

This is really in strong clash–almost absolute negation–of Hobbes. Well not quite absolutely; we’ll discuss some overlaps between the two arguments. But they both agree that that the first treatise was written in 1680, that’s uncontroversial, and was published anonymously. So the First Treatise. Well I will not speak too much about this. TheSecond Treatise is really the big text everybody reads and cites. But the First Treatise takes on a book published by 1680 by Robert Filmer. This looks to me a very archaic book, but surprisingly it is still in print. You go on Google and you can buy Robert Filmer’s book, Patriarcha. Well I don’t necessarily recommend it because I think this is really archaic, and I don’t think it’s got any major contribution beyond challenging Locke to formulate a strong position against; that’s, I think, the only reason why you may want to read Patriarcha.

Well he was very much for absolutism and the absolute monarchy, and he advocated actually inequality. He said, “God set some men above others”; and he meant men. Right? Men are set over women, and older people, like me, are set over younger people, like you. Right? And the king over everybody else, right? So this inequality of power is coming from God. God decided that Adam inherits the earth, and then descendents of Adam, the sons and grandsons, receive their share of earth. Right? So you have to show your family tree, going back to Adam, who received the world as a grant, and who was the first king. So the kings should trace their family trees back to the first person of grace of God. Right? So there was a scripture argument. Right? God vested paternal authority in Adam, gave the earth as a grant to him. And the monarchical absolute power is inherited this way; there is a descent of the monarchical power. As I said, I see very little relevance of this argument. So I–but certainly it was important for Locke to have a straw man he could face his argument against–probably spends too much time debating Filmer. And you may have been a bit concerned about these theological controversies and theological arguments in the book, but otherwise he’s really formulating the first big ideas for modern democratic theory.

Okay, so now Locke engages Filmer on a number of levels. It actually engages him on the theological level, and he said, “Well, it’s untrue that Adam received land as a grant. It was mankind who received the land as a grant from God.” And then he moves on and he kind of makes a more technical argument. He said, “Well even if we assume that it was one single male who received land and all authority, how on earth you can trace yourself back to this?” This is not a real good way to legitimate somebody. How can Charles II shows that he has the answers through this way? So that is not the right way to do. And then he said, “Well, even if it could be done, it would be silly to do that. Right? Just because somebody is the proper ancestor, should not have–should not be the sovereign. What if that person is a jerk? Right? Then you really want to have the right people to exercise authority.” Right? It’s, in his time, you know, a very daring argument.

Second Treatise: Major Themes

Now let’s have a look at the Second Treatise, and the major themes–what he’s engaged in. Like Hobbes, he begins with the statement: We are all born equal, and he has free–free and equal. But, as we will see, he draws a very different conclusion than Hobbes did, or by and large a different conclusion. And then he does agree with Locke that we need a common superior, a sovereign; a superior is necessary to avoid the state of war. Then he develops a fascinating theory of property, what we have to deal with, and then he makes this path-breaking argument that what we need is rule by majority. He does not quite identify what that majority is. Right? This is not popular sovereignty yet, but the idea of rule by majority for the first time is formulated by John Locke. And acceptance of authority can be done only by consent, and what is needed–and this is the very big contribution of Locke–a separation of power, checks and balances. Right? This is what is completely missing in Hobbes, and he’s making this path-breaking argument.

All Born Free and Equal

 

Thomas Hobbes (left) and John Locke (right) / National Portrait Gallery, London

So we are all born free and equal. Let me speak to this a little. Now what is political power? And he defines the three elements of political power. Right? Well this is the right to make law. There is also execution of law, and there is also–politics means the defense of the commonwealth against outside enemies. There are the three functions politics is serving. And this will be very important in his sort of divisions of powers, as such. Now, well if we want to understand what political power is, we have to see the origins of political power, and to try to understand why on earth people from the state of nature, where they were free and equal, move into civil society where they surrender some of their freedom and, we will see, will surrender some of their equality. So what is the origins of this equality? Well the first argument is very much counter-Hobbes. Right? Men are all made by God, the omnipotent, right? And we are his property; a kind of theological argument. And we are not–have not been created for the pleasures of one another. So there should not be any man who is a superior, by principle. Because we are free, right?

Locke is a liberal, right? Hobbes is a conservative. So what we are experiencing now is the transition of philosophy from conservativism to liberalism; and liberalism, of course, will emphasize particularly freedom is the primary value. And in the state of nature, he said, we were all governed by reason. And that actually sort of–because we are all reasonable, we are born reasonable; we are born to be able to be rational. Right? And we should be able to understand that we are not supposed to harm each other.

You see, this is a very different argument than what we have seen from Hobbes. Hobbes said that we are actually learning morality out by interacting with others who are desiring the same stuff what we do. We are learning it from struggle, right? It does not assume that this comes out of our rationality, that we are reasonable and by nature good. He does assume that we are reasonable. Therefore why on earth we should not know that we should respect others?

Need for Common Superior Based on Consent

Well, but–and this then is where Locke comes the closest to converge with Hobbes–well there is on the other hand a danger that there will be a war, and in order to avoid war this is why we will subject ourselves to an authority and leave the state of nature. But he also makes a claim just to distance himself from Hobbes. He said it’s not that the state of nature is necessarily war. We have to make a distinction between the state of war and state of nature because in the state of nature we are good and reasonable, but nevertheless it can turn into a state of war. And that’s why we will have to join civil society and accept an authority. Well, and now comes again a very big difference. So he accepts the danger of war–he lived in times of war–and he accepts that we need an authority because of this.

Now, but–and now here comes the big differences. Well we subject ourselves to authority of others, but this has to be done by consent. Right? Those who are accepting a sovereign have to consent to their subjugation, to authority. And the last citation is also extremely important: “Freedom of man under government is to have a standing rule of liberty, common to everyone of that society, and made by a legislative power erected in it.” Right? So the legislative power, now this is the source of sovereign, is somehow in a proper way constituted. Right? This was not a problem really for Hobbes, not much, right? We could see that we’ll be simply conferring sovereignty to a single king. Now Locke is very interested how the sovereign, the source of power to pass legislation, is being constituted. And again he’s emphasizing–which was not in Hobbes–what is important is standing rules to assure liberty. Right? Not simply survival, right? Though we know Hobbes had it a more complex way. But liberty is the major issue, what we are seeking for.

Origins and Limits of Private Property

Well, and then he comes with an interesting idea: Why do we submit ourselves to authority and seek protections for our liberty? Because we want to protect our property. That’s the role of the public authority: to protect property. It’s a very realistic and important assumption–a question in which he and Karl Marx would probably agree. What is the role of the government? To guarantee the sacredness of private property. And he has interesting ideas about what property is, where that it is coming from. Very important. This foreshadows Adam Smith in some ways. Also foreshadows Karl Marx in another way. Well he starts with this idea that man [correction: God] had given the world to man in common, and therefore all the fruits belong to each member of the society. It’s almost a socialist ideology, right?

And he continues along these lines. He said every man has a property in his own person, and the labor of what you produce is yours. Right? The product of your labor belongs to you. And we will see it’s the first formulation what we will learn from Adam Smith and Karl Marx as the labor theory of value. Right? Labor belongs to the laborer, as such, because it was created by what is yours; the only thing what certainly is yours, and this is your own body, and your laboring capacity. He said, and I quote: “This labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer.” And then this is a beautiful citation, I just love it: “Though the water running in the fountain be everyone’s, yet who can doubt but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out?” Bingo, right? How crisply, in one sentence, he can capture this wonderful idea that labor creates the value. Right? Wonderfully done. And, of course, a great influence on Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

Well, but there are also limits on private property. Again, he almost reads like a socialist. He said, “Anyone grows as much as he will. To this I answer, ‘not so’.” Right? “God has given us all things richly.” Well, but how far has he given it to us? To enjoy, right? And whatever is beyond this is more than your share. You have only in your–belongs to you, what you can actually enjoy; nothing what you accumulate. That’s a very radical idea. He will back-pedal in a minute; I will show you how he back-pedals out of this very radical idea. The chief matter is, of course, earth. He said it’s absolutely obvious that the property belongs to those who can cultivate it. Right? “As much land as man tills, plants, improves, cultivates and can use the products of, so much is his property.” So the land belongs–it’s not a notion of private ownership of the land, it’s an ownership by the cultivator.

And also let me just point out–I’m running out of time–there is a very important difference here. Right? What is central for Locke’s argument is the abundance. He can make this argument because the primary assumption is that what we desire is available in great abundance to us. We have seen that Hobbes had the opposite idea. Right? We are fighting each other because what we actually desire is a scarce good, too many people want, and then we kill each other to get it. Right? So there is a scarcity assumption in Hobbes, and there is an abundance

hypothesis in Locke, and you have to make up your mind who is appealing to you more. Do you think that the scarcity assumption is a better one, or the abundance argument is an empirically more appealing one?

Well, and then, as I said, now he back-pedals. He knows he’s going too far. He said, but God gave the world to man in common. But since he gave them for the benefit, well he basically did it to the industrious ones. So those who work harder should get more, rather than who do not work that hard. And then he actually will go further. Well labor creates value, right? And the argument is that everything, what has been created as a value, has been created by–or almost everything; that’s an interesting kind of equation at the end. Right? The products of the earth, useful to life, of man, he said nine-tenths are the effects of labor.

Well I don’t know if we can base it on–well what that really means and why on earth he makes that claim. But–now and here comes a very big qualification–with the invention of money, accumulation of property becomes possible. Right? And therefore as accumulation of money occurs, well then wealth can be hoarded up without injury to anyone. And this becomes again very important for liberal theory. You can’t do anything by which you do not [correction: he did not mean to say “not”] injure somebody else, right? That should be prohibited and the government should step in, when they sense injury against somebody else. Right?

Well now in order to preserve property, you will have to transfer power to the community, to civil society. There are some very important arguments here. It has to be by settled, standing rules, right? It has to be written down, it has to be agreed upon, and it has to be permanency; there must be a permanency closed rule. You need a predictable environment. And it has to be the same to all parties. You cannot make a law which applies to the serfs and a law which applies to the noblemen. It has to be the same law for everyone, as such. Well, and this is the origin of legislative and executive power of civil societies.

Difference between Absolute Monarchy and Civil Society

Well there is a difference between absolute monarchy and constitutional monarchies. He said in an absolute monarchy you can appeal to the law to restrain violence against you by another subject of the crown. But he said in an absolute monarchy you cannot really appeal against the king. That’s what–you know, in Communist societies you could not sue the government. Right? Even in Stalinist Russia you could sue your neighbor if your neighbor did steal something from you. But if the government did steal anything from you, you could not sue the Soviet government. Right? But a democratic system means–this is foreshadowed here–you can sue the government. Right? And, of course, in the United States you can sue the government. Well you can try. It will not always work but–good luck. Well and then he says–and this is fun and very, very good–well “to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs can be done to them–“–like your neighbor–“polecats or foxes, but are content not to think of the safety of the work by lions” is crazy.

Lions are the kings, the big authorities. So don’t just seek laws which protect you against your neighbor, seek laws which protects you against those in a position of authority and power. Right. And there will be no civil society unless this happens. Well he advocates then the principle of rule by the majority. Right? Well what we need–a consent of every individual who made the community in order to create legitimate rule. And once this is arrived at, consent, that will bound everybody. And one can be subjected to authority only by consent. Well this consent can be tacit; it is not necessarily always explicit. You are born in the United States. You did not approve the Constitution of the United States. Nevertheless, you have to obey the Constitution of the United States. You have one chance not to do so. You can move to Afghanistan, if that’s what you prefer. Right? So you don’t have to go by American law; you can live under Islamic law when you move to a country ruled by Islamic law.

Separation of Powers

And then the final major contribution, the separation of powers. And he makes a distinction between three types of powers: legislative, executive and federative powers. That’s very different from Montesquieu, and different from the American Constitution–that the three branches are legislative, executive and juridical power. He makes a claim that the third branch is federative power. Federative power is a defense against outside enemies. And he said, “Look, what is important, that legislative power and executive power has to be separated from each other. It is absolutism if it is the same person, or the same authority, which passes the law and which also executes the law; we have to separate those.” And well I don’t have time to go into this; it’s clear enough.

And then there is the kind of federative powers. As far as the federative powers are concerned he said, “Well the federative powers may not be necessarily separated from the executive branch. It can be actually held by the executive branch, as such.” As in many ways it is the–it’s very unclear in the United States who actually has these federative powers. Right? By law it is the Congress which can declare only laws–wars. But, as we have seen, the United States was engaged in a number of major military actions, what commonly we call wars, though the war was never declared. Right? And it was the executive branch which de facto declared war and conducts war, occasionally without the consent–occasionally against the will of the House and the Senate. So it’s a complex issue. But I think he was quite right that often the federative power and the executive power are the same.

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