“Freedom Commissioner” Tim Wilson has been quoted in The Australian saying that Australian schoolchildren ought to learn more about classical liberal theorists like John Locke. While loath to squeeze yet more material into an already overcrowded curriculum, I’d certainly be glad if there was more awareness of Locke’s actual ideas and actions, as opposed to his prevailing image as an early apostle of freedom. A proper treatment of Locke would have to explain how
* His theory of natural rights in property was designed to justify the expropriation of indigenous populations
* His advocacy of freedom included support for slavery
* His theory of religious toleration excluded atheists and Catholics
* His theory of political freedom did not extend to freedom of speech.
How then did Locke get such a high reputation? The answer isn’t all that mysterious. Locke was closely involved in the British colonisation of North America, both as an investor and as a participant in political activity such as the drafting of the Constitution of the Carolinas, which ratified the expropriation of the indigenous population and enshrined the absolute power of slave-owners.
When the slave-owning colonists achieved independence from the British Crown, it was natural for them to look to Locke to provide the basis for their political theories (theories that did not preclude the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts restricting political freedom). Locke then benefitted from the same historical amnesia that has absolved all the US founders from their role in maintaining and extending slavery.
Instead of Locke, it might be better for students to learn about that old-fashioned Tory, Dr Samuel Johnson, who remarked “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes”, and whose friendship with his Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, a former slave, was a striking testimony to his character.
fn1. of course, the American Revolution embodied much nobler hopes than those of the Southern aristocracy that dominated the early years of the United States. Realising those hopes took decades of struggle and a bloody civil war.
65 thoughts on “John Locke, an enemy of freedom”
Arrgh, your lefty facts are interfering with Tim’s fantasies, John.
Frequently in our history we find slogans used by a class or elite to promote and defend material interests… using terms which later acquire a universal application beyond the original and very particular intent. Thus it is with the current interest in the Magna Carta, which was a matter originally between the aristocracy and the king; now held up as the great charter of English liberties, it espouses principles that were originally narrow in their application. History views the document kindly when it holds those rebellious nobles as heroes of some universal notion of “liberty”. But Locke, and even the scribes who set down the Magna Carta, have given us words and ideas which can be turned against those who defend them only in narrow terms.
Great stuff John.
But will your book take the next steps?…Firstly an analysis of the trouble with Adam Smith and the economic paradigms founded on this concept of “property”?
And after that an analysis of the philosophical/scientific problems that arise when simian trading (of property) behaviour in conceptualized as an absolute law of nature and then applied to the management of the natural environment e.g. air water fish soil i.e. natural resources, leading to ‘ownership’ of planet earth by a small class of wealthy oligarchs?
[I realize this appears hyperbolic, but there may be an historical precedent for what happens to humans at least when economics is hijacked by the privileged (see section on the Roman Empire’s decline in TAINTER, J. A. 2011. Resources and Cultural Complexity: Implications for Sustainability. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 30, 24-34.).]
I have not read much Locke, but he can be identified with early expression of a crude labour theory of value.
According to Wikipedia; Labour creates property
Marx has an interesting consideration of this (and Hobbes) in his “Theories of Surplus value” pt1, Addenda 4. [pg 365, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1963].
Marx suggests that Locke introduced “a political invention” that contradicted a law of nature.
My guess would be that this intrusion of politics into economics is the real basis for making Locke into an enemy of freedom.
Good stuff JQ and timely in so far as Tiny Tim wants to revisit Locke in order to reassert his toxic legacy.
Schoolchildren would more profitably learn about another Englishman, Tony Lock.
Bravo. Well said J.Q.
I just re-watched the movie “Killing Them Softly” the other day. It counterpoints rigged card games, robberies and hits with background media reports of the Financial Crisis 2007-08. I think the movie was implying that the US economy is a rigged card game backed up by theft and murder. 😉
At the end of the movie, the main hit-man played by Brad Pitt says scornfully;
“America is not a society, it’s a business. Now, pay me.”
People agree with people who make the same mistakes they did.
[if there’s one thing that seventeen-odd years on the internet has convinced me of, it’s that there are very very few bad-faith actors out there: people do things because they think that those things are OK things to do, and in so thinking that they won’t generally lie or dissemble about what it is they’re doing or what they’re trying to do.]
This is an interesting take on Locke by Karen Vaughn formerly of George Mason University. The title of the article is “WHO OWNS THE CHILDREN? LIBERTARIANISM, FEMINISM, AND PROPERTY” (1993) and Vaughn is responding to some issues raised by Susan Moller Okin in her book “Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989)”
Apparently, Okin in her book, “sees no hope at all for the individualist philosophy of libertarianism.” And she had criticized libertarianism for being “gender insensitive” and having no idea how to incorporate children into their philosophy.
Vaughn responds, “By calling attention to the presence of children in the real world, she (Okin) calls attention to an under-explored area of libertarian philosophy where individuals who own property and engage in contracts are presumed to be rational or at least competent and responsible adults.
“But the presence of children suggests that some inhabitants of this world are not fully rational and therefore not fully competent to assert their own rights as human beings. Further, because adults bring children into the world, libertarians cannot ignore questions about the rights and responsibilities of parents and children.”
Apparently, Locke did not have to decide how and when children turn from moochers into self-owning individuals because he invoked “man’s relationship with God and relied on a long moral tradition that placed limits on legitimate human behavior and clearly distinguished between men and beasts. “
Locke believed that, “Within this tradition, children were entrusted to parents to be cared for and nurtured; they imposed responsibilities on their parents rather than ownership.”
I would really like to see Tiny Tim tell us more about how libertarians and how women and children fit into Libertarian philosophy and when parents are able to cease taking responsibility for their children. Oh and ‘who’ does he think should be teaching them about Locke?
But Vaughn’s main point about Locke is that “To pluck Locke’s ideas about property out of their religious context is to misread and manipulate Locke.“
Which seems to me to be exactly what Nozick does but Vaughn doesn’t see that as she explains how Nozick got from Locke’s ideas to his own.
This is Vaughn’s paper. http://reasonpapers.com/pdf/18/rp_18_16.pdf
It is the screenplay based on the book Cogan’s Trade, by George V. Higgins, 1974. You are probably right in observing the backdrop of news on the financial crisis, and using the crooked card games as metaphor.
Didn’t Paul Johnson write a book on intellectuals showing how the great and the good and wise were deeply flawed individuals and somewhat hypocritical.
There is also their book Political Pilgrims that documents the fawning hero worship of the former USSR, China and Cuba by useful idiots on the Left who should have known better
That is interesting. Although I suspect that Vaughn may be somewhat off the mark, because when she says “libertarians cannot avoid questions about the rights and responsibilities of parents and children” she seems to imply that she believes that “libertarianism” is a serious political philosophy, rather than a glib way of avoiding having to deal with precisely those kinds of questions.
I doubt that a proper treatment of Locke’s theory of religious toleration (at a high school level) requires an explanation of his exclusion of atheists and Catholics. To be clear, I’m only denying its necessity; I agree that an explanation of his exclusions would be useful, perhaps as a lesson in the frailty of human reason, but maintain that it would be supererogatory.
Why? The exclusions are not intrinsic to the theory. Students who understand his argument could apply it to the existing field of religious groups, and derive the conclusion of toleration for Catholics, atheists, and Muslims. Locke’s exclusions are glaring precisely because they are ad hoc, and unjustifiable in terms of the arguments he sets out. Now, it is of course worthy of note that someone with his intellect would capitulate to that kind of bias, but as I said, that’s a lesson in human frailty, and the ‘interestedness’ of reason.
My assumption here is that John’s point is as follows: “Locke’s theory purports to justify religious toleration, but it actually leads to toleration for some and exclusion for others, so if we naively apply his theories we’ll end up justifying exclusions too – hence the need to draw attention to the exclusions and thereby debunk or deconstruct (or de-whatever) his theory, so we don’t make the same mistakes.”
It’s just my point that those exclusions don’t necessarily follow from his argument, and so the danger of naively applying his theory is absent. That’s against the necessity of explaining the exclusions. Without them, the arguments he makes are useful insofar as they get quite close to the ‘commonsense’ intuitions we have about why we ought to tolerate different religions.
That’s why I think it’s still useful to study Locke on this point, even if we don’t get around to telling the kids about all the ways he was inconsistent in applying his own theory; a proper treatment of his theory of religious toleration doesn’t require an explanation of the exclusions.
Heterodox interpretations of Locke through rigorous and penetrating exegesis of his texts on property etc., his political philosophy more generally and its relation to the founding of the American regime may be found in:
1. Thomas Pangle and Timothy Burns, The Key Texts of Political Philosophy;
2. Stephen McCarthy and David Kehl, Deductive Irrationality;
3. Thomas Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism;
4. Michael Zuckert, Launching Liberalism.
Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals is a series of tendentious hits on people he suspects of being well regarded by his enemies. Many are not, in any usual meaning of the term, intellectuals; none are right wingers or right wing heroes; most of the claims of frailty and hypocrisy are false. What does Jim Rose think this has to do with JQ’s discussion of Locke?
Another work discusses people who sympathised with Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China. Parallel works discussing, say, the lifelong supporter of Franco’s terror who got an Australian State funeral (Santamaria) or, say, the Nazi sympathiser before WWII who sought to prevent entry to Australia by people blowing the whistle on Hitler and who suppressed and censored anti-Nazi theatre and literature (Menzies) are not found by or referred to by Jim Rose. Again, what does he think this sort of dog whistling has to do with JQ’s discussion of Locke?
Nice points. Sam Johnson is fascinating. I agree with your paragraphs. Locke was(is) THE capitalist philosopher.
Why not study Mill instead? Then there’s no need to explain embarrassing exceptions, support for slavery and so on.
I agree with your general point about preferring Mill (or even Hobhouse). I tend to think labelling debates are somewhat sterile, but in this case it seems to me that talking about liberalism before 1800 is rather misguided. Although having said that, I’m not quite so sure that Mill is innocent of embarrassing theories that need to be explained away – in his case there’s the close link between his perfectionism and colonial paternalism. That, among other things, is why I think Bentham is preferable to Mill, but that’s another story…
This looks to be an excellent addition to the literature on the intrigues of the man John Locke.
“Now, it is of course worthy of note that someone with his intellect would capitulate to that kind of bias, but as I said, that’s a lesson in human frailty, and the ‘interestedness’ of reason.”
The non-toleration of Catholics was hardly ad hoc to John Licke’s intellectual and political pursuits – if John Locke tolerated Catholics then he would have lacked grounds to argue for the Parliament to usurp the Catholic King James II [this was done legally through John Locke’s theory of King’s abdicating if they didn’t meet John Locke’s specified criteria] and installing the King’s Protestant daughter Mary and her foreign Protestant husband William of Orange on the throne together. John Locke was exiled for political intrigue to the Netherlands and took the boat back with
“In truth, [the so called Glorious Revolution] was not bloodless, hardly a revolution and its glory was stained. William’s march through England may have shed relatively little blood, but in Scotland and Ireland conflict was vicious and brutal. William’s triumph was less the product of a revolution than of a conspiracy to effect a foreign invasion.
Before the Revolution the Whigs sought to exclude James from the English throne due to his Catholicism. After the Revolution a battery of laws were created specifically to harass, humiliate, and harass Catholics.
A few weeks after William [of Orange] had touched down in Torbay and marched into London, the royal yacht arrived in London, bringing with it William’s wife Mary. On board also was the English philosopher John Locke, who had spent five years in exile in the Netherlands.”
I didn’t say it was ad hoc to his political pursuits. The fact that he had the kind of anti-Catholic political agenda you point out, is the reason he excluded Catholics from religious tolerance. But that exclusion was not generated internally according to his theory of religious tolerance, and was instead an ad hoc ‘correction’ to prevent the conclusion (of Catholic toleration) that one might reasonably draw from the logic of his argument. Which is why I said, as you helpfully quoted, that his exclusion of Catholics was evidence of a capitulation to bias – i.e. a pre-determined political commitment.
“But that exclusion was not generated internally according to his theory of religious tolerance, and was instead an ad hoc ‘correction’ to prevent the conclusion (of Catholic toleration) that one might reasonably draw from the logic of his argument. ”
I think you have got things the wrong way to be frank. I think it is more likely John Locke just threw in some notions about tolerance to make the parliament’s usurping of the king have a more palatable sheen.
A couple of points:-
– It is probably more accurate to state that Locke’s theories were useful for supporting slavery, even with the proviso that he knew of that usefulness and made use of it, than that they were designed for that. No doubt he saw it as a further, beneficial consequence of following his theorising through.
– Much of the influence of Locke on North Americans wasn’t that direct, but rather the cod Locke of such philosophes as Helvetius. That left out much of the nuance that, properly thought through, could have led to a different understanding of certain crucial matters around them. For instance, much of their revolt involved expropriating people, e.g. Loyalists and colonial investors (who, on a Lockean view, had originally appropriated their holdings through their agents).
We’re approaching it from different angles. You’re giving an historical explanation for the genesis of his ideas. I don’t disagree, or doubt that his political commitments determined the Catholic exclusion. It’s nevertheless possible to give a philosophical appraisal of his arguments, and treat them as more or less free standing. From that point of view, the exclusions are unjustified. Maybe Locke didn’t intend to craft an argument that supported toleration for atheists or Catholics, but it’s possible that his premisses and logic lead to that conclusion anyway. That’s an open question not determined by the historical explanation of why he wrote what he wrote.
Some small percent of any thinker’s ideas survive the test of time. We acknowledge these thinkers for their surviving ideas – the duration of an idea as a capital asset. Those ideas that do not survive the test of time are irrelevant.
The only reason to argue that an individual is or is not morally something or other, is if one is attributing authority to the individual, rather than to the asset value of his surviving ideas.
In other words, John’s post is an authoritarian and unscientific argument against an authoritarian and unscientific hypothesis.
Aristotle was wrong about almost everything. But that does not diminish that of the thinkers in the age of transformation, that he was not more ‘right’ and therefore more influential than all other thinkers combined.
He gave us a way of thinking. Locke gave us a way of thinking.
(BTW: The Catholics were just as damaging to the Rule of Law as Locke and his contemporaries supposed. They were certainly catastrophically damaging to the American constitution and American rule of law. And that’s before we get to Socialism and Judaism. Australia, like Canada, is one of the most privileged nations on earth, and Australians are notorious for confusing and conflating virtue with luxury and signaling.)
“It’s nevertheless possible to give a philosophical appraisal of his arguments, and treat them as more or less free standing. From that point of view, the exclusions are unjustified”
Well we both agree John Locke was in the wrong both historically and philosophically.
“Well we both agree John Locke was in the wrong both historically and philosophically.”
RJL said “someone with his intellect would capitulate to that kind of bias”
Was there a concept of ‘bias’, historically and/or philosophically when Locke was writing?
According to the online etymology dictionary, the French word biais, originaly a technical term in bowls, and meaning ‘slant’ or ‘slope’, was adopted into English in the 1520s, and the word was being used to mean ‘predisposition’ or ‘prejudice’ in English in the 1570s.
Can you ever have a proper examination of Locke without consideration of those whose ideas he questioned and those who then questioned his responses?
Locke already has a place in the Canon, but in the world of someone like Tim Wilson, who I think is a mental case, would the others also have a place, or be censored out.
A forbidden history would no doubt include detailing of book (even people) burnings at different times in the past.
I’m really not sure what it means to say Locke was wrong ‘historically’. But as for philosophically – I think his arguments for tolerance would apply to catholicism, and Islam, and atheism, so he’s wrong to exclude them. But not wrong about his positive arguments for tolerance. (Although I’d have much more to say about that).
Don’t forget we’re talking about a high school curriculum, not a university course. The purpose is to introduce them Locke as the source of ideas that continue to inform and support contemporary ‘libersl’ values such as tolerance (but also private property, civil freedom, etc – I think John’s point is stronger with regard to those latter ideas. I only wanted demur about religious tolerance).
I don’t agree with your characterisation of Tim Wilson, even though I disagree with Tim Wilson on a gumboot-ful of issues. To another Libertarian, he probably makes perfect sense; to the rest of us, not so much. Us mental cases have our pride too, you know. 🙂
In the Australian Democracy, the enemy of freedom is the PM Tony Abbott.
He has set about doing what no terrorist could do. He has pushed a mass surveillance culture into the AFP, and into the Spook Country, and into the ADF. They are toying with making Peter Dutton the most powerful minister in our national history, able to flick away a person’s nationality with a scribble on some e-paper. [Of course, it’s possible there are secret plans to yank Dutton from the team.]
They now have the power to detain, interrogate, and demand the victim keep all that has happened secret, not informing anyone else as to where they were, for how long, or why. Should some fair-minded soul decide something is morally indefensible (on one of these “special operation matters”, for instance), they face mandatory sentencing for disclosing details of what too place, and if it is leaked to a journalist, it is now dead easy to track the communications of the main actors, indefinitely.
I’ll make one prediction: Like the slavery trade, this current terror double-Mauve alert wave the flag all eight of them please, mock-patriotism, is going to end in tears. I just hope the crying is confined to Cabinet. If the ALP could show some brass on this issue and block these crazy ideas from becoming law, they would be doing us all a favour; sadly, they see no great issue with it so far. The irony is that some of the laws could prevent the ALP from ever discovering the truth behind the recent alleged “bribes” paid to the crew of that boat.
First, he is correct that property is a necessity, despite only mentioning it with dubious clarity once.
Second, Anglos, did by force of arms, despite slavery, colonialism, conquest, drag all of humanity out of ignorance and poverty in just under five centuries.
Third, the character of an inventor of a theory has no influence upon the truth of the theory itself.
Lastly, It’s use of Marxist Critique to use psychologism as a criticism. It’s pseudoscience and gossip at its best and in the case of criticizing character – deceitful.
This is probably the most important point about Locke, and the uses his philosophy was put to by later generations.
Locke wrote a constitution supporting slavery in the Carolinas. At the same time he argued against slavery in the “Two Treatises”. His argument hinges mostly on property – it’s plausible he’s concerned with appropriation of rebel land in the English context. The Treatises were written before the Glorious Revolution… But Carmichael in Glasgow invoked Locke against slavery in general, and Carmichael’s student Hutcheson (who argued specifically against the Atlantic slave trade and was quoted by Benezet in his 1762 tract) did the same.
A similar thing happened with the theory of consent in government. With a few years, Locke’s friend Molyneux used Locke’s arguments to show the Irish parliament should not have legislation forced on it by Westminster. Others of Locke’s party argued against this conclusion and it’s likely Locke also disagreed with Molyneux’s “Case of Ireland”. The pamphlet was reprinted multiple times in Ireland, was evoked by Swift and was also read in the American colonies. (As was Hutcheson, who also wrote on when colonies might seek independence.)
Add in the example given above of Marx’s labour theory of value coming directly from Locke, or of Toland using Locke’s arguments against the established church, or indeed Toland calling on Locke to support toleration of the Jews in Britain. Locke seems to have consistently created arguments with radical implications that he didn’t see. Locke’s Lacuna, if you like.
(By the way, Locke’s arguments were used to justify enclosure in Britain – the removal of rights of use and access by the common people to tracts of land. Enclosure was a political movement Locke supported.)
There are parallels between the revolutionaries of America’s 1770’s and today’s Tea Party. A great deal of hypocrisy. A lot of lying about motives. The famous tea party in Boston Harbor was not a reaction to taxes. It was a revolt by tea smugglers who had profited from being able to undersell British tea from the East India Company at a high markup. This protest was analogous to the votes in California’s marijuana production counties against legalizations. Those counties voted so strongly against legalization of marijuana that they defeated the legalization measure.
Another motive for the revolt was that British judges and governors were honoring treaties with American Indian tribes, specifically in the Ohio Valley. At the time of the American Revolution, roughly 30% of the population of Boston were slaves, and a large number of those were American Indians or “breeds”.
Yet another large factor is that the Native American tribes had died out from the European disease pool. Early records from the Plymouth and other Massachussetts colonies recorded 95%+ total population mortality. The Plymouth colony itself was founded in a Native American village with crops in the fields where only one survivor (Squanto) was known. This gave rise to the phrase, “Manifest destiny” which appeared first in a sermon in that earliest period. With manifest destiny as a meme that seems to have infused colonial society for hundreds of years to come, this helped set the stage for the revolutionary movement.
I highly recommend Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History for a notably fair treatment of the dialogue between and the thoughts of such figures as Johnson & Locke. It is best for students to learn about both.
It seems to me that ‘we’ now understand bias in a way that does provide people with some insight into the cognitive processes that underpin this irrational way of thinking that is obviously hypocrisy to some of us but ‘right thinking’ to others.
Noah Smith on his noahopinion blog writes this.
“I have long believed that stuff like this happens in economics arguments all the time. It’s probably not (usually) an intentional subterfuge, but more of an unconscious bias.
“An economist is presented with the proposition that countercyclical fiscal policy (stimulus in recessions, austerity in booms) increases overall efficiency. He is generally against increasing the size of the government.
“So when he sees that countercyclical fiscal policy will (temporarily) increase the size of the government in a boom, it triggers warning sirens in his subconscious. “What? Increase the size of government? Never!”, says his subconscious.
“And so that motivates him to argue against the proposition that countercyclical policy is effective at stabilizing booms and recessions. ”
There is more in this blog – and the comments – about how ideology trumps reason unless people can understand the way motivated cognition works.
“Anglos, did by force of arms, despite slavery, colonialism, conquest, drag all of humanity out of ignorance and poverty in just under five centuries.” – Curt Doolittle.
1. That’s a vile statement and you need to be called out on it. Clearly you are a white supremacist and a racist.
“It’s use of Marxist Critique to use psychologism as a criticism.” – Curt Doolittle.
2. Actually, its capitalist ideology that uses psychologism to explain political economy. As in the modern, bowdlerised version of Smith’s “invisible hand” thesis. “Men are selfish and only in the pursuit of self-interest do they produce for others.”
Oh dear My comment to Tim Macknay has gone into moderation so I’ll repost it without the link to Tim’s comment.
So true, no libertarian is able to deal with children or family as part of their ‘philosophy’.
Take Ayn Rand” (the authors suggestion not mine 🙂
“none of her uber role-model characters, at any level or in any way, ever indulge in the most basic human project – bearing and raising and loving and teaching children.
“Out of 1000 pages, (the author is talking about her novel “Atlas Shrugs”) just one of them glances briefly at a mother – a baker, an enlightened and awakened proletarian who is not a member of the elite caste.
“She gives a short riff about preferring Randite education methods in Galt’s Gulch over public schools.
“That is it for procreation.
“As for the New Lords – several dozen of them, all dynamic Rand-heroes of the future – not even one of them bothers to pass his or her genes forward in time. Nor do any of them take responsibility for, or even mention, this essential investment in time.
“And this from the “life-centered” philosophy.”
“There is a reason that Rand consistently avoided any mention of procreation among her new-lord caste — because writing-in even one member of a next-generation would shine searing light upon the biggest flaw of her hypnotic spell, revealing that her “fresh” tale is actually the oldest one in the human saga.”
“Her characters are the brash, virile, sturdy, innovative barbarians, born free and ready to seize destiny in their own two hands, ripping fortune out of the clutches of pathetic old-fart lords who are spent and bereft of cleverness or might.
“It’s the oldest story, writ-new and draped with modernist garments. Even in her portrayals of sex, the closest parallel is a godlike Viking who kicks down the door and takes what he desires. Because he is the grandest thing in all directions. And because he can.
“It is an ancient mythos that resonates deeply in our bones and especially within pasty-skinned, pencil-necked nerds, who picture themselves as Achilles, as John Wayne, as Ender Wiggin, as Harry Potter or some other demigod. An old, old formula that was mined by A. E. Van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard and Orson Scott Card and so many others.”
The author of this article is a sci-fi fan. He also admires Adam Smith and he goes on to ask.
“Why do none of Rand’s characters ever have kids? Because those kids’ll inherit the olympian status wrested by Howard Roark or by Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Sons and daughters of demigods, they will assume privileges and power that they never earned through fair competition. They will take lordship for granted as a right of blood, and use it to squelch new competitors from rising to face them on a level playing field. Until their own decadent line has to be toppled, amid war and waste and pain.”
I have just been reading about Locke for some classes I am preparing and picked up none of this. The image I had of him was the founder of the idea of constitutional, elected government as a better way of controlling Prisoners Dilemmas than a Hobbesian dictator.
It is interesting to see JQ criticize John Locke from JQ’s moral/ethical sensibility of the 21st Century. I agree that Locke’s ideas on property “rights” are repugnant by today’s standards. Locke’s importance (to me) is in introducing the idea that people have intrinsic rights (although we might debate what these are), the notion that government exists to secure these rights for the people (via a “social contact”), and that the people can overthrow governments that become inimical to these ends. These were the elements of Locke’s philosophy that fueled Jefferson’s pen in the Declaration of Independence.
JQ’s critique goes astray in the paragraph beginning “When the slave-owning colonists …” where JQ impugns (footnote not withstanding) the Declaration and the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights because the principal drafters seem to have been influenced by Locke’s now despised ideas. Although some the principals were slave owners, not all the “Founding Fathers” were. Therefore the first sentence starts with an inaccuracy. Next, I want to discuss some historical facts. The “alien and sedition acts” passed by the Federalists in the 5th United States Congress and were signed into law in 1798 by President John Adams, who was from Massachusetts and *not* a slave owner. All but one of these 4 acts were allowed to lapse in the following administration of Thomas Jefferson, who was a slave owner. Then again under slave-owning Jefferson, Congress gave effect to the sunset clause on slave importation in the Constitution by passing the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves” in 1807– the same year as the British Parliament voted to end the slave trade throughout the Empire (abolition of slavery came to the British Empire by Parliamentary statute in 1833 and to the US in 1865 via the 13th amendment following the Civil War).
So in the spirit of “play the ball and not the man”, I suggest we should evaluate the Declaration and the US Constitution for the ideas they contain and express, rather than by the purported philosophical orientation of the authors. Having said that, let me end by quoting slave-owning James Madison from Federalist 51:
I found it hard to forgive “Killing Them Softly” for omitting the best line in the Higgins novel it was based on – a principle of very wide applicability in politics and economics as well as crime.
and, particularly relevant to The Killing Game,
I criticized him from the viewpoint of an 18th century Tory. If you want to use this kind of relativism to defend slavers, stick to historical periods when slavery was unquestioned.
What are your thoughts on the three-fifths clause, which is the one most relevant to the topic at hand?
Not as I read him. In his chapter on slavery he presents a justification for slavery (prisoners taken in a just war may justly be enslaved).
Of course, the idea that the raids by which Africans were enslaved constituted “just wars” is preposterous but
(a) no more so than the historical fictions by which Locke defends existing property rights, excluding inconvenient ones like those of indigenous population
(b) no more than is usual for just war proponents, who almost invariably find that wars undertaken by their side are just.
So, Locke’s political support for slavery is entirely consistent with his philosophical approach in general.
I should observe, relevant to the discussion above, that Locke doesn’t appear to discuss whether the children of slaves inherit their parents’ status. Again, his historical-fictional approach would appear to me to imply that they do, as of course do the children of their owners.
‘If you want to use this kind of relativism to defend slavers, stick to historical periods when slavery was unquestioned.’
There never was such a historical period. Even if there was a historical period for which we have no specific record of people questioning slavery, there never was a historical period when the slaves felt ‘Sure, fine, we’ve got no problem with being enslaved, we find that totally acceptable.’
Mostly we have no explicit record of what slaves felt about slavery (which makes the exceptions all the more important) — and, indeed, no explicit record of what slaves felt about anything else — but that doesn’t mean we have no basis for drawing conclusions. It may be that none of the slaves of Locke’s own time had even heard of his views on the subject — but I have no doubts about what their views would have been if they had.
Do you genuinely believe that all of humanity has been dragged out of ignorance and poverty?
That is a good piece by David Brin.
One (small) thing in Ayn Rand’s favour is that at least she had the good taste to avoid having children, given her ‘philosophy’. The same can’t be said for her followers, sadly. The most egregious example I ever read of (or perhaps a better word would be ‘despicable’) is the Objectivist whose answer to the “questions about the rights and responsibilities of parents and children” was to divorce (he preferred the term ’emancipate’) his teenage daughter.
maybe you should change schools?
Don’t you know how the British East India Co. dragged India out of ignorance and poverty? And China too, by selling them opium grown in India?
The description of Locke you refer to is the standard one, which has only been questioned relatively recently. As I said in the OP, it’s a puzzle requiring explanation that Locke has maintained the kind of image you describe, even though the evidence on his views was right there in the Treatise, and the facts about his life were presumably known all along. I’m satisfied with my explanation for the moment, but happy to be corrected.