A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles in Jacobin showing how Locke’s theory of property, on which most modern propertarianism is based, was entirely consistent with his personal involvement in American slavery and the expropriation of indigenous Americans. Historian Holly Brewer has come to Locke’s defence, pointing to more evidence about Locke’s involvement in American affairs, of which I was previously unaware. I’ve responded, arguing that, far from exonerating Locke, the new evidence shows that Locke was deeply enmeshed in American slavery throughout his life, yet never took a stand against it.
Brewer’s broader concern is to defend liberalism against critics who argue, pointing to Locke and the US Founding Fathers, that the whole ideology was conceived in the context of slavery. Here, I think she is making a mistake in accepting the idea of Locke, rather than the much more defensible Adam Smith as the founding theorist of liberalism.
As Jacob Levy recently observed in an excellent piece for the Niskanen Institute,
The second thing to note is that stability of existing ownership is not the same as liberal markets and commercial society. When conservative parties subvert democracy in the name of fighting redistribution or socialism, market liberals often let themselves be fooled into thinking that what’s being defended is something like the kind of capitalism they support. But ownership is not commerce. (Locke is not Smith, and Smith is the truer source of market liberalism.)
I’d take this further in a couple of directions with which Jacob (and lots of others) might not agree. First, I’d link Smith with John Stuart Mill as beginning a liberal tradition that includes not only the kind of socially progressive market liberalism represented by the Niskanen Institute, but also liberalism in the standard US sense and the socialist and democratic tradition which emerged prior to and independently from Marxism, particularly in Britain and its offshoots, including Australia.
Second, as I suggested above, it’s possible to trace a line of intellectual descent from Locke and Jefferson, through European classical liberals like Pareto to Hayek and Mises, and on to contemporary propertarianism. In this case, the early acceptance of slavery reflected the inherent flaws in propertarianism. Propertarians in this tradition have repeatedly compromised with or capitulated to fascists. In our own time, a number of propertarian writers, and most of their electoral base, have backed Trump, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This is an intellectual and political dead end, and its failures can be traced right back to Locke.
fn1. I’m not really keen on the headline, but the convention (dating from the days of hot metal typesetting) that authors of magazine and newspaper articles don’t get to choose their headlines seems to be unshakeable.