Locke and Slavery, again

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[1], 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.

7 thoughts on “Locke and Slavery, again

  1. It strikes me that propertarian thinking is reflected in US criticism of China’s “intellectual property theft”. Perhaps this criticism has some legitimacy, but no one seems to consider that IP rights are in fact too strong, and technology transfer at “fair and reasonable” terms are appropriate.

    Leaving aside China, there is a broad question of whether the existing IP regime places low income and developing countries at a disadvantage. If the Australian government is free to exert its buying power to obtain prices for US pharmaceutical products, why can’t a developing country (by itself or together with other countries) similarly intervene to mandate technology transfer at fair and reasonable terms?

  2. I have a copy of;

    “The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill”
    Edited, with an Introduction by Edwin A. Burtt
    The Modern Library, New York,
    Copyright , 1939, By Random House, Inc.

    (It’s worth reading the short Wikipedia entry on Burtt. He sounds an interesting fellow.)

    John Locke gets a lot of pages allocated for some of his edited works, as do David Hume and John Stuart Mill. There are selections from the second and fourth books of Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the second “Treatise on Government” is printed entire. I haven’t read any of Locke. I assume the slavery and property rights issues are covered in the “Treatise on Govenment”, full title “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government.”? Sorry, I have been too lazy to look for myself so far.

    I might read the latter essay if people recommend it. So far, I have taken the attitude that life’s too short to read Locke. I’ve not been interested in him, except that J.Q. has sparked my interest in his property rights theories and its philosophical descent from his which theories (obvious to state) I am, and will continue to be, 100% against.

    The essay in question commences;

    “It having been shown in the foregoing discourse (the First Treatise on Government):
    (i) That Adam had not, either from natural right of fatherhood or by positive donation by God, any such authority over his children, nor dominion over the world, as is pretended.
    (ii) That if he had, his heirs had no right to it.
    (iii) …”

    Etc., and so it goes.

    Usually, when any treatise or argument uses “God” as an a priori justification I explode with “Bulldust!” or “Poppycock!”. However, this can’t be a blanket rule as Bacon and Berkeley are well worth reading. I can’t go on about why I think Bishop Berkeley is worth reading or I will wax far too lyrical for far too long. That would take us way off topic.

  3. Strong support for the last paragraph in particular. I suspect that most young people assume (wrongly) that writers in newspapers are responsible for the headlines over their pieces, just as much as the authors of blog posts or printed books.

  4. Headlines Editors Wish they Could take back – Columbia Journalism Review.
    “Cohen Admits Congress Lies”

    And imaginary headlines for JQ’s article?

    “John’s Locke on Slavery”

    “Locke as Loki – Philosopher of Mischief”

  5. From the link above Lew Rockwell et al recommend Trump primarily because of his views on foreign policy, arguing that “US foreign policy determines what occurs in economics and in the field of personal liberties. Foreign policy is the dog that wags the other two tails.”

    Libertarians appear to be oblivious to his many negative characteristic, which include lieing.

    As Brookes and Shields point out, Trump is moral decay and those that are close to him usually end disgraced, burnt up or in prison – or all three.

  6. As synchronicity would have it, yesterday I picked up an old copy Of Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”. I don’t think I have ever read it. And almost straight away a central theme is possession, of a planet, by first occupation; notwithstanding that the planet has native inhabitants. A character speaking of this matter makes a parallel;

    “In the fifteenth century the Pope deeded the entire western hemisphere to Spain and Portugal and nobody paid the slightest attention to the fact that the real estate was already occupied by several million Indians with their own laws, customs, and notions of property rights. His grant deed was pretty effective, too. Take a look at a western hemisphere map sometime and notice where Spanish is spoken and where Portuguese is spoken—and see how much land the Indians have left.”

    Interesting to think that the character didn’t add “Look at where English and French are spoken too.” even though the Pope did not make those grants (IIRC).

    Okay, no plot spoilers please, I must keep reading. Also, interesting to note how a popular author touching on serious themes also makes sure sex and money are very early themes or at least intimations. Heinlein clearly knew that nothing sells like sex and money in potboilers. Oh and add in promises of crime, state crime and “lashings of ultra-violence”. [1]

    Note 1: From “A Clockwork Orange” – Anthony Burgess – (John Anthony Burgess Wilson)

  7. Precient quotes x 2 by Galbraith:
    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.– “Stop the Madness,” Interview with Rupert Cornwell, Toronto Globe and Mail (July 6, 2002) see http://wist.info/galbraith-john-kenneth/7463/

    New slavery -200 yrs to change gender equality?
    “An economy that depends on slavery needs to promote images of slaves that “justify” the institution of slavery. The contemporary economy depends right now on the representation of women within the beauty myth. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith offers an economic explanation for “the persistence of the view of homemaking as a ‘higher calling’”: the concept of women as naturally trapped within the Feminine Mystique, he feels, “has been forced on us by popular sociology, by magazines, and by fiction to disguise the fact that woman in her role of consumer has been essential to the development of our industrial society…. Behavior that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue.”
    Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

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