Theories of property, liberalism, gender and John Locke

[John Locke]The reading this week is the first of the Two Treatises of Government by John Locke (1632-1704), and chapters 1-5 of the second treatise. The entire text is available in many modern editions (a good one is Peter Laslett's edition, in the Cambridge blue books series), and is also free in an Internet editionas a pdf (Adobe Acrobat) file . You can get the second treatise in text format.

Probably the most important section in the reading is chapter 5 of the Second Treatise; this is the famous chapter in which Locke maps out his theory of property. Maybe read it first, and then the first four chapters of the second treatise; and only then the first treatise. Or read the first five chapters of the second treatise, and then the first treatise. The second treatise presents Locke's own theory, while the first refutes the patriarchalist theory of Sir Robert Filmer and only indirectly gives us Locke's own views.

Locke's father fought for parliament in the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century. Locke himself was very far from being a political or religious radical in his early days. In 1660 the monarchy was restored in England when Charles II was welcomed back from exile. Locke, who was a student and later a teacher at Oxford University, wrote some manuscript works against religious toleration not long after the Restoration; later, he changed his mind drastically on toleration. Trained in medicine, he successfully performed an operation on Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, and from then on the two became close friends and associates. Shaftesbury was a leading Whig politician, who advocated religious toleration (at least for Protestants) and who wanted the power of the king to be restricted. Locke adopted the same views. In 1679-81 Shaftesbury led moves in parliament to have the king's Catholic brother, James excluded from the succession to the throne. The political crisis over this issue is known as the Exclusion Crisis. In the end, Shaftesbury was defeated, and he and Locke went into exile in the Netherlands; James duly became king in 1685. Locke probably wrote much of the Two Treatises at the time of the Exclusion Crisis, but the book was first published only in 1689. By then, James had been deposed because of his pro-Catholic policies, and the throne had been given to his daughter Mary and her husband the Dutch prince William. Locke traveled to England with Mary. He revised the Two Treatises to turn it into a justification of the Glorious Revolution - the deposition of the tyrant James. Locke held administrative offices that involved him in English expansion in America, and he helped to write the constitution of Carolina.

Locke said that kings derive their powers from the people and that they are accountable to them. He therefore strongly rejected the views of Filmer (1588-1653; his most famous book, Patriarcha, was first published only in 1680, long after his death) who claimed that just as fathers have power over their children by nature, and not as a consequence of the children's consent, so governments have power over the people independently of their people's consent; indeed, said Filmer, the first father (Adam) had also been a king over his offspring and their descendants, of whom there were a very large number since he lived for many centuries. In many ways, Locke's arguments aren't that far from those of the people against whom Filmer had written (like Suarez and Bellarmine), and in important respects they are similar to those of the Levellers. But his political theory placed quite unusual stress on property. Hobbes argued that rights of property only came into existence when states were set up, and that no one held such rights against the sovereign. Locke argued that by nature people came to have rights to things with which they have mixed their labor; such rights existed long before states, and indeed the reason why states were instituted was precisely to protect property. Locke is so concerned with property that some scholars have argued that what he really wanted to do was defend unlimited appropriation by the capitalistic bourgeoisie. This case was most famously argued in 1962 by C. B. Macpherson, in his The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism; it is now widely rejected.

A central theme in the political history of seventeenth-century England was the defense by the wealthy of their rights of property against royal encroachment. Commonly, these rights were portrayed as ancient and customary: English history, it was said, showed that the king had never had the authority to tax, except with the consent of parliament. One problem with this kind of argument was that the historical evidence for it was doubtful. Locke tries to do away with the need to find such evidence by claiming that rights of property stem not from history but from natural law. Filmer had trenchantly criticized some earlier theories of property (including those of Grotius). Locke tries to circumvent the criticisms by grounding property on labor. A fundamental premise for most theories of private property is that at first everyone held the whole world in common (Filmer's patriarchalist theory rejected this, arguing that everything had belonged to Adam). But if it was held in common, how did bits of it come to belong to particular individuals or groups. One idea was that everyone agreed to divide it up, establishing the rule that if I occupy land it becomes mine. But it was extremely doubtful that the entire population of the world ever met together to divide it up. Does this mean I don't have exclusive property in my house - since people in Asia (for example) never acknowledged that I have any exclusive right to it? If they turn up, do I have to let them in? Again, why should occupation confer rights of property (why not seeing rather than occupying land)? And how literally are we to take occupation (does my house stop being mine when I go to work)? Locke's theory is intended to avoid such problems.

Some questions on property: What makes something yours rather than mine? What precisely is Locke's answer to that question, and how convincing is it? What is the role which money plays in Locke's account of property and of the origins of government? In what ways does Locke's state of nature differ from those of Hobbes and others? What can be said for and against the idea that Locke was an advocate of unlimited appropriation and possessive individualism?

Locke's first treatise replies to the patriarchalist arguments of Filmer (who said that the idea that in the state of nature free and equal individuals had consented to set up government was wrong, since people never had been free and equal - children are born into subjection to their parents, and fathers naturally have patriarchal power over their families; in ancient times this turned into political power without anyone consenting to it). Which of the two won the debate? Until recently, almost everyone thought the answer to that question was obvious: Locke won, and showed that Filmer was talking nonsense. In attacking Filmer, Locke admitted that fathers hold some sort of power within their families but argued that this is irrelevant to the state, for the father's power in the family is quite different from political power. Filmer, on the other hand, equated the two kinds of power.

According to Locke, people are born free and equal; but he thought that it was fine for males to rule in the state as well as the family; he said nothing to suggest that he wanted women to share in political power. Filmer himself pointed out that genuine democratic principles (which he rejected) involved empowering women (and, he added, children too; he also claimed that a real democrat would want to take a new vote every time someone is born or dies). If you argue that women and children are subordinate to men, he suggested, you have to admit that Adam was superior to everyone else who lived while he did; but if that is so, there can be no grounds for supposing that at first power was in the hands of the people as a whole, and that it was only later transferred to kings.

Nowadays, some people argue that giving women political rights is of limited significance as long as patriarchalist ideas continue to dominate in the family and in society at large. They claim that it is impossible to draw any neat and rigid distinctions between the spheres of the private and the political. It would certainly be an exaggeration to say that such people regard Filmer as a hero of their movement; but they do claim that much of Locke's critique of Filmer is ineffective. In their opinion, liberalism of the sort that Locke advocated (and which has been extremely influential) is hypocritical and inconsistent; it claims that people are by nature free and equal, and that inequalities result from agreements into which we freely enter, but it also tacitly assumes that some people are naturally more equal than others (for instance, that men are superior to women, and perhaps that the social elite is naturally superior to the working class). Some people have argued that another sign of Locke's hypocrisy is that his political theory strongly condemns slavery (discussed especially in chapter 4 of the second treatise), while he himself did nothing to oppose English participation in the slave trade, and in fact invested in it.

Questions on gender and consent: who won the debate: Locke or Filmer?; just what is the modern relevance of the debate? Did Locke inconsistently and hypocritically adopt patriarchalist ideas on the family and use them to exclude women from politics, while denying the family and the state were at all equivalent?; what light do Hobbes and other texts cast on all this?

Some further reading:

John Dunn, John Locke College Library CALL NO. B1297 D86 1984 (copy 2);
James Tully, An approach to political philosophy, Locke in contexts CALL NO. JC153 L87 T837 1993;
James Tully, A discourse on property : John Locke and his adversaries CALL NO. JC153 L87 T84;
Tully also has a chapter on Locke in The Cambridge history of political thought, 1450-1700 edited by J.H. Burns with the assistance of Mark Goldie. CALL NO. JA81 C283 1991 (copy 201).
Locke is portrayed not as a conservative keen to preserve existing rights on property and other questions, but as a revolutionary in Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary politics and Locke's Two Treatises, Princeton 1986.
A good account of the history of attitudes towards property is Richard Schlatter, Private property: the history of an idea, London 1951.
The links between gender and politics in the thinking of Locke and others are studied in L. J. Nicholson, Gender and history, New York 1986; Susan M. Okin, Women in western political thought, New Jersey 1979; Carole Pateman, The sexual contract, Stanford 1988; M. R. Sommerville, Sex and Subjection. Attitudes towards women in early modern society, 1995.

[More on Locke]

Some links:
John Locke's works
Great Books' Index - online resources
John Locke
Internet Encyclopedia
Locke Bibliography


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