Lockean liberalism

[book cover]As you may have surmised, I’ve been immersed in natural law and liberal political theory for these first couple of weeks of my summer vacation. Because I’m most interested in the American republic’s foundation, I’m most interested in John Locke. No book has helped me understand his writing on political theory more than Ruth W. Grant‘s John Locke’s Liberalism (Chicago 1987).

Grant gets Locke. Her book gave me a way to understand him better by showing me how two of his primary works and a few of his secondary ones come together to make a coherent political theory.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. At least, that’s the message I’ve gotten from other things I’ve read. Locke appears a chameleon over his adult years, starting out acting like a reactionary, then a liberal, then something like a reactionary again. He had to survive the tumultuous English seventeenth century following Cromwell’s dictatorship and the Restoration, and he fled England during Charles II’s reign when he was suspected, without credible evidence, of participating in a plot to assassinate him. He returned to England soon after the Glorious Revolution and the ascension of William and Mary, published most of his major writing, and became a Whig legend during his last years. And over his long career, there are these inconsistencies in his writings and public acts, such as the discrepancy between his denunciation of slavery in his Second Treatise of Government and his possible role in helping to write the portion of the Carolina colonies’ constitution legalizing slavery. In addition, historians have had difficulty tracking down when Locke wrote the material he published, and they have hoped that nailing down the political circumstances surrounding his writings might explain some of the inconsistencies among them.

Grant takes a different tack. She gets the history, but she reads Locke long enough until one part of his work starts to make more sense of another. Her primary approach is to read Locke’s epistemological Essay Concerning Human Understanding as a means of understanding his Second Treatise, the cornerstone of Locke’s political theory. The Essay sets out what is possible for men to know, and Grant shows that Locke uses his own epistemological standards, as hopeful and as limited as Locke frames them, to demonstrate in the Second Treatise that mankind might just be mature enough for liberal government. Then she suggests the similarities of Locke’s approach in both works:

Locke’s attitude toward the political problem is the same as his attitude toward the problem of human understanding. Men cannot know everything, but they can know enough to govern their conduct rationally. (203-04)

Grant points out that, in setting out a political theory that is both idealistic and practical, Locke comes across in Second Treatise as an uneasy optimist. “Locke keeps the reader constantly aware of the gravity of the political problem and of the fragility of human solutions to it” (203). In pages filled with reflections on tyranny, insurrection, invasion, and usurpation, Locke seems like a teacher who expends as much energy controlling her unruly classroom as she does teaching. And Locke was teaching: the Second Treatise‘s audience was the general public; it was part of a pamphlet war to influence the public’s understanding of government.

Locke creates no Utopia in the Second Treatise or elsewhere, no understanding of government that would make any political system impervious to tyranny. (He never lays out a specific political system at all, in fact, though he claims that democracies, aristocracies, hereditary monarchies, and tribal kingdoms can operate fully within his theory of government.) However, at each stage of a society’s structure, he offers aspects of government that might help lessen problems associated with that stage. For instance, once a society uses money and thereby leaves what Locke refers to as its Golden Age, government should include a separation of executive and legislative powers in an attempt to prevent money from leading the government to serve only the rulers or to favor one segment of society over another.

From his critics’ perspective, Locke’s problem doesn’t stem from the number of threats to liberal government by insurrections, usurpations, and the like, but is the problem of liberal government itself. “The charge is made that a liberal community cannot sustain itself because it cannot justify the claims of the public good against individual self-interested claims . . .” (99). Locke’s emphasis on individual rights leaves him open to the charge that, in a liberal society, the community is less paramount than individual rights. Locke answers by asserting that, though an individual has an inalienable property right in life and liberty, and though her rights precede and survive the community were it to perish, the individual’s first duty is to act for the preservation of the community and all its members while the community exists. And, when that society has a legitimate government, the individual’s first duty is also to that government and its preservation.

It may help here to outline what liberal government is. For Locke, to be a liberal (and to Grant, to be a liberal political theorist of any stripe) means to assert that man is “naturally free and equal.” “The direct implication of the liberal premise” is that no one has a natural right to rule another. In a state of nature, which is not a moment in history but “is nothing more than the name for the relation between any men at any time who have not established a common political authority” (66), there is no one to judge between two individual’s or two nation’s claims, so each individual or nation has the natural executive power to enforce his, her, or its rights under natural law. This was among the chief “inconveniences” of a state of nature, according to Locke, and the movement to society, at least in the case of individuals if not nations, is almost inevitable. In society, as a corollary to the individual’s right to life, the individual has the duty to preserve the society and, to the extent it doesn’t conflict with that preservation, everyone in it (99).

Locke distinguishes between society in general and political society. The latter occurs when a group decides to act as one body and a common authority is present “capable of judging and executing their common law” (101). Political society can disintegrate; in which case, “all obligation to the government ceases. Yet each individual member remains obligated to the society” to protect it and to help form a new government. Anarchy, on the other hand, is the state where both government and society are destroyed. A properly exercised right of resistance may bring down a government, but it would not necessarily lead to anarchy since society may be extant (201).

Locke is sometimes accused of borrowing his theories from Thomas Hobbes, the political theorist who wrote Leviathan earlier in the seventeenth century. Locke’s utilitarian tone probably attracts the comparison, but the two philosophers are working from different worst-case scenarios and, from them, reach different conclusions. “By identifying the state of nature as the worst case, Hobbes teaches obedience to civil government. By identifying the state of war as the worst case, Locke justifies resistance” (72). For Locke, a state of war exists whenever one party (be it an individual, a nation, or a society’s ruler) attempts to take away the right to life or liberty of another party (be it an individual, a nation, or a society). But Locke is at pains to balance this right of resistance in case of a state of war between a ruler and his society with the people’s obligation to obedience:

Neither legislative nor executive is given sovereign authority [i.e., a natural right] within the government, and the obligation to obedience is not undermined by the right to resist. The right of resistance is exercised by the people acting as a political unit, and it is a carefully limited right. Resistance is justified only when the basic minimal standards for legitimacy are being threatened. Revolution is described not as a step toward realizing an ideal of justice, but as resistance to political degeneration.

But Locke’s carefulness belies liberalism’s core characteristic. Locke tries to clarify with examples when a society may rightfully resist its ruler, but the efforts suggest that, ultimately, “each individual must judge for himself whether the conditions are such that the government or the society has dissolved, and his obligations with them. This is the radical political individualism characteristic of liberal thought,” according to Grant (202).

An important foundation for the right to resistance (a.k.a., the right to revolution) as well as for liberalism’s “radical political individualism” is the notion of natural rights. To liberalism’s premise, which I mentioned earlier in the context of government, that “men are naturally free and equal,” Locke joins a right to life and to property (which is a necessary component to a right to life, since if my enemy takes my food, I may not live). As Grant points out, Locke’s carefulness in separating the political and economic rights have caused commentators to extrapolate the importance of property rights as a separate category to Locke, but Locke seems more concerned with making the distinction between property rights and more abstract rights in order to demonstrate the differing property rights an individual has in her material property and in her right to life and to liberty. Grant has the illuminating insight that, for Locke, all natural rights are, in a sense, property rights.

Establishing a property right in life and liberty as well as to material property allows Locke to make important distinctions among the three rights. Grant summarizes three ways Locke describes how you can exercise your property rights in something:

(1) You can agree to transfer your right, for example, through a sale or a will. (2) You can retain your right but entrust the management of your property to another. (3) You can forfeit your right.

You may do any of these three with an ownership right in things, but you may only entrust or forfeit your right to life andliberty. You may not alienate (i.e., transfer) life and liberty. Grant notes the oddity of having the “power to rent but not to sell,” so to speak, one’s right to preservation (i.e, the right to life and liberty). But one entrusts one’s right to preservation when one consents to be ruled in a political society. The trust suggests that a ruler may forfeit his right to rule over a person or group. One may not consent to slavery, however, which would amount to a complete transfer of one’s right to preservation. “Slavery cannot originate in consent,” as Grant puts it (69).

Why not? Why is the right to preservation inalienable? The reason involves the most overtly religious portion of Locke’s political theory, I believe. Locke asserts that our property rights in ourselves have limits. “Although each man may be his own master in respect to other men, that is not the case in his relation to God. . . . Our right to our persons, our freedom to regulate our lives as we see fit, does not include the right to destroy ourselves. Since no man has the right to destroy himself, he cannot give that right to another; he cannot consent to his own enslavement,” Grant summarizes.

Just as man’s property rights in himself are circumscribed by this distinction between God and man, so is man’s property rights in beasts:

For however, in respect to one another, Men may be allowed to have a propriety in their distinct portions of the Creatures; yet in respect to God the Maker of Heaven and Earth who is sole Lord and Proprietor of the whole World, Mans Propriety in the Creatures is nothing but that Liberty to use them, which God hath permitted. (First Treatise §39)

Here, then, are the fundamental distinctions among God, humankind, and the rest of nature that Lincoln draws on in arguing against slavery from a human rights standpoint and that Harry V. Jaffa finds fundamental to an understanding of natural rights and Lincoln’s political philosophy in his book A New Birth of Freedom.

For a second argument that no one may consent to slavery, Locke reinforces the distinction between humankind and “beasts” through the concept of reason. Man can rule themselves (and others when they have been consented the right to lead) by reason, but the rule of force “is the rule among beasts” (Liberalism 70). Only when one “abandons the moral rule of the human community, open to all who reason, and substitutes the rule of force [does he descend] to the level of the beasts and can justly be ruled as if he were a beast – as a slave. . . . To consent to place oneself in that position would be to renounce one’s humanity . . .” (70 – 71).

Locke’s liberalism, then, retains the Christian distinctions among God, humankind, and the rest of nature, and it precludes the argument that the Southern rebellion that precipitated the American Civil War was based on liberal theories of natural rights or a right of revolution. Not only is secession, which is the denial of the majority-rule principle, counter-revolutionary in a Lockean sense, but a rebellion explicitly aimed at protecting a positive law property right in slaves seeks to maintain or expand what Locke defines as tyranny.

The idea that no person may consent to his or her enslavement also is fundamental to Locke’s distinction between legitimate and illegitimate government, which I describe above. Because no person may consent to slavery, slavery – and tyranny, which Locke considers a type of slavery – is commensurate with a state of war between a ruler and his subjects.

Locke is sometimes incorrectly portrayed as a cynic who adapts classical and medieval natural rights theory to the Western world’s governments that lack the old consensus about what the purpose of law is. Indeed, his Second Treatisedoes emphasize principles of freedom and preservation that seem to have little bearing on a teleological view of law. But Grant’s method of reading the Essay and the Second Treatise together demonstrates that Locke hasn’t forsaken a classical understanding of happiness and its role in natural law. The Second Treatise never mentions happiness, but theEssay and Locke’s Conduct of the Understanding make clear that Locke’s view of freedom, an unalienable right in theSecond Treatise, is connected with reason, which in turn is connected with self-mastery:

The freedom of the individual . . . has a natural basis, both in the capacity to reason and in the desire for freedom, a desire for self-mastery present in every human being. Men want to act independently and to be masters of their situation. A generalized desire for mastery over people and things could be seen as the root of all injustice. But when it is limited to a desire for self-mastery and controlled by the rational faculty, it becomes indistinguishable from a desire for freedom.

Locke therefore concurs with the natural law theorists who have preceded him that just government is more likely to be maintained under a something like a virtuous society. If the political theory in the Second Treatise is sewn among threats to good government, the epistemology in the Essay is sewn among threats to reason and self-mastery, such as passion, interest, and the uncritical acceptance of a party’s partisan position. However, Locke is as nervously optimistic about man’s individual ability to be led by reason over the long run as he is about government’s ability to do so.

While Locke’s emphasis on man’s ability to reason puts him outside the circle of skeptics, his emphasis on man’s and government’s endless temptations keeps him also outside the circle of “those absolutists who rely on a doctrine of innate knowledge of practical principles” (49). Mankind is not so endowed, Locke knows, and reason itself, like Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, has many unsavory competitors in the marketplace. Locke recognizes that legitimate government is a fragile thing, ultimately dependent, as it is, on human nature, but he believes that pessimism alone would give it no chance at all. To me, Grant’s book suggests that, beyond his liberal political theory, Locke’s tone is what we need now in our polity.