Notes on Locke

I stand accused of misrepresenting Locke on two fronts: first, I’m charged with wrongly alleging his “secularity”; second, I’m charged with wrongly crediting him with the development of an absolute theory of property rights. (Perhaps more generally, I stand accused of being: insufficiently enthusiastic about the United States, “woke”, and too Catholic. I won’t bother disputing these latter claims because they are all true.)

Instead, let me address the two claims about Locke. I am quoted at this Acton panel, wherein I argued against (inter alia) child labor, payday loans and Christian libertarianism, saying the following:

“It’s really by the time we get to liberal property theorists like Locke that you see them moving away from this medieval tradition of property and from the patristic tradition and they move to an intentionally secular theory of what property is—to an ontology of property: that it is a thing with a metaphysical relationship to a person that can be absolutely owned, dominated, controlled, and that though you may have moral obligations or whatever to do different things with the property that you absolutely own because of that metaphysical relationship it becomes immoral and unallowable for a civil authority to intervene, so this is a big transformation in the way we think about property.

And it really gets going at the Reformation and then it’s fully realized in people like Locke and other liberal property theorists from these liberal property theorists we get where we are today and thinking about absolute ownership, absolute rights to property—a property right that suggests a metaphysical relationship between people and things that is inviolate in terms of civil authority and perhaps even separate from civil authority.”

1.) On whether Locke is “secular” 

I don’t claim Locke “was secular”; I claim he was part of a transition away from thinking of property rights in (the teleological) terms of Christian doctrine and toward thinking of property rights in the modern liberal way. This is true, and it’s true that the modern liberal way of thinking of property rights is secularized. Let me explain.

“N’a jamais fini de se débattre contre Dieu,” said Proudhon, the struggle against God is never finished. No one is entirely secular, because we all owe our intellectual origins to a tradition steeped in theology. Indeed, secular property theories have religious origins, as I have argued, and even Hobbes, who my interlocutor Shelton cites as the true Enlightenment secularist, was a profoundly theological thinker, as Matthew Rose argues eloquently here. To quote Rose: “The politics of Leviathan is the politics of the Bible, and the Bible, Hobbes insists, is all about politics.”

That we find much Biblical quotation in Locke is, therefore, no reason to assume him an automatic ally of Christianity: At least, not if we stipulate that Hobbes isn’t such an ally, since his writing is also full of Biblical quotations. Now that we have Hobbes and Locke on the same side of the equation, it’s easier to see what I mean when I point to Locke as a thinker who participated in the secularization of property talk.

Locke reasoned with pieces and parts of scripture, sure, but not in a necessarily Christian way. His reasoning did not follow the logic or narrative arc of scripture, especially where anthropology was concerned. Per William Cavanaugh:

“The crucial point here is that the Fall simply does not apply. Locke derives the right of private property through labor from God’s command to subdue the earth — which comes from Genesis 1:28, pre-Fall — but combines it with God’s command to labor and till the earth, which is…a post-Fall curse, given to the man as God’s punishment in Genesis 3:17. Thus does Locke combined to passages from Genesis — one pre-Fall, one post-Fall — into a kind of seamless argument for what is the “natural” condition of humankind. Unremitting toil, inequality, and the enclosure of the commons is not a symptom of the Fall, but simply the way that God and Nature have arranged to make the best use of the creation.” 

Locke is thinking with scripture, but he is ignoring what scripture itself thinks about the human condition. No longer does the prelapsarian state reflect the true nature of man; neither does the postlapsarian state. The difference between them is obliterated altogether, and the Fall itself, crucial in Christian theology, is elided. From here, Locke goes on to construct his theory of private property.

Was Locke “secular”? No, and neither was Hobbes. Why are there incoherent pieces in Locke’s thinking about theology and property? To quote A.P. Martinich: “The straightforward interpretation of Hobbes’ espousal of odd views is that he held odd views.” I think the same of Locke. He was a conflicted person in a conflicted age, and the same will be said of all of us one day. But the conclusion to draw from the observation that Locke wasn’t entirely secular is not that he was entirely Christian; the passage above is nicely demonstrative of important departures from very meaningful pieces of Christian doctrine. Rather, as I’ve argued, he was part of a transitionary period.

2.) On whether Locke provides for “absolute” property rights

My husband and I are both fascinated by Locke, and before we had our baby, he used to read to me from his treatises. “Is this not the wildest shit you’ve ever heard?” he would say. Shelton points out that Locke was really a radical, maybe even a precursor to Marx, because of his Christian-based argument that there are limits to moral property acquisition. This argument took me back to those nights when Matt would read to me, because Matt posed this argument years ago, teasingly, based on our conversations. Here is my husband arguing Locke is really quite Christian, and here he is arguing Locke is no friend to libertarians.

Locke’s argument goes like this: the way unclaimed material becomes ‘property’ is that one mixes one’s labor with it, and yet even if one could mix one’s labor with the whole earth, the whole earth would not then become one’s property, because it’s morally wrong to usurp so much that others lack.

It’s a weird proposition on a couple of fronts. First, it doesn’t make sense. How do you mix your labor with something? Other than my will to believe this is how property is made — that is, my will to believe property acquisition is inherently just — how do I know this is happening? “I know this is mine now, because I mixed my labor with it, which tells me it’s mine now.” This is tautology.

All that aside, Locke creates with this theory a real moral imperative for absolutely private property. See:

The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

What you have here is a curious double-movement. When you mix your labor with creation, creation transforms into private property, which by nature of being mixed with your own labor, is a demi-you. (For the record, Augustine himself argued this is silly.) But then there’s a proviso at the end: at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. 

The problem is that there’s no obvious connection between the theory and the proviso. There’s an incoherence: Locke’s first move is to describe in metaphysical terms how creation turns into property: that is, by mixing yourself with it, imbuing it with your own rights. But from whence comes the proviso, and what could it possibly mean? (“Is this not the wildest shit you’ve ever heard?”) On first glance, it appears to suggest that one can only truly own what they need, and that what they purport to own that causes others to lack isn’t truly theirs.

But this would be an internal contradiction. The labor-mixing process Locke supplies is descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes a metaphysical process. If I mixed my labor with the whole world, I would own it all, if Locke’s process is correct. So perhaps his proviso should be interpreted to mean: you shouldn’t go mixing your labor with the whole world, leaving nothing for anybody else.

But what if I do? Therein lies the rub.

That’s why I go after Locke: Not because he argued people ought to go claiming absolute property rights to the detriment of the poor, but because he supplied a metaphysical process argument that gave them extra-Christian arguments for doing so. In this sense, Locke does originate property rights arguments that would take on an absolutist character, regardless of what he intended. Thus he wound up quite far afield from Augustine and Thomas, contra Shelton.

On the subject of whether I read charitably or not, I certainly think I do. But in love and caritas, truth comes first. Locke himself never minded a row; on the contrary, he made Robert Filmer famous with a deliciously brutal smackdown of his posthumously published Patriarcha. Far be it from us to deny him the same pleasure.