Locke the Anarchist vs. Locke the Statist

While Locke’s conception of the nation-state is that of a class state, his theory of private property does not defend a class system. Rather, the Lockean conception of private property is in contravention to Locke’s nation-state. Locke’s view of the nation-state was more of a defence of the status quo of society at the time of Locke’s writing the Two Treatises of Government while Locke’s theory of private property was borne out of a state of nature theorem, whereby common property developed into private property via the labour theory of property. In fact the way which private property was used and developed in Locke’s time contradicts how Locke saw private property being formed. Locke believed that the appropriation of property was done democratically as anyone was able to do so. Also, with the Lockean proviso, the land appropriator would have to provide for the wider community that used the remaining common property. However, in Locke’s time, much of the land was controlled by aristocracy who didn’t necessarily use it productively, thus creating what was eventually termed the ‘rentier classes’. Thus we then see that the nation-state that Locke was defending was fundamentally a class state as land was controlled based not on productivity but rather on wealth and power. Locke’s ideas of consent towards the state are also consequential in further entrenching the class state as well as defending the status quo. As a result, Locke’s theory of private property is actually in antithesis to Locke’s conception of the nation-state.

Locke’s theory of private property was based fundamentally on the appropriation of land via an individual’s labour, also known as the labour theory of property. As Locke states “That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right.”[1] showing that labour allows for the justification of claiming property as one’s own, as his labour produces goods for his own benefit. This appropriation of common land into private is theorised as occurring within Locke’s conception of the state of nature, whereby there is no sovereign power so in effect we are equal in society, as hierarchies cannot be enforced as they are in a state apparatus. Thus we come to Locke’s idea of self-ownership, where “all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another”[2] showing us that within the state of nature, there is a form of equality as we have direct control over ourselves and by extension our labour and property. It can suggested that this system is undemocratic, as it can lead to the hording of property away every individual and make everyone reliant upon certain powerful landowners, thus creating a class state. However, as Vaughn notes “one’s right to property is only clear and exclusive so long as it doesn’t jeopardize anyone else’s ability to create equivalent kinds of property for himself”[3] thus showing that there are limits to what can be claimed. Locke explains this more by suggesting that the hording of property is not in the interests of an individual, as eventually his wares would perish, leaving himself and others worse off. This goes along with the Lockean proviso, where appropriation of land into private property cannot leave anyone else within the common property worse off. Thus we can see that Locke’s theory of private property does not justify a class state within the state of nature, which is itself an anarchic society based on natural laws that theorised, such as self-ownership and the proviso. However, if we take Locke’s view of the nation-state we do see a society divided by class.

The nation-state thought out by Locke in the Two Treatises is indeed a class state. However, the class divisions that are present are not as a result of Locke’s theory of private property. In fact his ideas of labour theory of property and self-ownership go out the window in his nation-state, as individuals who live within the parameters of a state must obey by their laws. It then entails that Locke’s ideas on private property are incompatible with his vision for a nation-state. When I say that individuals who live within a state’s parameters must obey by their rules, I talk of Locke’s theory of consent, whereby there are two forms of consent that can be given to a sovereign, express and tacit. On express consent, Locke explains “an express consent, of any man entering into any society, makes him a perfect member of that society, a subject of that government”[4], showing that the person who forms and voluntarily enters into a society is a perfect member. The other members of such societies, such as individuals born into them and people who have no choice but to live within them consent tacitly to such an arrangement. Then by the Lockean definition, the tacit consenters cannot be perfect citizens, as they have no involvement in the arrangement of society. Thus already we have a class system, between the express consenters and the tacit consenters. This class system is further ingrained when we realise that the individuals involved in the formation of a state are large-property owners, thus making perfect citizens landowners, while imperfect citizens (tacit consenters) just happen to live within the parameters of this new state. These tacit consenters are usually farmers who live on the land of large-property owners. By seeing that the tacit consenters are actually people who have no say in the society they happen to find themselves in, we see that the concept of tacit consent is absurd. Hume states that “Should it be said that, by living under the dominion of a prince which one might leave, every individual has given a tacit consent to his authority and promised him obedience…it would be absurd to infer a consent or choice which he expressly in this case renounces and disclaims”[5] showing us the absurdity of the notion of tacit consent. Consent within society can only be borne of pure choice, not by non-chosen social circumstances. Thus we see that the Lockean conception of a state is that of a class state. However the class system is not born out of Lockean private property, but rather out of Locke’s theory of political consent. It then seems that Locke’s theories of the state and of private property are not one and the same but rather separate entities that don’t justify each other.

Locke’s labour theory of property and Locke’s conception of the state seem to be separate in the overall scheme of things. While Locke’s theory of property is born out of anarchy (the state of nature), where property is appropriated democratically, Locke’s view of the state is one entrenched in the status quo of the time, where land was controlled by wealthy landowners who didn’t necessarily use their land productively, thus going against Locke’s idea of how private property is formed. This point is concisely stated by MacPherson, “to base the property right on natural rights and natural law, and then to remove all the natural law limits from the property right” (MacPherson, C.B. 1964, 199)[6] where MacPherson is explaining that Locke first based the right to appropriate property into private hands on natural law, as is seen in the state of nature, while later on in the development of private property, Locke tries to remove the natural limits of appropriation. This can be seen within Locke’s view of the state, which seems to be a defense of the status quo of land distribution in the 17th century. Most of the land at this time was controlled by wealthy landowners, such as Locke’s patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury. These landowners were known as the rentier classes, as they rented there land out to labourers in exchange for rent. Thus I think we can see here a link between Locke’s conception of the state and a defence of the status quo of private property at the time and realise that Lockean property and the Lockean state are not compatible but rather in opposition to each other.

Locke’s theory of private property doesn’t defend a class state, but is rather in antithesis to Locke’s conception of a perfect nation-state. The formation of a class system in Lockean terms is done by political consent, as it separates the express consenters from the tacit consenters. These ideas make Locke’s concept of self-ownership void and means property is put into the hands of the state, rather than the individual. This then leads us to the idea that Locke’s view of the state is a defence of the status quo, particularly in relation to property distribution and the rentier classes. Thus, while Locke’s vision of a nation-state was class-based, his views on private property and self-ownership aren’t as it is democratically allotted in a state of nature, and not controlled by any overarching authority.

[1] Locke, J. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764). 01/12/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/222, 28

[2]Locke, J. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764). 01/12/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/222, 4

[3] Vaughn, K, 1980. Locke on Property: A Bibliographical Essay. Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, [Online]. Vol. III, No. 1 Available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/locke-on-property-a-bibliographical-essay-by-karen-vaughn [Accessed 27 November 2014].

[4] Locke, J. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Thomas Hollis (London: A. Millar et al., 1764). 01/12/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/222

[5] Hume, D. (1752). Of the Original Contract. Available: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch2s4.html. Last accessed 10th Dec 2014.

[6] MacPherson, C.B, 1964. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.


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