some policies | for dummies | green-libertarian home

How John Locke Was an Eco-Socialist-Libertarian

by Ben Sharvy (text which I chose to emphasize is rendered like this. Original emphasis in a citation is rendered like this.)

John Locke is often characterized by libertarians as a proto-libertarian, due to his discussion of individual liberty and property rights in "Second Treatise of Government." However, Locke's thought is as socialist as it is libertarian, and he is best regarded as a proto-socialist-libertarian--a feature likely to entrench further his already substantial reputation, as socialist-libertarian systems are the future. The essence of libertarian thought comes straight from Locke:

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any man.

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another....

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions....

So we have the libertarian position that justice is essentially procedural rather than distributive or utilitarian. The only distributive principle is that liberty be equally possessed by all. Coercion of an individual is justified only when he is responsible for harming another--for violating the law of nature (which is reason); it is not, for example, justified for the sake of maintaining a particular distribution of wealth in a community (Locke states this explicitly later in the essay).

And with regard to property:

Though the common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has a right to but himself. The labor 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 has provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

...the taking of this or that part, does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property without the assignation and consent of any body.

The above is textbook libertarian justification of private property: things other than oneself--the "commons"--can be made part of oneself politically, so that one can have the same rights in the disposition of resources & products as one has in the disposition of oneself. Locke argues that this ability is essential in order to exist--to eat is to treat nature as private property--and for the full exercise of liberty to which life entitles one. So private property, like liberty, is natural and not ethically dependent on any person's or group's permission. However, property differs from oneself in that something must first be taken from common nature before it can be private property, whereas an individual comes into nature as his or her own private property. We "own" ourselves inherently; people, unlike the world, are not "given to all mankind in common." The difference in inherent privacy between individuals and the rest of nature leads Locke to limit the right to property:

The same law of nature, that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property.... As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in: whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.

Regarding the bounding and seizure of unowned land:

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his inclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all.

With limitations on the acceptable use of private property, the condition that no one be deprived of equal access to the commons by private property, and the prohibition against the ruination of anything in nature, Locke's conception of "private" property differs radically from that in general use today; it is utterly antithetical to the conception of property employed by capitalist and libertarian schools. It does not, for example, support the position that the scope of environmental regulations (e.g., the Endangered Species Act) should be limited by property rights, but rather the reverse. It does not support the holding or use of natural resources for the sake of profit (e.g., by corporations), or to an extent not practicable by all. It generally supports neither the idea that "if it's mine I can do whatever I want with it," nor that the amount and type of natural resources one can rightfully privatize is unbounded.

To sum up, there are several underlying principles in the matters of justice and private property:
1) People have a right to the greatest degree of liberty equally practicable by all. It follows that no person or group may reduce the liberty of ("harm") another.
2) The exercise of individual liberty, or life, is impossible without treatment of nature as private property. Therefore, individuals have a right to own natural resources, to the extent necessary to bring about (1).
3) The natural world (except for individuals) was "given to all men in common." Therefore, the opportunity to privatize natural resources must be egalitarian; it must leave "as much, and as good" available for others.
4) "Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy." Suddenly, an icon of Western analytic thought, supposed avatar of property rights and the American revolution, father of dead white males everywhere, looks like a radical, biocentric environmentalist (he wasn't really biocentrist in principle, but shares some conclusions with biocentric schools of thought).

In addition to discussing the ways in which appropriation from nature can be permissible, Locke also discusses the kinds of appropriation for which there is incentive. He argues that in a society without money, nobody has incentive to appropriate more from nature than he or she can use, so that the injunction against waste is rarely challenged. In fact, there is an incentive to avoid excess actively, since it wastes one's labor. Money, however, reduces that disincentive because it makes it possible to trade one's excess appropriation for something that has value and does not spoil. However, Locke presents no argument that money changes the content of the impermissible: that it is no longer the case that "Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy." It is a mistake to claim, as the political theorist C.B. Macpherson does in his introduction to the "Second Treatise", that money "rendered inoperative the spoilage limitation, for one could now convert any amount of perishable goods into money, which did not spoil." It is a mistake for two reasons. One, it is illogical: the correct conclusion is that money made it easier to avoid spoilage. Two, Macpherson's conclusion just isn't present in the text; in fact, quite the opposite. In analyzing the impact of money, Locke wrote: "...he might heap up as much of these durable things [monetary tokens] as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in it." The logical point, and Locke's point, is that money makes it possible for an individual to appropriate more from nature without waste, not that money makes waste permissible.

Locke viewed political theorizing as a process of understanding God's intended place for humans in the world. Divorcing Locke's political theory from his spiritual worldview, as libertarians often have done, increases the chances of misunderstanding him. It obscures a rustic but powerful form of socialism based in the Biblical ideas that: 1) People are God's appointed caretakers of the earth; they have a responsibility to preserve nature as God's work (not as humankind's work, e.g., perhaps, not merely to plant trees, but to preserve ecosystems). This sensibility is sometimes referred to in Judeo-Christian thought as "stewardship." 2) Everybody has an egalitarian right of access to the world's natural resources, as a means to living with maximum liberty, and to full participation in God's creation. Simply put, all God's creations, human and natural, are to achieve the fullest expression of their unique traits, and the rules of property mediate between individuals, and between humankind and nature, to bring about that end.

1. Locke wrote the "Second Treatise" in 1690 (over 150 years before Marx and Darwin). Attempting to categorize him as environmentalist or not is probably anachronistic. His fundamental principles have environmentalist implications today. However, anti-environmentalist views by today's standards also abound: " that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pastureage, tillage, or planting, is... waste; and we shall find the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing...." A logical conclusion would then be that the entire world should be developed, which is perhaps not the EarthFirst! position. However, the environmental issues attending contemporary development, e.g., rate of extinction vs. speciation, climate change, pollution, etc., were not in the 17th century experience or consciousness, so it is misleading to transfer Locke's conclusions about development to the topic of development today. It is false that nothing in the "Second Treatise" places value on the preservation of nature. Also, "development" in Locke is an activity engaged in by individuals in order to live as fully (i.e. divinely) as possible, not by large-scale commercial concerns. In any event, if moral precepts such as Locke's are to be fundamental as intended, they must retain their validity through time, whether in libertarian, socialist, or environmentalist thought; they need to be interpreted in a way that grants them stability through change in values and information, such as in what counts as waste and what effects different kinds of development bring about.
2. Aspects of the "Second Treatise" are similar to John Rawls's theory of justice--interesting because the two are thought to be philosophical opposites. Rawls, like Locke, stipulates the principle, based on reason, that individual liberty must be egalitarian and maximal: "...each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others." His justification for this principle is that all rational people blind to personal self-interests would agree to it. And Locke wrote: "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind...that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, or possessions...." Regarding the distribution of economic resources, Rawls, on the same grounds of rationality, proposes: " and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all...." Locke argues that excess and inequality of monetary wealth would come about as a result of increased productivity benefitting all. The principle difference between Rawls and Locke regarding distributive justice is that Locke made no case for redistribution, ostensibly trusting the free-market, whereas Rawls made a strong case for redistribution. It's also important to note that Locke successfully defends only unnecessary holdings of money, not of resources or land: an excess holding of a resource is justified only when it is temporary, a part of the process of selling or otherwise transferring it to someone who doesn't waste it (and when it has been properly appropriated, by mixing one's labor with it). A sustained holding that is waste when money doesn't exist, is still waste when money does exist.

top of page