Was John Locke Really a Liberal?

April 23, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: John LockePhilosophyHistoryliberalismrealism

Was John Locke Really a Liberal?

He opposed wars of conquest, but not on dubious moral grounds.

TODAY THE practice as well as the theory of foreign policy is divided between the traditions of liberalism and realism (or realpolitik). Ever since the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, international politics has been influenced by the discourse of “human rights,” rooted in the tradition of natural-rights philosophy that dates back to the seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke. The idea of human or natural rights is commonly identified with the liberal tradition in foreign affairs. The liberal tradition, favoring international organization, international law, free trade and national self-determination, is often identified with Locke as well as with Adam Smith and Woodrow Wilson.

Liberalism is often contrasted with realism, the tradition identified with practitioners of power politics like Otto von Bismarck and Henry Kissinger and theorists like Hans Morgenthau. Realism is divided among several schools, but most realists agree that the central fact of world politics is the competition for relative power among sovereign states in a condition of global anarchy.

In the actual practice of contemporary statecraft, the two traditions are usually combined. Most countries, including the United States, the most powerful state in the system, mix power politics with moral and legal arguments in their foreign policies. But this commingling of realism and liberalism is expedient, rather than principled. It does not rest on any coherent moral and political philosophy in which elements from the realist and liberal tradition can find appropriate places. Attempts to produce a synthesis, a “realist liberalism” or a “liberal realism,” seem more forced than natural.

This dilemma makes John Locke’s thinking about world politics particularly interesting. Although he is usually classified as a liberal, Locke’s natural-rights theory frequently leads to conclusions closer to modern realism than liberalism. In an era when the stale debate between liberals and realists often frustrates foreign-policy practitioners and thinkers alike, Locke’s unusual combination of realist and liberal themes bears surprising relevance to contemporary debates about human rights, power politics and world order.



ALTHOUGH HE was careful never to mention his notorious precursor Thomas Hobbes, John Locke followed Hobbes in rooting social and political order in the natural rights of human beings in a “state of nature.” Chief among these natural rights is the right of self-preservation of life, a right aided by the auxiliary natural rights of liberty or “property,” a term used broadly to mean the right of individuals to labor for their own subsistence. Hobbes’s description of the state of nature is well known:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Unlike Hobbes, Locke distinguishes between the state of nature and the state of war. According to Locke, moral norms exist even in a prepolitical condition of anarchy. Individuals have a right to defend themselves and take what they need to survive from nature by their own labor, but they have no right to kill or enslave others, except in self-defense. Each individual possesses the “executive power” necessary to enforce the law of nature, in their own defense and that of others. When they form a community by means of a hypothetical (not historical) social contract, the members of the community delegate their power to enforce the law of nature—that is, to preserve their lives, liberties and property—to the government. But the contract is among the members of the community, not between the community and the state, which is merely the agent of the sovereign people, who delegate limited powers to it as a trust that they can revoke at any time.

Although Locke differed from Hobbes in asserting that a minimal morality precedes community, his depiction of the prepolitical condition is similar to Hobbes’s famous description of the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short.” Locke’s state of nature is not in itself a state of perpetual war, as it is for Hobbes. But Locke emphasizes that the absence of settled laws enforced by government make the state of nature one of “disorder,” “uncertainty” and “anarchy,” from which individuals flee to the “sanctuary” of a commonwealth created by a social compact. Defense against outsiders and criminals is the chief purpose of a state:

“Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death and, consequently, all less penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good.”