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.


MANY CONTEMPORARY liberals support the idea of a “responsibility to protect.” The term is used to mean both the responsibility of every state to protect the natural rights or “human rights” of its citizens and an alleged duty of outsiders to intervene in countries where the local government has failed to carry out its own responsibility to protect its people because of criminality or incompetence. In the last generation, the idea of a “responsibility to protect” has been invoked to justify “humanitarian war” or “liberal imperialism,” in the form of foreign interventions that would depose tyrannical states or impose temporary foreign protectorates in anarchic “failed states.”

The use of such arguments by supporters of the disastrous Iraq War has reduced the appeal of the concept, but the idea of an international responsibility to protect retains its power among some liberal thinkers. But “humanitarian wars” justified by an alleged responsibility to protect are illegitimate in the Lockean system, for the same reason that aggressive wars are illegitimate. Neither wars of altruism nor wars of aggression can be justified by military self-defense, which is the primary purpose of the state.

Political scientist Jeremy D. Bailey explains why a government of limited, delegated powers in the Lockean system must limit its efforts to protecting its own citizens:

“In the state of nature, all individuals are part of the same society and thus have the right to punish any violation of natural law of which they are aware. In international relations states have a more constrained power. They have been given the executive power of the law of nature by citizens, but they are only allowed to use that power for the end for which the citizens gave it up, namely, the protection of their property, broadly construed. In the state of nature, an individual who decides to engage in altruistic punishment puts only his own life at risk. Governments, because they have a delegated power, do not have this liberty. This asymmetry explains why Locke consistently says that governments exist to protect the interests of their citizens, but not to help those citizens better fulfill their duty to preserve the rest of mankind.”

Locke’s logic might seem heartless, but the duty of a statesman to minimize the expenditure of the blood and treasure of citizens is like the fiduciary duty of a banker to clients. Individuals who give away their own money to the poor might be meritorious, but a banker who gave the needy the deposits of the bank’s clients, far from being admirable, would be guilty of dereliction of duty. The Lockean state is an association for mutual protection against crime and invasion, not a charity.


JUST AS self-preservation is the chief duty as well as chief right of the individual, so the foremost duty of a state in foreign policy is to preserve its own independence from other states. As Locke observes, “for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws, this is lost whenever they are given up into the power of another.” Although states could preserve their independence by means of alliances, treaties among states according to Locke do not alter the fact that they are still living in a state of nature with one another,

“for it is not every compact that puts an end to the state of nature between men, but only this one of agreeing together mutually to enter into one community and make one body politic; other promises and compacts men may make one with another and yet still be in the state of nature.”

Locke assumes that genuine safety requires the state to be as strong as possible on the basis of its own internal resources. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke says that

“the pravity of Mankind . . . obliges Men to enter into Society with one another, that by mutual Assistance, and joint Force, they may secure unto each other their Properties in the things that contribute to the Comfort and Happiness of this Life . . . But forasmuch as Men thus entering into Societies . . . may nevertheless be deprived of them, either by the Rapine and Fraud of their Fellow-Citizens, or by the Hostile Violence of Foreigners; the remedy of this Evil consists in Arms, Riches, and Multitude of Citizens; the Remedy of the other in Laws . . .”

For Locke, military power, economic growth and population growth are mutually reinforcing, and all enhance the ability of the state to defend its people in an anarchic world. In a journal entry in 1674, Locke writes,

“The chief end of trade is riches and power, which beget each other. Riches consists in plenty of moveables, that will yield a price to foreigners, and are not likely to be consumed at home, but especially in plenty of gold and silver. Power consists in numbers of men, and ability to maintain them. Trade conduces to both these by increasing your stock and your people, and they each other.”

Mainstream economic liberalism holds as an article of faith that all countries can gain from free markets and free trade; it does not matter if some gain more than others. The ideal of free trade was originally justified by the Stoic (and, later, Christian) argument that God distributed resources unevenly around the world to encourage human beings to cooperate with each other. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, in contrast, provided secular rationales, as eighteenth-century Christian/Deist “natural theology” evolved into nineteenth-century neoclassical economics (without, it should be noted, any diminution in the quasi-religious fervor of free-trade proponents).

Although he is often described as an economic liberal, Locke completely ignores the ancient Stoic argument for free trade along with Stoic ideas of benevolent cosmopolitanism. He places himself firmly in the realist/mercantilist/economic nationalist tradition of economic thought by insisting that what counts is not absolute prosperity, but a country’s relative share of global wealth, the basis of military power. “Riches do not consist in having more gold and silver, but in having more in proportion than the rest of the world, or than our neighbors . . . who, sharing the gold and silver of the world in a less proportion, want the means of plenty and power, and so are poorer.”

For Locke, the primary purpose of economic growth is not to make individuals more prosperous; it is to make them more secure. Economic growth increases the economic and human resources that the state can mobilize in defending its citizens against foreign attack. In the words of Locke,

“that prince who shall be so wise and godlike as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind, against the oppression of power and the narrowness of party, will quickly be too hard [powerful] for his neighbors . . .”

Among other state-sponsored industrial policies, Locke advocated preventing the Irish from competing with the English woolen trade, encouraging domestic manufacturing and using a board of trade to promote exports. As Rogers Smith notes, Locke “has been properly described as one of the chief architects of mercantilism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.”

Population growth within a state’s own territory should be an important goal of public policy, Locke writes, because “numbers of men are to be preferred to largeness of dominions.” In addition to encouraging valuable immigrants, the state should encourage a high birth rate among natives, in the interest of maximizing its relative wealth and military power. In journal notes for what might have been an unpublished utopia, under the title “Atlantis,” Locke, a childless bachelor himself, describes draconian and illiberal laws to encourage reproduction by discouraging bachelors and late marriages:

“Multitude of strong and healthy people bring the riches of every country and that which makes it flourish. . . . Whoever marries a woman more than five years older than himself (or more than ten years younger) shall forfeit one half of all she brings him in marriage (to the public). . . . A bachelor after 40 years old during his celibate [celibacy] shall be incapable of being heir or legataire [legatee] to anybody but his father or mother unless he has been maimed in the wars for his country. The will and testament of him that dies a bachelor past 50 shall be null unless he be killed in the wars of his country [or] maimed.”

Locke’s pronatalism has nothing to do with concerns about the relative proportions of groups within a state. Its purpose is to maximize the number of productive workers in the domestic economy of the mercantilist state, a purpose also promoted by generous immigration policies.

In treating the economy, along with the population, as an instrument of military power in an anarchic world, Locke has affinities with other seventeenth-century mercantilists, eighteenth-century continental cameralists, nineteenth-century economic nationalists like Friedrich List, contemporary “technonationalists” and proponents of the “developmental state.” Locke’s subordination of economic policy to security policy sets him apart from champions of free markets like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, with whom he is usually classified in discussions of the liberal tradition.