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.


WAS LOCKE a liberal at all? Locke’s support of an activist state engaged in mercantilism, pronatalism, sumptuary legislation and other policies that are usually denounced by classical liberals and libertarians raises the question of whether he should be defined as a liberal. As the Hobbes example shows, a philosophy that bases political legitimacy on natural rights and the social contract does not necessarily lead to liberal or democratic conclusions. Many if not most ideas that have been incorporated into the modern liberal tradition—utopian beliefs in free markets and free trade, the minimal state, John Stuart Mill’s principle of noninterference, support of world federalism or global governance schemes, the justification of government policy as a correction of “market failures”—are not to be found in Locke’s philosophy. As political theorist Michael Oakeshott pointed out in a 1932 essay, the concepts of “the rights of nationality” and “the perfectibility of the human race” are unknown to Locke. Harvard’s Richard C. Tuck noted in Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development (1979) that

“most strong rights theories have in fact been explicitly authoritarian rather than liberal. . . . When Rousseau repudiated the entire tradition as conservative . . . his instincts were absolutely right, however unfair he may have been to the more liberal thinkers such as Locke.”

It was only after the Napoleonic Wars that the term “liberal,” to refer to support for limited, constitutional government, came into widespread use. Neither Locke nor Jefferson nor any of the other thinkers before the mid-nineteenth century who are today called “liberals” used the term to describe themselves or their views. Separating Locke from Hobbes and lumping him together with Smith, Ricardo, post-Walrasian neoclassical economists and supporters of international collective-security leagues in the tradition of Kant, Gladstone and Wilson produce only confusion.

Locke certainly would not have agreed with the premises of contemporary “democratic peace theory” and “liberal peace theory.” Locke believed that all legitimate governments should restrict themselves to securing the natural rights of their citizens. But those rights were minimal—the right to life, freedom from slavery and the right to eat in return for work—and they did not include civil rights like press freedom or political rights like universal adult suffrage. Moreover, according to Locke a people could legitimately consent to a variety of rights-securing regimes other than representative democracies with universal suffrage.

Nor would Locke have accepted the premise of liberal peace theory that universal free trade would eliminate war by giving states a stake in peace with their trading partners. As we have seen, Locke was a mercantilist, not a free trader, and would have scoffed at the idea of peace through mutual economic interdependence. When it came to trade, he had more in common with contemporary realists who argue that the security dilemma in an anarchic world requires each state to be concerned about its relative power and its relative wealth, not merely its absolute safety and its absolute prosperity.

One might contrast liberal peace theory and democratic peace theory with “Lockean peace theory.” A Lockean world would not necessarily be a world of representative, liberal democracies. Particular communities could consent to other forms of government that were not inherently tyrannical and that did not respect many of the civil and political rights taken for granted in today’s advanced industrial democracies. But every government, whether democratic or not, would acknowledge that it was a government of limited, delegated powers whose sole purpose was to protect the natural rights of its citizens to life, liberty and property (including “property” in free labor).

A Lockean world would be free of aggression, but it would not be free of military and economic rivalry. While no state would engage in aggressive war against others, each state would have to prepare for the possibility that other states would engage in unjust wars of glory, conversion or annexation, in violation of the law of nature and in defiance of the limitations on the powers entrusted to them by their own people. States might seek to defend themselves by taking part in alliances or concerts, but they would remain in a state of nature even with respect to their alliance or concert partners. And the alliances or concerts in a Lockean world would be extremely limited in their scope and authority. There would be no talk of “pooling of sovereignty,” because no Lockean state would have the authority to delegate the powers that its people had delegated to it to a multinational alliance or supranational organization without violating the trust that empowered it to act as agent of a particular people. Nor could the people themselves authorize such a delegation, without going all the way and merging with one or more other peoples in a new social compact. The people can assign different powers to different branches or levels of the government they create, but the sovereignty of the people or community as a whole, created by the social compact, remains indivisible and incapable of being combined with that of other peoples or communities.

The legacy of Lockean thought explains why Americans, who are untroubled by delegating different powers to the federal and state governments, have always been suspicious of delegations of power to international institutions and anxious about participation in multinational alliances. The United States refused to join the League of Nations and joined the United Nations only because the charter made national participation in UN actions voluntary, not mandatory. And it is striking that NATO was the first peacetime military alliance in American history.

Lockean states would not be content to rely on potentially unstable alliances to guarantee their safety against possible hostilities by others. To increase their ability to defend themselves on their own, if necessary, they would attempt to enlarge their relative shares both of global military power and of the economic power that supports military strength. States would peacefully but vigorously compete to maximize their relative power and wealth—“arms, riches and multitudes”—by internal development rather than external conquest. In addition to maintaining adequate militaries, Lockean states would promote productivity and output growth at home while seeking markets for their exports abroad. And they would try to maximize their productive populations by a combination of policies to increase native birthrates and to attract immigrants with economically useful qualities.


THE LOCKEAN world order I have described, while it blends elements from both, does not fit into the paradigms of contemporary liberalism or realism. And yet it is remarkably similar to the world of the twenty-first century.

Apart from radical Islamism, no politically influential ideology rejects the very idea of natural or human rights as did the fascists and Marxists who dismissed the idea as bourgeois. Even authoritarian regimes pay lip service to human rights, popular sovereignty and the public good.

Sovereignty in world politics, justified in the name of a particular people, is defended by existing states and sought by stateless groups. During the decade following the Cold War, there was much talk of an alleged irreversible erosion of sovereignty as a result of uncontrollable immigration and trade and transnational production. Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, liberal and nonliberal governments alike have cracked down on illegal immigration; following the collapse of the world economy in September 2008, liberal and nonliberal governments alike have renationalized much of their banking and business sectors. The European Union, held up by many as a model of a new kind of transnational political organization, always fell short of being a Lockean “community” founded on a social compact, and the Greek financial crisis, itself a product of the post-2008 Great Recession, may set back the limited experiment of currency union in the form of the euro area.

The United Nations Charter of 1945 outlawed aggressive war. Almost none of the wars that have been fought since then have resulted in territorial annexations by the victors that have been given international recognition. The chief exceptions to the rule against involuntary annexation, other than the unification of all of Vietnam under the North Vietnamese government, are India’s incorporation of Goa, Israel’s alteration of its borders following the 1948 war and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Neither Israel’s post-1967 occupation nor Russia’s annexation of Crimea has yet been internationally recognized as legitimate. Thanks in part to the influence of Locke, the United States never considered annexing defeated Iraq as a state or as a U.S. protectorate like Puerto Rico or Guam. It was taken for granted that once the regime of Saddam Hussein was removed, the Iraqi people, not the U.S. occupiers, would create a new government.

As in an ideal Lockean world, the great powers today forego wars of territorial conquest and annexation. Instead, they compete with one another by means of rival alliances, occasional proxy wars, arms races and internal economic development. While avowing their commitment to the ideal of a free global marketplace, the major industrial capitalist powers, including the United States, practice mild versions of mercantilism by using subsidies, regulations, nontariff barriers and trade diplomacy to promote the interests of their national industries.