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Liberty and Property: the Levellers and Locke

[Excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith.]


The turmoil of the English Civil War in the 1640s and 1650s generated political and institutional upheaval, and stimulated radical thinking about politics. Since the Civil War was fought over religion and politics, much of the new thinking was grounded in, or inspired by, religious principles and visions. Thus, as we shall see further in the chapter on the roots of Marxism, millennial communist sects popped up again, for the first time since the Anabaptist frenzy of the early 16th century in Germany and Holland. Particularly prominent in the frenzy of the Civil War Left were the Diggers, the Ranters, and the Fifth Monarchists.1

At the opposite pole of new thought generated by the Civil War was the prominence, in the midst of the forces of the mainstream republican Left, of the world’s first self-consciously libertarian mass movement — the Levellers. In a series of notable debates within the Republican Army — notably between the Cromwellians and the Levellers — the Levellers, led by John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and William Walwyn, worked out a remarkably consistent libertarian doctrine, upholding the rights of “self-ownership,” private property, religious freedom for the individual, and minimal governmental interference in society. The rights of each individual to his person and property, furthermore, were “natural” — that is, they were derived from the nature of man and the universe, and therefore were not dependent on, nor could they be abrogated by, government. And while the economy was scarcely a primary focus of the Levellers, their adherence to a free-market economy was a simple derivation from their stress on liberty and the rights of private property.

For a while it seemed that the Levellers would triumph in the Civil War, but Cromwell decided to resolve the army debates by the use of force, and he established his coercive dictatorship and radical Puritan theocracy by placing the Leveller leadership in jail. The victory of Cromwell and his Puritans over the Levellers proved fateful for the course of English history. For it meant that “republicanism,” in the eyes of the English, would be forever associated with the bloody rule of Cromwell’s saints, the reign of religious fanaticism, and the sacking of the great English cathedrals. Hence the death of Cromwell led swiftly to the restoration of the Stuarts, and the permanent discrediting of the republican cause. It is likely, on the contrary, that a Leveller rule of freedom, religious toleration, and minimal government might have proved roughly acceptable to the English people, and might have ensured a far more libertarian English polity than actually evolved after the Restoration and the Whig Settlement.2

Historiographical discussion of the great libertarian political theorist John Locke (1632–1704), who emerged to prominence after the Civil War, and particularly in the 1680s, has been mired in a welter of conflicting interpretations. Was Locke a radically individualistic political thinker or a conservative Protestant Scholastic? An individualist or a majoritarian? A pure philosopher or a revolutionary intriguer? A radical harbinger of modernity or one who harked back to the medieval or to classical virtue?

Most of these interpretations are, oddly enough, not really contradictory. By this point, we should realize that the Scholastics may have dominated medieval and postmedieval traditions, but that despite this fact they were pioneers and elaborators of the natural-law and natural-rights traditions. The pitting of “tradition” versus “modernity” is largely an artificial antithesis. “Moderns” like Locke or perhaps even Hobbes may have been individualists and “right-thinkers,” but they were also steeped in Scholasticism and natural law. Locke may have been and indeed was an ardent Protestant, but he was also a Protestant Scholastic, heavily influenced by the founder of Protestant Scholasticism, the Dutchman Hugo Grotius, who in turn was heavily influenced by the late Spanish Catholic Scholastics. As we have already seen, such great late 16th-century Spanish Jesuit Scholastics as Suarez and Mariana were contractual natural-rights thinkers, with Mariana being positively “pre-Lockean” in his insistence on the right of the people to resume the rights of sovereignty they had previously delegated to the king. While Locke developed libertarian natural rights thought more fully than his predecessors, it was still squarely embedded in the Scholastic natural-law tradition.3

Neither are John Pocock and his followers convincing in trying to posit an artificial distinction and clash between the libertarian concerns of Locke or his later followers on the one hand, and devotion to “classical virtue” on the other. In this view 18th-century Lockean libertarians from Cato to Jefferson become magically transmuted from radical individualists and free-marketeers into nostalgic reactionaries harking back to ancient or Renaissance “classical virtue.” Followers of such virtue somehow become old-fashioned communitarians rather than modern individualists. And yet, why can’t libertarians and opposers of government intervention also oppose government “corruption” and extravagance? Indeed, the two generally go together. As soon as we realize that, generally, and certainly until Bentham, devotees of liberty, property, and free markets have generally been moralists as well as adherents of a free-market economy, the Pocockian antitheses begin to fall apart. To 17th- and 18th-century libertarians, indeed to libertarians in most times and places, attacks on government intervention and on government moral corruption go happily hand in hand.4

There are still anomalies in John Locke’s career and thought, but they can be cleared up by the explicit discussion and implications of the impressive work by Richard Ashcraft.5 Essentially Ashcraft demonstrates that Locke’s career can be divided into two parts. Locke’s father, a country lawyer and son of minor Puritan country gentry, fought in Cromwell’s army and was able to use the political pull of his mentor Colonel Alexander Popham, MP, to get John into the prominent Westminster School. At Westminster, and then at Christ Church, Oxford, Locke obtained a BA and then an MA in 1658, then became a lecturer at the college in Greek and rhetoric in 1662, and became a medical student and then a physician in order to stay at Oxford without having to take holy orders.

Despite or perhaps because of Locke’s Puritan background and patronage, he clearly came under the influence of the Baconian scientists at Oxford, notably including Robert Boyle, and hence he tended to adopt the “scientific,” empiricist, low-key absolutist viewpoint of his friends and mentors. While at Oxford, Locke and his colleagues enthusiastically welcomed the restoration of Charles II, and indeed the king himself ordered the university to keep Locke as a medical student without having to take holy orders. While at Oxford, Locke adopted the empiricist methodology and sensate philosophy of the Baconians, leading to his later Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Moreover, in 1661 Locke, this later champion of religious toleration, wrote two tracts denouncing religious tolerance, and favoring the absolute state enforcing religious orthodoxy. In 1668, Locke was elected to the Royal Society, joining his fellow Baconian scientists.

Something happened to John Locke in the year 1666, however, when he became a physician and in the following year when he became personal secretary, advisor, writer, theoretician, and close friend of the great Lord Ashley (Anthony Ashley Cooper), who in 1672 was named the first Earl of Shaftesbury. It was due to Shaftesbury that Locke, from then on, was to plunge into political and economic philosophy, and into public service as well as revolutionary intrigue. Locke adopted from Shaftesbury the entire classical-liberal Whig outlook, and it was Shaftesbury who converted Locke into a firm and lifelong champion of religious toleration and into a libertarian exponent of self-ownership, property rights, and a free-market economy. It was Shaftesbury who made Locke into a libertarian and who stimulated the development of Locke’s libertarian system.

John Locke, in short, quickly became a Shaftesburyite, and thereby a classical liberal and libertarian. All his life and even after Shaftesbury’s death in 1683, Locke only had words of adulation for his friend and mentor. Locke’s epitaph for Shaftesbury declared that the latter was “a vigorous and indefatigable champion of civil and ecclesiastical liberty.” The editor of the definitive edition of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government justly writes that “without Shaftesbury, Locke would not have been Locke at all.” This truth has been hidden all too often by historians who have had an absurdly monastic horror of how political theory and philosophy often develop — in the heat of political and ideological battle. Instead, many felt they had to hide this relationship in order to construct an idealized image of Locke the pure and detached philosopher, separate from the grubby and mundane political concerns of the real world.6

Professor Ashcraft also shows how Locke and Shaftesbury began to build up, even consciously, a neo-Leveller movement, elaborating doctrines very similar to those of the Levellers. Locke’s entire structure of thought in his Two Treatises of Government, written in 1681–1682 as a schema for justifying the forthcoming Whig revolution against the Stuarts, was an elaboration and creative development of Leveller doctrine — the beginnings in self-ownership or self-propriety, the deduced right to property and free exchange, the justification of government as a device to protect such rights, and the right of overturning a government that violates, or becomes destructive of, those ends. One of the former Leveller leaders, Major John Wildman, was even close to the Locke-Shaftesbury set during the 1680s.

The deep affinity between Locke and Scholastic thought has been obscured by the undeniable fact that, to Locke, Shaftesbury, and the Whigs, the real enemy of civil and religious liberty, the great advocate of monarchical absolutism, during the late 17th century and into the 18th century, was the Catholic Church. For by the mid 17th century, Catholicism, or “popery,” was identified not with the natural rights and the checks on royal despotism as of yore, but with the absolutism of Louis XIV of France, the leading absolutist state in Europe, and earlier with absolutist Spain. For the Reformation, after a century, had succeeded in taking the wraps off monarchical tyranny in the Catholic as well as Protestant countries. Ever since the turn of the 17th century, indeed, the Catholic Church in France, Jansenist and royalist in spirit, had been more a creature of royal absolutism than a check on its excesses. In fact, by the 17th century, the case could be made that the most prosperous country in Europe which was also the freest — in economics, in civil liberties, in a decentralized polity, and in abstinence from imperial adventures — was Protestant Holland.7

Thus it was easy for the English Whigs and classical liberals to identify the absolutism, the arbitrary taxes, the controls, and the incessant wars of the Stuarts with the Catholicism towards which the Stuarts were not so secretly moving, as well as with the specter of Louis XIV, toward whom the Stuarts were moving as well. As a result, the English and American colonial tradition, even the libertarian tradition, became imbued with a fanatical anti-Catholicism; the idea of including evil Catholics in the rubric of religious toleration was rarely entertained.

One common confusion about Locke’s systematic theory of property needs to be cleared up — Locke’s theory of labor. Locke grounded his theory of natural property rights in each individual’s right of self-ownership, of a “propriety” in his own person. What then establishes anyone’s original right of material, or landed or natural resource property, apart from his own person? In Locke’s brilliant and very sensible theory, property is brought out of the commons, or out of nonproperty, into one’s private ownership in the same way that a man brings unused property into use — that is, by “mixing his self-owned labor,” his personal energy, with a previously unused and unowned natural resource, thereby bringing that resource into productive use and hence into his private property.

Private property of a material resource is established by first use. These two axioms — self-ownership of each person, and the first use, or “homesteading,” of natural resources — establishes the “naturalness,” the morality, and the property rights underlying the entire free-market economy. For if a man justly owns material property he has settled in and worked on, he has the deduced right to exchange those property titles for the property someone else has settled in and worked on with his labor. For if someone owns property, he has a right to exchange it for someone else’s property, or to give that property away to a willing recipient. This chain of deduction establishes the right of free exchange and free contract, and the right of bequest, and hence the entire property-rights structure of the market economy.

Many historians, especially Marxists, have taken glee in claiming that John Locke is thereby the founder of the Marxian “labor theory of value” (which Marx in turn acquired from Smith and especially Ricardo). But Locke’s is a labor theory of property — that is, a theory of how material property justly comes into ownership by means of labor exertion or “mixing.” This theory has absolutely nothing to do with what determines the value or price of goods or services on the market, and therefore has nothing to do with the later “labor theory of value.”

This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol. 1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith

  • 1There was a direct filtration of ideas from Thomas Müntzer and the communist Anabaptists into England. One of Müntzer’s collaborators, Henry Niclaes, survived the smashing of Anabaptism to found familism, a pantheistic creed claiming that man is God, and calling for the establishment of the kingdom of (man) God on Earth, as the only place such a kingdom could ever exist. Familist ideas were carried to England by a disciple of Niclaes, Christopher Vittels, a Dutch joiner, and familism spread in England during the late 16th century. A center of familism in early 17th-century England was in Grindleton, in Yorkshire. There, in the decade after 1615, “the Grindletonians” were led by Grindleton’s Anglican curate, the Rev. Roger Brearly. Part of the attraction of familism was its antinomianism, the view that truly godly persons, such as themselves, could never commit a sin, by definition, and therefore antinomians usually flaunted behavior generally considered sinful in order to demonstrate to one and all their godly and “sin-free” status.
  • 2The Levellers have acquired a left-wing coloration because of their label, and because they have been admired by Marxist historians, enthusiastic about their radicalism, and as the most consistent figures in the “bourgeois revolution” of the 17th and later centuries. The Levellers, however, were in no sense egalitarians, except in the laissez-faire libertarian sense that they were opposed to special privileges granted by the state. On the Levellers, see especially Don M. Wolfe (ed.), Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution (1944, New York: Humanities Press, 1967), including the editor’s lengthy introduction; and the latest collection of Leveller tracts in A.L. Morton (ed.), Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975). Also see the classic H.N. Brailsford, The Levellers and the English Revolution (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961). One of the best brief summaries of Leveller doctrine is in C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 137–59.
  • 3Much mischief has been wrought by the interpretation of Leo Strauss and his followers that Locke was a natural rights-er who (following Hobbes) broke with the wise ancient tradition of natural law. Actually, Locke the natural rights-er developed the Scholastic natural-law tradition, and was the opposite of Hobbes’s right-wing Grotian apologia for state absolutism. On Hobbes, Locke, and the Tew circle, see Richard Tuck, Natural Rights: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). Leo Strauss’s interpretation is in his Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953). For a critique of Strauss, and insistence that Locke was not a Hobbesian but in the natural-law tradition, see Raghuveer Singh, “John Locke and the Theory of Natural Law,” Political Studies 9 (June 1961), pp. 105–18.
  • 4The locus classicus of the Pocockian thesis is J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Movement (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975). In addition to the contrasting works of Isaac Kramnick and Joyce Appleby, see in particular the scintillating refutation of Pocock’s central example, the alleged “classical virtue” emphasis of the radically Lockean Cato’s LettersCato’s Letters: John Locke and the Republican Paradigm,” History of Political Thought 11 (1990), pp. 273–94.
  • 5Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).
  • 6Ibid., pp. 75–82, 370–71.
  • 7A more detailed analysis of 17th-century Dutch politics would show, however, that the free-market, decentralized, propeace party was the republicans or Arminians, followers of the Protestant theologian Jacobus Arminius, who was theologically closer to Catholics in believing in free will for salvation. On the other hand, the “Calvinist” party in Holland favored the Orange monarchy, statism, controlled markets, and a warlike foreign policy.
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