“Locke’s theoretical arguments prefigured another thinker who had a lot to say about labor and property: Karl Marx.”
more generally. This is because Locke is typically invoked (or disparaged) as the ideological defender of unbridled capitalism and tolerant liberalism. Everyone from anti-capitalist leftists to conservatives critical of liberal permissiveness have consequently ripped into the English philosopher. Despite this, Locke remains a popular reference point for the American way; and despite a recent surge in criticism of Locke on the part of conservatives such as Patrick Deneen, the lion’s share of praise for Locke still comes from those who are right-of-center. For instance, in his recent book How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps (reviewed here), Ben Shapiro invokes Lockean principles about property and toleration while criticizing “disintergrationist philosophies,” which sought to undermine unity and faith in capitalism. As Ben Shapiro puts it:here is a furious debate taking place among political scientists about the influence of John Locke on the Constitution of the United States and on American culture
“Human beings feel the necessity to control their environment; this is the root of property rights. John Locke correctly pointed out that ownership of property is merely an extension of the idea of ownership of your labor; when we remove something from the state of nature and mix our labor with it and join something of our own to it, we thereby make that property our own. The rights of property, James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, arise from the ‘faculties of man.'”
The appeal of Locke to conservative Americans is readily understandable. Few political philosophers offered as potent a defense of property as Locke, which he presents in the Second Treatise on Government as a natural right. More importantly, Locke upholds a conception of property that validates what Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro calls the “workmanship ideal.” Expressed simply, this is the notion that entitlements to property emerge because we mix matter with our labor. This, in turn, is linked to a whole host of cherished arguments about meritocracy and inequality. The general thrust is that the wealthy have gotten where they are because of hard work and talent, and we, consequently, have no basis to violate their natural rights to property through taxation and redistribution. The problem with this argument is that it is very vulnerable to a host of well-known objections, which far too many conservatives remain unwilling to address—or even contemplate. I will discuss some of these objections in the remainder of this essay.
Labor, Property, and Value
“Though men as a whole own the earth and all inferior creatures, every individual man has a property in his own person; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property. He has removed the item from the common state that nature has placed it in, and through this labour the item has had annexed to it something that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour is unquestionably the property of the labourer, so no other man can have a right to anything the labour is joined to—at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”
– John Locke, Second Treatise on Government
Locke’s theory has been subjected to a battering of objections on its intrinsic merits. Simply asserting that something is a “natural right” is not very convincing. To this point, arguing that labor magically transforms matter seems remarkably metaphysical. And, as my late friend Connor O’Callaghan put it, many of Locke’s historical claims are not exactly accurate. Putting all of this aside, however, there is another reason why support for Locke might make for an odd choice for conservatives. Locke’s theoretical arguments prefigured another thinker who had a lot to say about labor and property: Karl Marx.
Marx is, of course, a boogeyman for many conservative intellectuals such as Ben Shapiro, though he is all too often simply and casually dismissed, rather than actually criticized. This propensity is telling since many of the same figures who brush past Marxist arguments also tend to be rather fond of Locke. The problem is that Marx’s arguments owe much to a creative reinterpretation of the Lockean position on labor and property. Locke argued that it was through mixing one’s labor with matter that a person established it as property. This is often taken to justify disparities between rich and poor by implying that the rich could only have reached their esteemed position through hard work. Simplifying the dialectical complexities considerably, in the first volume of Capital, Marx turns this argument on its head. He points out that if one really takes seriously the argument that it is labor which is the source of entitlement, capitalism has to be understood as an exploitative system. This is because the workers who actually contribute most of the labor to producing commodities are not actually entitled to what they create. The legal superstructure of the state—backed by coercion—stipulates that it is the boss who gets what the workers produce, to do with it as he wills. Workers alienate their labor for capital to have the surplus appropriated and sold for a profit, which allows capitalists to become wealthy, while workers receive a wage less than the market worth of what they produce. Marx then goes further by following other classical political economists—such as David Ricardo—and argues that it is actually the “socially necessary abstract labor” in a commodity that gives it value.
It is entirely possible to reject this argument by contending that it is not labor that creates entitlement to property—let alone value. Plenty of 20th century economists developed sophisticated counter-arguments to the labor-minded theories of classical political economists. Many of these were directly aimed at refuting the dangerous claims of Marxism. The problem is that if one rejects these features of Marx’s argument, much of Locke goes with it. One cannot claim one minute that Marxists are incorrect to insist that workers are entitled to what they produce through their labor, then turn around and invoke a 17th century English philosopher who made very similar arguments to argue for maintaining the wealth of the capitalist class. Rhetorically, these kinds of inconsistencies appear all the time whenever conservatives argue that the wealthy worked hard for their money—of course, ignoring that plenty of them simply inherit wealth and privilege—but dismiss critics who point out that workers often put in even more time and effort for far less reward.
Locke and the Foundations of Post-Modern Relativism
There is another instance in which Locke’s philosophy also problematizes many cherished conservative positions. This is Locke’s status as a theoretical precursor to many forms of post-modern subjectivism. Locke was more than a political philosopher; among his most seminal contributions to the history of thought were his arguments for empiricism and unique conception of the self. For Locke, everyone is born a tabula rasa—or blank slate. There are no innate qualities or features to our nature. These all emerge through our experiences in the world. In the same way, even our sense of selfhood is not innate but, rather, crystallizes through experience.
This might all seem very theoretical; however, canny conservative philosophers such as Peter Lawler and Patrick Deneen have recognized the role of such thinking in justifying many positions disdained by the political right. For instance, if one is born a blank slate, why should we argue that anyone is naturally a man or naturally a woman? If one feels that his experience of the world is that of a woman’s—even if this does not accord with one’s biology—from a Lockean standpoint, this would be more fundamental to one’s selfhood than the mere fact of having a male body. There is also no way of decisively countering this argument by appealing to mere facts; this is because—for Locke—we never actually have access to the factual world as it is, in and of itself. We only have our experience of it. Lawler points out that this argument is foundational to many forms of modern—and now post-modern—subjectivism. The real world does not exist; all that matters is one’s interpretation of it. Not coincidentally, this also links to Lockean—and more broadly liberal—arguments for uninhibited social freedom and toleration. Since each person experiences and interprets the world differently, there is no basis for any particular person to argue that someone behaves immorally by engaging in unvirtuous or deviant behaviors. This is, of course, a toxic position for many social conservatives, who insist there are objectively valid mores that each individual has a responsibility to uphold in his life—and which the state would be wise to endorse or even enforce where necessary.
None of this is to say that Locke is wrong about the self or freedom. However, his philosophy appears to be an odd one for conservatives to endorse, and it cannot be delinked from his political arguments for natural rights and property. When authors such as Ben Shapiro endorse Locke for grounding respect for property in “reason” and “human nature,” they, at the same time, ignore that Lockean positions on both of these subjects are hostile to many of their sacred idols. All of this is to say it is long past time we take a more serious and comprehensive look at Locke, rather than just endlessly parroting the features of his thinking amenable to Jeff Bezos.
Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof