Hobbes, Locke, and the Problems of Political Economy

Hobbes, Locke, and the Problems of Political Economy

Saint Anselm College

This essay is the second in a series from the book Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy, edited by AEI’s Michael R. Strain and Stan A. Veuger. Check back in every Tuesday for additional essays in the series.

In our own time and place we hotly contest the relation of public and private goods or interests. Education, health and birth con­trol, energy and the environment, transportation, social welfare— almost any domestic issue is the subject of such debate. Those debates typically contest whether the issue at hand is properly a matter of public policy at all, and if it is, whether the best approach to addressing the concern is through public or private action. The contest over what is properly a public concern and what is properly private, and therefore over the extent of government authority and the defense of personal responsibility and liberty, has a long history in America. It is a legacy from our founding and from the intellec­tual origins of the founding. Those original intellects often thought better about these enduring problems than we typically do today. Thus we can better understand our own debate by considering its intellectual roots in the revolutionary political theories of 17th cen­tury England, and the understanding in that time and place of the proper relation of public and private goods.

We will not find an easy resolution of our problem in those theo­ries. The problem of the relation of public and private goods, like the problem of the relation of the community to the individual, is one of the fundamental problems of political justice. It is the problem that philosophers and statesmen have grappled with for more than two millennia. But modern thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke place the problem in stark relief, as an issue of political economy, and the contrasts (and similarities) between them help us see more precisely the difficulty we face.1 Together, Hobbes and Locke can lead partisans of both sides to a better appreciation of the partiality of their positions and a better understanding of the claims on the other side. For all their differences, Hobbes and Locke recog­nize that there is no simple identity of public and private interests or rights.

The problem of the relation of public and private goods . . . is one of the fundamental problems of political justice

Hobbes and Locke are often paired. Both are 17th-century English philosophers (though separated by a generation). Both are state-of-nature theorists who articulate teachings of natural equality and natural liberty, and both describe civil society and government as artifacts of human invention.

The two are also very often contrasted (and their differences regarding the origin of private property are among the most signif­icant)2. Yet what we often take to be their differences—the bumper sticker description of their differences—actually obscures their teachings and makes each less interesting than he really is. For exam­ple, both Hobbes and Locke give an account of a state of nature—a pre-political condition, perhaps meant anthropologically (an his­torical epoch in a long ago age), or perhaps a hypothetical condi­tion (what human life would be like without government). Hobbes famously explains that in the state of nature there is no "mine and thine," and "no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncer­tain, and consequently, no culture of the earth . . . no commodious building . . . no knowledge of the face of the earth."3 In Hobbes’ account, the condition of perfect liberty and equality—our natu­ral, ungoverned condition—is a state of war: a war of all against all that produces a condition that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."4 On the other hand, Locke describes a state of nature that includes natural rights to property and therefore an account of natural justice. Locke carefully distinguishes the state of nature from the state of war and describes the state of nature initially as a state of "perfect freedom" and "equality," governed by a "law of nature" that teaches anyone "who will but consult it" that "no one ought to harm another."5 In describing the "plain difference" between the state of nature and a state of war, Locke writes that they are "as far distant, as a State of Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation, and a State of Enmity, Malice, Violence, and Mutual Destruction are from one another."6

For Hobbes, the maintenance of public order is an absolute necessity

So Hobbes and Locke seem quite different in their accounts of our natural condition, and this leads them to address very different problems. Hobbes is concerned about our natural inclination toward chaos and war, and must explain how peace is produced. For Hobbes, the maintenance of public order is an absolute necessity and requires a nearly absolute sovereign. Locke, beginning more peaceably, must explain that his state of nature is subject to certain "inconveniences" that degenerate into war. But this means that Locke can conceive of a condition without politics that is, at least, livable. The maintenance of public order is, in Locke’s language, a "convenience," and in his Second Treatise Locke uses the word "sovereignty" only twice.7

Hobbes and Locke therefore differ in their accounts of the politics that emerge out of this natural condition. To address the problem of the state of war—the state of natural confusion or chaos—Hobbes counsels that every state must claim, and be granted, absolute sov­ereign power, and indeed that we are simply fooling ourselves if we believe politics works in any other way. Anything less than acknowl­edging the absolute authority of the sovereign—say, if we were to declare allegiance to the sovereign in some cases but to God in others—can only breed dissent and ultimately civil war.8

Locke famously argues that government must be founded on the consent of the governed

On the other hand, Locke famously argues that government must be founded on the consent of the governed, and that political power should be organized constitutionally into something like a system of separation of powers and checks and balances. Where Hobbes emphasizes the authority of the sovereign, Locke emphasizes the pre-eminence of a legislative power. Locke’s two references to "sov­ereignty" in the Second Treatise are first as an example of a thing God has not granted to any person, and second to explain that only God is sovereign.9

And yet Hobbes’ political account begins with a statement of natural liberty and natural equality—twin foundations of liberal politics—and Hobbes develops a prudential teaching of the impor­tance of respecting the liberties of subjects. The Hobbesian subject retains something like a right to preserve himself—even if the threat to his preservation is the sovereign power itself. Hobbes understands that this right would be used to authorize the disorder he seeks to remedy. Therefore, he counsels that, though the sovereign has abso­lute power, prudence teaches the rule of law (and not mere monar­chical will), establishment of a judicial appeals process, the exercise of a power to pardon, and security for legal property rights—all of which mitigate the danger of rebellion.10

Locke, who initially emphasizes natural equality and liberty and a government that is respectful of individual rights, eventually offers a teaching of extensive power. In his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke gives two examples of moral propositions capable of scientific demonstration. The first is that "Where there is no Property, there is no Injustice." The second is that "No government allows absolute Liberty" (because the very "Idea of Government" is to govern "by certain Rules or Laws, which require Conformity").11 In Locke’s regime, too, we almost give up our natural right to preser­vation "to be regulated by Laws made by the society."12 Locke was a political realist; in his hands, the principle of consent becomes "tacit and scarce avoidable," and expressed in practice by represen­tatives of the majority rather than by independent individuals. The prerogative Locke describes for the executive is about as much as a Hobbesian could hope for, and bounded more by prudential con­siderations than by concerns of rights.13 In Locke’s own example it may be necessary to tear down "an innocent Man’s House to stop the Fire, when the next to it is burning."14 Locke understands, in agreement with Hobbes, that liberal politics works like any other regime to shape our habits of behavior and even our customs of thinking (though the particular habits and customs that liberalism inculcates may be different).

On investigation the similarity in the theoretical foundations of absolute and liberal governments seems disturbingly greater than their differences. When sovereign power understands the lessons of prudence, it moderates itself. And classical liberalism really does involve a quiet exercise of actual political power.

The Status of Property Rights

It is the origin and status of property rights that marks the essential distinction between an authoritarian political regime and a liberal one.

And yet there remains a further difference between the two philoso­phers that shapes their respective accounts of the state of nature, and their political teachings as well. That difference is in their treatments of the origin and extent of property rights. Hobbes insists that prop­erty is not natural, that it is rather a creation of the sovereign, sub­ject to consent and political authority, and so readers should expect extensive exercise of government authority over the private property it has created. Locke insists that property rights are natural, held even without the consent of others or of the political authority, and so readers should expect an account of how those rights work to limit the reach of government into private affairs. This difference carries a most important implication: it is the origin and status of property rights that marks the essential distinction between an authoritarian political regime and a liberal one.15

Hobbes denies that property rights are natural. In the state of nature there is no rule of "mine and thine," and no property.16 Indeed, in that original condition "every man has a right to every­thing, even to another’s body."17 As we might imagine, such a con­dition of disordered right "necessarily causeth war."18 For Hobbes, political authority is necessary for the very creation and security of property; order precedes prosperity. Without a "coercive power" to secure property under law, there can be no prosperity.19 "[T]he introduction of property," Hobbes writes, "is an effect of the com­monwealth."20 It is the sovereign who provides "nourishment" for the principles of property, and the laws of mine and thine, and who establishes rules of contract and exchange.21 Thus we "erect a com­mon power" to secure the fruits of our "industry."22 It is therefore in our interest to acquiesce in the establishment of political power.23

Though Hobbes refuses to provide a natural justice foundation for respect for private property rights, his prudential political teaching aims to remedy the "poor" condition of our natural state by estab­lishing a law of private property. The economic policy that follows is at once ordered by the sovereign authority to public ends, and concerned to secure the benefits of private industry.24 On the one hand, the sovereign will assign land ownership in a way "agreeable to equity and the common good,"25 and Hobbes reminds us that though these new, legal property rights will exclude intrusions and takings from other subjects, they do not exclude the authority of the sovereign.26 Liberty, Hobbes reminds us, is not "an exemption from law."27 Rather, it is the very purpose of civil law to abridge and restrain natural liberty.28

On the other hand, though the commonwealth itself may retain a portion of land, and order its cultivation and improvement (that is, the state may enter directly into economic activity), Hobbes advises against this.29 Hobbes makes respect for property rights his sixth commandment of civil society.30 Public ownership of the means of production runs the risk that one error costs everything; any monopolist will grow negligent. Moreover, such an expansive source of revenue threatens the unlimited expansion of govern­ment, and "Commonwealths can endure no diet."31 In place of public ownership and management of the economy, Hobbes rec­ommends the "equal imposition of taxes" to supply revenue for the defense of the commonwealth and for programs of public charity.32 By "equal imposition" Hobbes means taxation proportional to "the debt that any man oweth to the commonwealth for his defence."33 Because the wealthy receive an extra benefit from "the service of the poor" who work for them, Hobbes argues that the wealthy should contribute through their taxes for the defense and maintenance of the poor. Hobbes suggests that private charity is too unreliable, and too bound to private interests, to fulfill the public function of charity.34 But he also insists that those recipients of charity who are physically capable must be required to work, perhaps by coloniz­ing new lands.35

Hobbes’ treatment of political economy moves in three stages. First, private property is an establishment of the sovereign, and therefore entirely subject to that sovereign authority. Second, Hobbes counsels that political prudence will lead the sovereign to restrain itself from too extensive an intervention in private economic life. Thus, third, Hobbes offers instead a system of proportional taxation and public charity.

In contrast, Locke insists that property rights are natural, and that each individual naturally holds a property right that is not at all dependent on the consent of others. In other words, we need no one’s permission to build our own property, not even the per­mission of the government.36 At the root of Locke’s account is the natural ownership of each person in his or her very self, and the "first and strongest desire," which is the desire for "self-preservation." That desire is "the foundation of a right to the Creatures."37 Locke conceives of the natural liberty of individuals as a property right in themselves. Indeed, Locke defines "property" as a right to life and liberty as well as estate, and he does so almost from the beginning of the Second Treatise to almost the very end.38 That private realm of ownership is part of the definition of the human, and essential to Locke’s political foundation. Labor—even labor on oneself—gener­ates conceptions of justice and rights.39 As human beings labor, they generate rights in property—the property becomes private because the labor mixes "something" of the laborer into the product.40 For Locke, these natural property rights establish a limit on the reach of political authority and broaden the claim of individuals to exercise their own private judgment.

Locke was proud of his theory of property, and the chapter has generated a rich assortment of commentaries.41 Six times in the chapter Locke reminds us of our condition "in [or "at"] the begin­ning."42 The entire Lockean history of commerce can be traced through the author’s "beginnings."43 "[I]n the beginning" all the land and its fruits were in common, but God and our wants commanded men to labor.44 That labor generated private rights and possessions. "[A]t the beginning" there were very few people, so this appropria­tion by labor left enough and as good for others.45 In some places, Locke writes, that may still be true, but the invention of money and the consent to its use introduced a right to larger possessions than one can use. The problem of spoilage is removed, and with money a person can generate more labor—through paying wages to others—than he can actually perform himself.46 This invention builds prosperity and improves the condition of even the lowliest day laborer, who now may live above the level of a primitive king.47 (Locke suggests that when all the land has been appropriated it may be necessary to preserve a public "commons" by compact for use by those who have no land of their own.)48 "[I]n the beginning" men didn’t desire more than they needed, but gold changed that.49 At one and the same time, people and land became more productive and also accumulated more wealth than was naturally necessary. "[A]t the beginning" Cain and Abel needed only a few acres, but the population grew and with it the need for political boundaries.50 "[I]n the Begin­ning" labor gave a right to property, to appropriate what had been common, but as land became scarce peoples defined and defended their political boundaries.

Within those boundaries they developed law and the regulation of private property, to settle the property rights which industry began.51 Locke advises that the proper employment of labor and resources is now "the great art of government" and that a "godlike" prince will use "established laws of liberty" for the "protec­tion and incouragement" of labor and industry.52

Though Locke’s state of nature seemed characterized by law and good will, in truth "Person and Possessions" are "constantly exposed to the Invasion of others."53 Without political society—the protec­tion it offers and the currency it makes available—men would have no temptation to labor beyond their immediate needs. To do so would even be accounted foolish.54 But then, Locke must believe with Hobbes that in the natural condition there will be no security for industry. It is the defense of property, broadly understood, that moves the state of nature into the state of war,55 and in that state where there is no government to settle the matter "the state of war, once begun, continues."56 It is to avoid this state of war that we make government.57 Indeed, Locke tells us that "Government has no other end but the preservation of Property" (that is, of life, liberty, and estate).58 In Locke’s account we actually need government after all to secure the fruits of our labor.

We need only consider Locke’s treatment of the legislative power to realize that in practice the work of securing private property while advancing the public good will involve an inherent tension between the two. Fairly early, when Locke begins his account of government proper, he reminds us that the purpose of the political community is to preserve the liberty and property of individuals, and that the legislative power "is obliged to secure every ones Property."59 Toward the end of the work Locke again reminds us of that principle and adds that when the legislative arbitrarily invades the property (in this instance the "Lives, Liberties, or Fortunes") of the people it dissolves its legitimate political authority.60 Yet in between, in the details of Locke’s constitution, we find a justification of a much more exten­sive political authority to take property. While Locke constrains the legislative power so that it "cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent,"61 in short order we learn instead that no part of the subjects’ property can be taken without "their own consent,"62 and then that the property owner must give "his own Consent, i.e., the Consent of the Majority," or even of the repre­sentatives of the majority.63

The Dangers of Private Dominion

Explicit in the works of both thinkers is the recognition that pri­vate goods do not simply comport with public ones. Hobbes centers his concern on the problem of monopolies, which he calls a private disease that threatens the public good.64 Locke turns his attention to the problem of economic dominion, the ways that the private power of wealth may be used to generate political dominion over life and liberty. Both thinkers seem to conceive of the realm of political economy—the encounter of private rights with public goods—as a scene of perpetual political contest.

For Hobbes we need government to make property possible, but Hobbes tells us that the "general inclination of all mankind [is] a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death."65 This desire for power has an economic as well as a mil­itary form.66 Hobbes describes three natural causes of war: compe­tition, diffidence, and vainglory. Even if competition is managed by securing the fruits of honest industry, and even if diffidence or fear is resolved by the establishment of a sovereign, the problem of vain­glory or pride remains.67 One example of this pride is overvaluing one’s own worth, or believing that one’s economic worth should be a foundation for political power.68 Thus private interests routinely assert a claim to authority in the public realm.

The disease of private interest has public consequences. One "dis­ease" of a commonwealth is the inability to raise sufficient revenue, a condition that arises "from the opinion that every subject hath a property in his lands and goods exclusive of the sovereign’s right to use of the same."69 This inclination to advance one’s own pri­vate interests is made worse when the wealth of the community "is gathered together in too much abundance in one or a few private men, by monopolies or by farms of the public revenues."70 Hobbes is concerned that the new industrial life will create centers of power independent of the sovereign, and will be able to act contrary to the public good. He warns that this is especially the case of monopolies. Monopolies aim at "the particular gain of every adventurer," they set prices in ways "ill for the people" and not for "a common ben­efit to the whole body," and they encourage disputation with the sovereign authority.71 Hobbes fears that the notion of a natural and absolute private right to property—one that excludes the right of the sovereign—will tend to the dissolution of the commonwealth itself. "[I]f the right of the sovereign also be excluded, he cannot perform the office they have put him into."72

At the same time Hobbes does not merely abandon his subjects to the arbitrary and overbearing will of an absolute monarch. The subject retains a "true liberty," bound by the purposes for which the political community was first formed. Those purposes include peace and defense, including the defense of the fruits of industry.73 Thus, subjects retain rights to defend themselves, to resist force and imprisonment.74 What Hobbes must envision, then, for all his con­cern to establish political authority and order, is a dynamic political process that includes the sovereign’s prudent recognition of the value of private property even as the sovereign asserts the essential impor­tance of public benefits and public order.75

Locke’s defense of property rights properly understood is argu­ably the very heart of his political teaching, yet like Hobbes, Locke recognizes the distance between private advantage and the "com­mon good." For Locke, we need government to secure the property that is naturally ours. It is "the great art of government" to secure "honest industry" by "established laws of liberty."76 Yet in his work on education Locke tells us that there are two paired desires that we observe in children (and therefore, he argues, we know that the same desires are in adults). One of these is the desire for liberty. The other related desire is for dominion. Locke says the desire for dominion is pursued in two ways. It is pursued first by having others submit to one’s will, and second through "property and possession, pleasing themselves with the power which that seems to give."77 In the First Treatise Locke argues that "Private Dominion" over property gives "no Sovereignty."78 He adds that propriety of an estate is a fundamentally different undertaking than political rule. Estates are "for the benefit and sole Advantage of the Proprietor, so that he may even destroy the thing." Politics, on the other hand, is for the "Preservation" and "the good of the Governed."79 We seem to face here two standards of judgment, the rights of individuals and the good of the community, and as political philosophers since Plato have recognized those two poles do not easily align.

What Locke foresees, therefore, is a dynamic and unresolved political contest among diverse interests or factions. The natural right of property is rooted in the individual’s right of preservation;81 the reason individuals enter into civil society is the preservation of their property.82 But in Locke’s account society, too, has a right to preserve itself, even a "Native and Original Right" to preserve itself.82 Locke is well aware that "private Mens Cases," even when these men "have a right," will not always move "the Body of the People,"83 and that "examples of particular Injustice, or Oppression" may not be felt by the majority.84 Locke has described a political condition in which the insolence of rulers gives rise to the "Turbulency of private Men," and of factions. Sometimes those factions represent a defense of pri­vate rights against oppression; sometimes those factions represent the assertion of private interests over and above the public interest.85 The political contest over these conflicting claims of public and pri­vate interests, as Locke conceives it, is never settled, and it can never be settled finally because both private and public interests have a legitimate claim of right.

Liberalism and Human Flourishing

Hobbes and Locke, founders of classical liberalism in the modern era, both offer teachings of a natural condition of liberty and equal­ity. That natural condition proves untenable, and either is or quickly becomes a state of war as each person asserts his or her own inter­ests, and especially those material interests related to the right of preservation. As a response to that natural state of war, so-called lib­eral government is asked to respect and secure private natural rights, and to moderate or regulate the assertion of those rights. That is, we demand liberty, and also a defense against the dominion of others. Property, broadly understood, grounds the rights of individuals to govern themselves, and those rights also help establish a limit on the claims of others or the authority of the government.

Property, broadly understood, grounds the rights of individuals to govern themselves

On the one hand, the defense of private property emerges as both principled and prudent. On the other, these foundational thinkers offer a realistic appraisal of the relation of private property to public goods. Helpfully, the pursuit of private fortune can produce goods for the community. Hobbes and Locke anticipate later thinkers in that respect. But they both counsel that we ought not to kid our­selves into believing in an easy harmony of public and private con­ceptions of the good. Rather, civil life is characterized as a dynamic contest of assertions of the good. Just as much as the public power will contribute to the security of the private, and private powers to the material good of the public, so also will each act perpetually to check and balance (or impede) the other.

It is not at all clear whether such a regime can provide a very rich account of human flourishing. One paradox of modern liberalism is that while it secures a realm of privacy within which individuals may pursue private conceptions of the good, it also seems to under­mine claims for ultimate or absolute goods. In Hobbes, "good and evil" are names that signify our "appetites and aversions."86 Similarly in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke recasts "good" and "evil" as "pleasure" and "pain."87 Alan Ryan notes Hobbes’ break with the classical teleological view of human nature and flourish­ing. Ryan concludes that for Hobbes there is no summum bonum toward which human beings move, but rather a summum malum from which they move away.88 It is the fear of death, rather than con­ception of a good, that motivates action. In a very famous passage in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke remarks "that the Philosophers of old did in vain enquire, whether Summum bonum consisted in Riches, or bodily Delights, or Virtue, or Contemplation: And they might have as reasonably disputed, whether the best Rel­ish were to be found in Apples, Plumbs, or Nuts." Some relishes "produce the greatest Pleasure" or "Happiness" for one "particular Palate," and other relishes for another.89 Locke advises that this "may serve to shew us the Reason, why, though all Men’s desires tend to Happiness, yet they are not moved by the same Object. Men may chuse different things, and yet all chuse right."90

In the only other reference to a summum bonum in the Essay, Locke elaborates on the idea of the good as a matter of taste, but now he revises his account. Locke concludes "that Morality is the proper Science, and Business of Mankind in general; (who are both concerned, and fitted to search out their Summum Bonum,) as several Arts, con­versant about several parts of Nature, are the Lot and private Talent of particular Men, for the common use of humane Life, and their own particular Subsistence in this World."91 Locke would nurture and protect "the private Talent of particular Men" who are pursuing their own particular subsistence in this world, and coincidentally provide the conveniences for humane life. This is not quite a description of a common good. Rather it suggests two goods, a private one and a public one, that may coincide. Given the diversity of goods, what may be the greatest good for one may not be for another; the greatest good for many may not be quite the same as the greatest good for the few.92 We may speculate that, for Locke, individuals each have, or discover, or construct, the summum bonum in their lives. As Locke remarks in another context, perhaps there are only "Individuals . . . different from one another."93

Liberalism thus seems an instrumental political arrangement, one that makes possible the private pursuit of diverse good lives with­out imposing a particular telos on its citizens. An essential instru­ment of this liberty—and therefore of the opportunity for human flourishing—is protection of the rights of private property. Rights of private property can ensure a level of sustenance and even indepen­dence that is instrumentally necessary for any good life.94

Though life in the liberal regime thus promises neutrality with respect to conceptions of the good, in practice the new liberal regime cannot help imposing its own conception of the good or the tolera­ble on its subjects. Liberalism is "not mere proceduralism, nor is it neutral with respect to ways of life or virtues."95 While the regime permits private pursuits of diverse goods, it also largely consigns those pursuits to the private sphere. The public realm still insists on particular characteristic actions. The free individual who can make his own way or chart her own course in the world must have certain capacities. Such a person must be independent and hardworking. Because of the liberal foundation in natural equality and natural lib­erty, such a person must respect the independence and hard work of others. And so liberalism insists on certain modern virtues, includ­ing industriousness and self-reliance, and toleration and civility. It rewards innovation and pragmatism more than tradition and phil­osophic speculation. Goods of the soul may be pursued freely in private. Lives devoted to faith or philosophy, to heroic virtue, or to pleasure must be moderated in the service of peace, preservation, and prosperity.

No regime is truly neutral with respect to the good life. The instru­ments of liberal life become the ends in themselves, and these new good lives may lack the lofty allure or ambition of the old. Modern liberalism secures a realm of privacy that makes some human flour­ishing possible, but that may not incline us toward teleological con­ceptions of the good. In its elevation of the instruments of the good life, liberalism may even close our minds to conceptions of ultimate goods. Without a teleological account of human flourishing the idea of the greatest good becomes, for the philosophers of modern liberty, nothing more than a matter of taste, and taste is so much a matter of private judgment that we find it increasingly difficult to consider ultimate goods—and the common good—seriously. Thus egalitar­ian liberalism has a tendency toward relativism. And yet liberalism properly understood is not neutral; it asserts its own particular claim to the good. Taking liberalism’s particular claim seriously would be the first step toward a serious reappraisal of the alternatives—and especially of the claims of faith, philosophy, and heroic virtue.

Check back in every Tuesday for additional essays in the series

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