Locke the Libertarian?
Few political philosophers have had an influence comparable to that of John Locke. In his own time, he was a revolutionary whose ideas ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 with the overthrow of King James II. Moreover, not too long after his death, his ideas would have tremendous influence in the American colonies. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government would have a significant impact on Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. This seminal document reflects closely Locke’s thinking and does so at several points with language very close to Locke’s original pronouncements. More importantly, some argue, Locke's ideas were the single most important influence on the development of 20th century natural rights libertarian thought. His work is cited favorably and the influence of his ideas is apparent in the work of Libertarians. This is particularly apparent concerning ideas associated with property rights. Several other political ideologies also associate his views with their own train of thought. Such a wide array of political opinion, all of which claim to be at least partially influenced by the works of John Locke, does understandably lead to the predicament that they cannot all be right. Here we shall examine the ties between John Locke and Libertarianism. One of the most well-known libertarian philosophers of the 20th century, Robert Nozick, explicitly follows much of Locke’s conclusions when formulating his own libertarian, foundational work. Similar views of property rights may help to highlight how Locke may have impacted modern libertarian thought. Libertarians have long been partial to what they believe to be John Locke’s theory of property. On first glance, this is understandable as the selected tenets of John Locke that are most often taught seem very libertarian in nature. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke ostensibly argues that when an individual applies his/her labor to an unclaimed piece of nature that individual becomes the absolute owner of that piece of nature and extinguishes any rights others might have to it.1 This is a plausible reading of Locke’s property discussion in the Second Treatise. Nevertheless, if Locke was one of the founders of contemporary natural rights libertarianism, he was also one of the founders of liberalism. Locke's writings frequently express a deep concern for social justice. Social justice, unlike property rights, that was not universally adopted into the pantheon of libertarian beliefs. For Locke the compatibility of a property regime and political institutions with the requirements of social justice was an essential element in liberal beliefs. It is not merely a coincidence that respect for natural rights happens to benefit the poor. The fact that it does so is an important part of the reason the belief is commonly held that those rights really are natural rights. That Locke clearly delineates the belief that where libertarian institutions fail to align with social justice, it is the libertarian institutions and not the commitment to social justice that Locke would eliminate. How can a man with these sets of liberal beliefs be considered libertarian by many of the leading libertarian thinkers? II. Relation to Libertarianism
If natural rights libertarianism needed to be succinctly summed up, it would most likely be the opening two sentences of Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do”.2 This declaration of libertarian beliefs expounds upon the moral dimension of rights: the existence of a right in one person suggests that all other people, acting individually or through the state, have a corresponding duty not to interfere with its...
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