John Locke’s “Second Treatise,” Part II: Anthropology & Theory of Labor

The fifth chapter of the Second Treatise is arguably the most influential writing ever penned by John Locke.  Chapter 5 deals with his anthropology, along with his defense of property and labor – and how “divine workmanship” led to property and how property and labor is leading us out of the state of nature and toward civil society.  This is important to remember, Locke’s economic anthropology is labor-focused and not capital-focused (though this won’t prevent capitalists a century after Locke from utilizing Locke’s theories and we will also explore why the transition from Locke’s theory of labor blended into capitalism so smoothly historically – regardless of whether this is fair to Locke or not).  In this reading, we will examine Locke’s understanding of the human being, how Locke’s thoughts form the foundation for “economism,” and how economism becomes the basis of “progress” in the liberal tradition.

I: Locke’s Anthropology (Homo Economicus)

The basic reading of Locke’s account of humanity in Chapter 5 is that humans are not social animals, but are property/material acquiring animals.  That is, Locke presents the view of humanity that we are homo economicus, “economic men.”  According to Locke, humans are instinctively producing animals for the end of consumption.  While the focus is on acquisition to produce, we must ask ourselves to what end does production serve?  Locke answers that it is consumption for the purpose of bodily pleasure – as he says in section 31, the purpose of property, production, and consumption, is to enjoyment.

In Locke’s telling, humans are economic animals rather than social animals.  We are also, then, not political animals by nature but only take on political character in mutual compact with each other for peaceable production and consumption. This is demanded by Locke’s empiricism and implicit materialism (even though he is properly a dualist) which results from his account of action theory.  We are producing and consuming animals at heart, and we exist to acquire and consume things for the purpose of bodily pleasure.  This is a revised variation of Epicureanism, to which all liberal philosophy equally has a root in.

Furthermore, economism, for Locke, is one of the two engines that drive us out of the state of nature (the other is diffidence – but economism is motivated by diffidence so there remains confusion as to whether Locke’s dualism of economism and diffidence is what propels progress, or if it is just diffidence as a monism).  As he says, “whoever has employed so much labor about any of that kind, as to find and pursue her, has thereby removed her from the state of nature, wherein she was common, and hath begun a property.”  This is important to pick up on when reading Locke.  He suggests that, since it is natural to be economic animals in the state of nature, seeking after property under the principle of self-preservation, that this continues into the civil society as a “natural right.”  Hence, property-acquisition is not only innate to what it means to be human, but it is one of the key fundamental principles of proper political governance (as Locke even said all the way back in Chapter 1).

Locke reiterates this toward the end of Chapter 5, “This shows how much numbers of men are to be preferred to largeness of dominions; and that the increase in lands, and the right of employing of them, is the great art of government.”  Again, part of the purpose of government is the protection and regulation of the laboring and producer classes of society (which, in Locke’s account of the state of nature, is everyone).  Therefore, we can see and say that Locke’s account of humanity is one of material-acquiring beings.  This also prevents conflict if I have my property to toil, and you have your property to toil, and we have established a compact between us recognizing our own properties so we are no longer warring with each other over the “common” land which was the case in the state of nature.  Thus, we also see that Locke’s account of humanity is decisively anti-social: we are solitary and a-social beings only interested for our own material self-pleasure and gain.  We only come into contact with each other for the purpose of safety and security (again, this is the principle of diffidence).

II: Locke’s Argument for the Naturality of Private Property

Moving beyond Locke’s anthropology of economism, perhaps the most important characteristics of Locke’s writings in Chapter 5 is his defense of the naturality of private property.  For this he leans on the law of nature that he established back in Chapter 2: self-preservation.  He opens Chapter 5 by arguing that property is, in-of-itself, a means of advancing self-preservation, “Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us, that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence…[God] has given the earth to the children of men.”

Locke’s defense of the naturality of private property is two arguments simultaneously.  One is a naturalistic account of property through the law of nature and reason (self-preservation), and the other is a theological and exegetic argument which is novel and revolution (though was criticized by Anglicans and Catholics of the time on certain theological grounds).  I want to first address the latter since it is interesting and relevant to Christians, before moving forward to discuss Locke’s naturalistic account of property.

First, Locke is arguing that creation serves man.  This is Locke’s “Divine Workmanship” theory which was influenced by his Puritan upbringing.  The idea of divine labor is a theme in Calvinism, but it moves to the extreme in Locke.  As Locke says, “God…hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience.”

Locke’s reading of theological workmanship rests on his embedded Calvinism of the doctrine of double-predestination.  Unlike Catholicism and Anglicanism, the saints “persevere” and can never lose their salvation in Calvinism whereas in Catholicism and Anglicanism temptation can always get the better of man.  Thus, life is not about the re-harmonization of reason and desire so as to life a fulfilled and eudemonistic life of teleological flourishing, but it is simply about living in convenience because there is no struggle to salvation since God has elected you to salvation before the beginning of time.  There is no “struggle” implied in Locke’s account other than the toiling required in working the land.  This was, in essence, God’s plan for humanity to begin with.  But how does one know they are among the limited Elect?  Look to signs of your worldly success.

This is a theological sleight of hand by Locke.  In this, Locke denies Original Sin and the “punishment theory” of labor (in which God cursed the ground and destined man to labor by the sweat of his brow rather than living harmonious with nature in the garden).  Thus, as many readers suggest, “Locke smuggled private property into the Garden of Eden.”  As Locke himself states, “The law man was under was rather for appropriating.  God commanded, and his wants forced him to labor.  That was his property which could not be taken from him wherever he had fixed it.”  When you are counted among the elect, there is nothing you can do to “lose your salvation” per Calvinism.  As such, life is not the struggle to be in communion with the Good, True, and Beautiful (God), but about the working of land for the “best advantage of life and convenience.”  Locke’s theological-propertarian argument is this: labor of land is part of the Divine plan, and labor is the origin of property itself, thus property ownership is not only natural but also divinely sanctioned by reason itself.

Moving to Locke’s more important account of property, we return to his naturalism that is rooted in the law of nature and reason which is self-preservation.  Locke maintains that self-preservation is advanced by property, and this is tied to his philosophy of the body (hedonism).  “The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are property his.”  Here Locke argues that what you produce is yours and yours alone.  This is because you produced out of the instinctive desire of self-preservation and bodily joy that comes with consuming that which you produced.  Locke’s naturalistic defense of property is this: I own my body, the end of my body is consumption, therefore I work (workmanship), and what I produce through my work, which is the fruit of the labor of my body, is my “property.”

Furthermore, Locke argues that property extends to one’s possessions of labor (since we have established possession is natural).  “Thus, the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others; become my property.”  This is a first-come first-serve basis, but Locke sets this up as natural to the law of nature and reason.  It seems very reasonable that if I toiled or digged this land for the purpose of my own preservation, and I was the first to do so, I have a claim to this property.  I recognize that others will be out to do the same, but they will be able to move to another place to accomplish their bid for preservation through labor.  Therefore, Locke unambiguously links labor with the origin of property.  And this is all dictated and known to us through the law of nature and of reason which it is subject to: preservation.

III: Locke’s Theory of Labor

It is surprising for many to see how important labor is to Locke’s economism and that capital plays little role.  In fact, capital is the last thing to emerge from economism according to Locke, “And thus came in the use of money” he says in paragraph 47 after having described the primacy of labor to economics.  In this sense, Locke and Marx agree with the primacy of labor as being superior to capital.  Both also agree that production is the foundation of economic society.  The difference is that Marx thought Locke was naïve that producerism was not a conflict-theorem.  Marx also disagreed with Locke’s anthropology of separation.  Nevertheless, the two are very close in spirit indeed.  (Some have gone as far as to suggest that Locke actually was a proto-socialist.)

Locke states, repeatedly, that there should be limits to property acquisition and consumption, and that we should leave enough land for others – which he also uses Scripture to justify, “Thus, at the beginning, Cain might take as much ground as he could till, and make it his own land, and yet leave enough to Abel’s sheep to feed on; a few acres would serve both their possessions.”  Property acquisition should be modest and that we should not own more than we can rightly work and consume before things spoil or are destroyed, “Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.”  Thus Locke decisively comes down in favor of implied regulation.  We should only consume as much as can be enjoyed without being wasteful.

But the question immediately arise, how do we even know when enough is enough?  Locke is no idiot, and he understands that the desire to consume seems to be insatiable.  “This is certain, that in the beginning, before the desire of having more than man needed had altered the intrinsic value of things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life of man.”  So Locke admits that consumerism knows of no boundaries, but the law of self-preservation should inform us that we should not take and consume more than what is enough for myself and my posterity.  Who decides what this modest amount is?  The State and its laws will decide for us ultimately.  Again, Locke is justifying the necessity of the State as that regulative protective force in our lives as he outlined in Chapter 1.

Contrary to “libertarians” (who aren’t even libertarians to begin with) Locke is not a libertarian.  He firmly sees the implied powers of the State for regulative and protective measures, and to execute the laws of nature that we confer to it by leaving the state of nature whereby the State becomes judge, jury, and executioner instead of us, so we can go about living and working the land in peace to “to the best advantage of life and convenience.”  (This is why political theorists see Locke and “classical liberalism” as necessarily leading to social liberalism and progressivism, the internal logic is already implied in Locke’s writings.)

But we know that this isn’t the case, and people often produce more than they can consume.  Thus, Locke attempts to justify overproduction in a way that might be already familiar to us: those who produce more help to benefit the common citizenry on the whole.  “Let me add,” Locke says in section 37, “that he who appropriates land to himself by his labor, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to support of human life, produced by one acre of enclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste to the common.”  In other words, if one has the industriousness to claim other land and work it to produce surplus, we all stand to benefit from this so we should be thankful that such a person who is capable of producing far more than he himself can enjoy because he lifts up those who are not as industrious as he.  (Now you can see why capitalists utilized Locke, while at the same time you can see why some socialists also wanted to utilize (and did) him as well.)

Nevertheless, Locke’s account of labor is one of producer-focused, but we know what the end of production is: consumption.  Consumption is the enjoyment of the fruit of our labor.  But the laboring, which is the production, comes first.  This is the real distinction between “classical” and “social” liberals in political philosophy.  Classical liberalism focuses on the individual producer.  Social liberalism focuses on the individual consumer.

But to return to what I remarked about Locke and Marx agreeing about labor being the source of all value.  For man must labor his property to produce something, anything.  If man does not labor he does not produce any goods.  Without any goods he cannot trade or barter with other people.  Man’s willingness to trade his goods rests with what he is willing to accept for the time and toil of his work.  No market determines the price for Locke because Locke does not live in that world of cheap mass produced and easily consumed goods.  Labor is the source of value in Locke because labor is the source of everything.  Period.  This shouldn’t be hard for “libertarians” to understand.  If no one labors there are no goods.  The metaphysics of economic values is this: What comes first?  The product or the laboring?  The answer is obvious.

IV: The End to Which Government Serves

Embedded in Chapter 5 is Locke’s implied justification of the government.  “And that the increase of lands, and the right of employing them, is the great art of government: and that prince, who shall be so wise and godlike, as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind.”  Locke is saying that the role of government is intimately tied to the employment of labor and land for the purpose of economism.  The end to which government serves is property-based economism.  This is why the social contract comes to benefit the property owning and producing classes of society.  (Again, you can see why the capitalists utilized Locke here.)

It is also important to see how Locke sees producerism as the “honest industry of mankind.”  Therefore, the government which serves this end is also the “honest government of mankind.”  And, more importantly, the toiling labor which is the natural and honest industry of man, is what is driving us out of the state of nature and toward political societies.  Chapters 6-8, which we will examine in our next reading of Locke, is the result of labor and the compacts we arrange with each other to achieve peaceable work and consumption

Locke’s conception of the political is simultaneously revolution and conservative.  It is “conservative” by our vantage point in the 21st century because it is not an ideological or idealistic conception of politics.  Locke is a realist.  He is, in some way, a Machiavellian.  The purpose of government is not to create a heaven on earth but is to facilitate the natural industriousness of humanity.

At the same time, he is fundamentally revolutionary because Locke’s political anthropology differs radically form the previous two millennia of political theory from the Greeks, Hebrew Bible, and Christians.  Humans are not social animals living in a city which requires some degree of virtue (or excellence) in order for the good life to be achieved.  Instead, humans are a-social and solitary economic animals who only come into contact with each other in mutual recognition of self-preservation.  Government maintains a separation of individuals from each other for fear that too much contact with one another will lead to conflict and we will degenerate back into the “state of war” that Locke described in Chapter 3.

V: Conclusion

Actually reading Locke, as opposed to being told what Locke is about, is quite remarkable for first time readers.  First, Locke denies that humans are social animals.  Second, Locke argues that humans are essentially individual economic creatures out for themselves under the law of self-preservation.  Third, Locke places labor at the top of economic pyramid and capital at the bottom.  The implication is that Locke is not a capitalist.  Fourth, Locke’s theory of labor is one that is close to Marx’s conception of labor, the only main difference between Locke sees labor as non-conflictual because we are solitary by our nature (Marx sees labor as one of conflict because we are social animals).

Additionally (fifth), Locke routinely argues that we should land for others and there should be limits to production and consumption.  Sixth, at the same as he says that we should leave land for others and limit production and consumption, he also says we should not despise the truly industrious who work extra land and amass more land and production than us because their industriousness benefits us all.  And finally, Locke’s political regime is one that is simultaneously regulative and protective – if this sounds like the “liberalism” of today then you’re right and you are beginning to see why political philosophers and philosophers see no meaningful difference between “classical liberalism” and “modern liberalism” despite whatever “American Libertarians” say.

The fifth chapter of the Second Treatise is arguably Locke’s most influential bit of writing.  We can take away several major themes.  By nature, man is a solitary economic animal.  Property is natural because it is contingent to the law of nature (self-preservation).  The aim of government is the facilitate production and consumption at a reasonable (though not necessarily equal) level.  Therefore, the role of government is to “protect” the right to labor and property – this is the most fundamental principle of the commonwealth which is the growth of the social compact that humans agreed with each other with in the state of nature.  Thus, economism is what propels us out of the state of nature and into political society.  We will examine the push toward political societies in Chapters 6-8 next.

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