Locke and slavery, again

by John Q on March 9, 2019

A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles in Jacobin showing how Locke’s theory of property, on which most modern propertarianism is based, was entirely consistent with his personal involvement in American slavery and the expropriation of indigenous Americans. Historian Holly Brewer has come to Locke’s defence, pointing to more evidence about Locke’s involvement in American affairs, of which I was previously unaware. I’ve responded[1], arguing that, far from exonerating Locke, the new evidence shows that Locke was deeply enmeshed in American slavery throughout his life, yet never took a stand against it.

Brewer’s broader concern is to defend liberalism against critics who argue, pointing to Locke and the US Founding Fathers, that the whole ideology was conceived in the context of slavery. Here, I think she is making a mistake in accepting the idea of Locke, rather than the much more defensible Adam Smith as the founding theorist of liberalism.

As Jacob Levy recently observed in an excellent piece for the Niskanen Institute,

The second thing to note is that stability of existing ownership is not the same as liberal markets and commercial society. When conservative parties subvert democracy in the name of fighting redistribution or socialism, market liberals often let themselves be fooled into thinking that what’s being defended is something like the kind of capitalism they support. But ownership is not commerce. (Locke is not Smith, and Smith is the truer source of market liberalism.)

I’d take this further in a couple of directions with which Jacob (and lots of others) might not agree. First, I’d link Smith with John Stuart Mill as beginning a liberal tradition that includes not only the kind of socially progressive market liberalism represented by the Niskanen Institute, but also liberalism in the standard US sense and the socialist and democratic tradition which emerged prior to and independently from Marxism, particularly in Britain and its offshoots, including Australia.

Second, as I suggested above, it’s possible to trace a line of intellectual descent from Locke and Jefferson, through European classical liberals like Pareto to Hayek and Mises, and on to contemporary propertarianism. In this case, the early acceptance of slavery reflected the inherent flaws in propertarianism. Propertarians in this tradition have repeatedly compromised with or capitulated to fascists. In our own time, a number of propertarian writers, and most of their electoral base, have backed Trump, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. This is an intellectual and political dead end, and its failures can be traced right back to Locke.

fn1. I’m not really keen on the headline, but the convention (dating from the days of hot metal typesetting) that authors of magazine and newspaper articles don’t get to choose their headlines seems to be unshakeable.



bob mcmanus 03.09.19 at 5:05 am

You skipped Calhoun, the most admired liberal of his age.

“Liberalism” without the right to property, including those inalienable rights and privileges viewed (Bill of Rights, Declaration) as individual property makes no sense to me. It is a mere rationalization intended to protect capitalism from the expropriation by the workers. We can have this much expropriation but no more than is necessary to make markets work and workers complacent. Accumulation must be protected.

Neoliberalism is a liberalism, an extension of the conflation of property rights with human and individual rights, contending that only market capitalism can adequately protect that extension to women and minorities. Cause Stalin, I guess.

Social democracy, unless reversed and subverted, tends toward and is only a means to collective ownership and full expropriation.


John Quiggin 03.09.19 at 7:54 pm

Good point on Calhoun. I thought about including him, but I couldn’t find a good link.


Stephen 03.09.19 at 8:01 pm


I would be grateful if you could provide examples of where and when the “collective ownership and full expropriation” you recommend has been (a) attempted and (b) resulted in a state of affairs markedly improved, compared to the alternatives.

Comradely wishes



Mike-SMO 03.10.19 at 5:41 am

Mike-SMO . Nothing further from you on any of my posts.


Yan 03.11.19 at 6:12 pm

Locke is garbage not because he is a garbage human being but because he made garbage philosophical arguments that can be philosophically shown to be bad arguments. This ad hominem stuff is utterly beside the point. It is perfectly legitimate psychology, but tells us nothing about whether there’s value to reading them philosophically: yes, philosophers (always) do start from biases and create philosophical arguments to justify them. But sometimes these biased produce good arguments, and seeing why bad arguments are bad often leads to better arguments.

To my mind, the best reason to read Locke’s ridiculous argument for property is to enjoy the humor of Marx’s critique, which implicitly grants his view in order to point out that it follows that laborers, not owner, by his own argument, must be the owners of the means of production.

The problem is that, while it’s a brilliant immanent critique, it’s only immanent and not a reductio. Marx does a direct argument for why workers own their labor and the means of production, one that doesn’t rely on Locke’s failed views that there is an intrinsic natural ownership of one’s body or that labor creates property. And noting that Locke is silly and throwing him out doesn’t solve that problem.

To simply ignore the badness of his arguments by not reading him is to also ignore the lack of arguments for counterpositions or the degree to which counter views share the same flaws.

And that results in question-begging like this:

“If we reject this doctrine, where does that leave actually existing property rights? The answer is that property rights, like legally enforceable rights in general, are social institutions that may or not be consistent with concepts of justice and human rights.”

The purpose of Locke’s theory was to provide precisely a foundation for concepts like justice and human rights. If he failed, you need an alternative. You can’t operate from the implied assumption we have an adequate theory of justice or rights against which property theories are to be measured. We’ve got only got natural and contractarian theories, and they’re both garbage.


J-D 03.11.19 at 11:34 pm


The purpose of Locke’s theory was to provide precisely a foundation for concepts like justice and human rights. If he failed, you need an alternative.

I don’t know what makes you think the concept of justice needs a foundation. I’m not sure I understand what ‘foundation’ would mean in that context.


Yan 03.12.19 at 1:09 pm

J-D, I just mean we need further reasons for preferring one concept of justice over another. In this case, we need a reason for preferring a concept of justice that doesn’t treat property as a fundamental or prioritized right over concepts that do.

As a side note, I think Locke is an interesting case because despite his hard right legacy, he is a forefather of all the varieties of liberalism, and his founding intuitions live on in a variety of underlying assumptions in moderate and left liberalism.

So the (at least nominally) left need to see that his problems are their problems. They can’t dismiss him before addressing their shared failings. (The left left, in contrast avoids his problems, but fails to have a strong consistent counter foundation, a metaethics and ethics to justify its preferred theory of justice–hence the awkward recent attempt to claim late Rawls as socialist. Awkward not because he wasn’t, but because who wants him?)

To take the most obvious example, the notion that my body is my property over which I have an inalienable and total right remains a key assumption in many left leaning political issues.


J-D 03.13.19 at 9:51 am


J-D, I just mean we need further reasons for preferring one concept of justice over another.

I find that statement confusing.

To begin with, it’s not clear to me who you mean by ‘we’. Next, I’m not clear on what you mean by ‘need’: what consequences would you expect from non-fulfilment of this need? Also, when you talk about preferring one concept of justice to others, I’m not clear on what a ‘concept of justice’ would be in this context: I try to think of different examples to illustrate the meaning of the term, and come up blank.

Now, if you said that people disagree in their evaluations of what is just and what is unjust in particular cases, and that it would reduce the extent of disagreement about particular cases if there were more agreement about general principles, I would agree: but I don’t know what relationship (if any) there is between what I just wrote and what you mean.

In this case, we need a reason for preferring a concept of justice that doesn’t treat property as a fundamental or prioritized right over concepts that do.

I find that statement confusing as well. I think I understand the question ‘Should property be treated as a fundamental right?’ but I can’t tell whether you’re alluding to that question.

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