The Locke-Box

Over at Power Line, Steve Hayward asks “Are We Trapped in a Locke-box?” It is an interesting question, and the answer is quite straightforward: many are trapped in a John Locke-box when it comes to understanding our founding. There is good news though for those who are trapped: there is an easy escape. Simply going to a dictionary can set them in the right direction, and even take them most of the way out.

As it happens, I used the same image, the image of a Locke-box, in an article here at American Greatness

[T]he founders were declaring to the world they had broken out of the Locke-box. In our time, there is a steady stream of books and articles by conservatives trying to stuff them back in.

That effort to stuff the founders into the Locke-box has one big pay-off for those trying to do the stuffing: that steady stream of books and articles. There is a problem though. One reason the stream is unceasing is that into that box, the founders will not go. 

That the founders cannot be made to fit into the Locke-box is simple to demonstrate. As you know, they used the term “unalienable” constantly, and every time they did, they were declaring they were not Lockeans. In fact, they were proclaiming they were un-Lockeans, that it was Locke specifically they had left behind. 

The definition of one word makes that clear. All anyone needs to do to find the way out of the Locke-box trap is to look up the word “alienable.” It is a word with an unusually precise definition, one that is unchanged from the founders’ day until our own. Here is how it is defined in my dictionary: “adj. Law. Capable of being transferred to the ownership of another” (emphasis mine). That is the complete definition in my dictionary. 

“Alienable,” in other words, is a term used in reference to our right to the property that belongs to us, not our abstract “right to property” but to actual property. Our right to our property is an alienable right because we can transfer it. It is because our right to our property is alienable that we can sell, exchange, and bequeath it. If I sell or give you my car, I have transferred the ownership of the car to you. You then become the rightful owner of that car, and, because your right to the car is also alienable, you may sell or give it to another. 

Those who are trapped in the Locke-box make much of the fact that the Declaration borrowed “life and liberty” from Locke—but in fact, Jefferson deftly used “life and liberty” to declare that the founders were un-Lockeans. Putting Locke’s “life and liberty” list and the Declaration’s “life and liberty” list side-by-side will make this clear:

“Man . . . hath by nature a power . . . to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty and estate.” 

“Men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, . . . among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Locke declared that our rights to life and to liberty are property. The Declaration declared that our rights to life and to liberty are among our unalienable rights. And to declare that those rights are unalienable is to declare that they are not property, making it perfectly clear that the founders were declaring they had left Locke’s thinking behind. 

The term “unalienable rights” occupies a commanding position in the vocabulary of the founders; it is missing from Locke’s vocabulary. There is nothing mysterious about that; the Declaration of Independence is not an expression of John Locke’s political philosophy. 

In contrast to the founders, the idea of property occupies the commanding position in Locke’s thinking. As Leo Strauss wrote in Natural Right and History, “Locke’s doctrine of property . . . is almost literally the central part of his political teaching.” And not only his political teaching. Here is Locke in his Two Treatises of Government:

 . . . the preservation of Property being the end of Government, and that for which Men enter into Society . . .

Note that for Locke, it is not just politics and government that are all about property, but society itself.  Yet the Declaration’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” does not give property the primacy Locke assigns it.

Locke even puts property front and center in his thinking on religion, too. Here he is in the Second Treatise of Government:

For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order, and about His business—they are His property.

Christ has a different idea about our relationship to our creator. He taught that prayer should be addressed to “our Father” and not to “our Owner.” 

For Locke, it is property all the way down. The idea of property explains our relation to the creator, to society, to government, and to our rights. But property is not the be-all and end-all for the founders. They made that perfectly clear every time they wrote or spoke about our unalienable rights.

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