Exploring Locke’s Legacy: Government, Property, and the Capitalistic Vision

In our Humanities class at Thales College this semester, we have just finished reading and discussing John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, that text so influential, I believe, for both good and bad, upon American understanding of constitutional government and liberty. Locke says that the chief end of government is the preservation and protection of property, under which term he includes a person’s life and his liberty to dispose of himself and his own as he pleases, within the bounds of statutory law. What distinguishes property from the common goods of nature is labor, that is, the mingling of my planning and my effort with those goods so that they become proper to me, indeed an extension of myself. The apples growing on a tree in the woods belong equally to all, but once I climb the tree to pick one, I have taken it from the common stock and made it my own, proper to myself.

Before the invention of money, I am bound by reason to claim only so much of these common goods as I can use before they spoil, so that my right to property is limited. But once money comes into play, there is no limit to what I can own, says Locke, seeing that the world more than suffices for the basic needs of all mankind. I convert goods, whether natural or manufactured, or a combination of the two, into those never-decaying units of currency so as to be able to purchase what I like, when, and where I desire.

Thus, is government a protector against depredation and a promoter of the acquisition of wealth. It has no other moral, social, or cultural aim; its genesis is human and pragmatic, not divine, and thus beyond the needs of the day. It is, in Locke’s vision, capitalistic, in the service of the burgeoning mercantile empire that Great Britain was about to become.

There is, of course, much to be said in favor of that mercantile empire and in favor of the son that would exceed its father in both regards, the United States. All the world, says Locke, is an America before the advent of settled laws and constituted legislatures, and, of course, some permanent and reliable means of exchange. Once you have those in place, then an acre of land that had been untilled and undeveloped can yield, quite literally, a hundred times as much food as before, and this yield is a boon to mankind, increasing our stock of goods. We can say the same thing about the ores and the fuels that lie in and under the earth, or the woods of the forests, or the bounty of the sea. You can have the concrete and the steel to throw a bridge across the Mississippi for thousands of people to cross in an hour and many tons of goods, when before you were limited to a few men in a kayak and what they could tote on their backs. Explorers, pioneers, and merchants were thus often the same kinds of people, and they made the world more abundant by their efforts.

Of course, among many in our time, to call something capitalistic is not to describe it but to accuse it. Man should be about more than amassing wealth, and, it is all too easily said, raping the earth to do it. Yet I find that those who criticize capitalism are like a sullen and disgruntled twin brother, envious of what the other has accomplished but taking it for granted anyway, and, though coloring them in a livid yellow-green, looking upon the same things from the same perspective. And that is what came out in our class’s free-wheeling discussion.

Let me explain. If you ask whether government and law have roles that are morally instructive, socially unitive, and cultural in the highest sense, that is, oriented toward a people’s common worship of the divine, you have departed from Locke entirely. So did the students see. Not that I can blame Locke entirely for his truncated vision of government and law, since he could hardly imagine a populace that had ceased to be a people, with the connivance of government to pervert their moral instruction, disrupt their social union, and blunt or crush their culture. I myself can hardly imagine it; I am compelled to look around me and notice it. But who can conceive of a genuine and potent opposition to it?

Certainly not those on the left who parade their opposition to capitalism. All I have to do to show that they are fellow travelers with the very people they pretend to oppose is to alter the terms of Locke’s dictum, thus. The chief end of government is the protection and preservation of property, that is, of all that I do sexually that defines me as a person, and that is supposed to broaden the liberty of all. For all the world was a vast gray police state, wherein human possibilities lay fallow and undeveloped. But once the currency of sexual identity had been established, a single person could conceive of and execute as many perversions as it had taken a hundred people to do before. And since such liberty is by its nature suspicious of marriage and of childbearing, and since it thus exposes the individual to all the dangers of living alone or in the tiny and friable cells that once were vibrant families, the government, precisely to protect that fundamental sexual property, must act as nursemaid from the cradle to the grave.

The government that Locke had in mind got things done. That cannot be denied. It said, “You may take your nitroglycerin and blow a tunnel through that mountain. I will make sure you can keep whatever you gain by it.” And everyone did gain by it. Because of it and things like it, I can eat an orange in February in New Hampshire. Because of it and things like it, I do not need to heat my house by chopping down the trees in the woods nearby until there are no more woods at all. If Locke’s was a truncated vision of government sprung from a truncated anthropology, what it truncated was the higher region of the soul, not somebody’s arms or legs or even brains.

But government of the new sort truncates those arms and legs and brains. It gets nothing done. It is a bottle of milk with a rubber teat. We say, “Please, O thou great and good government, give us a bottle to suck on so we can play with ourselves, because that is the whole duty of man.” And our governors are willing to go along. Divide and suckle.

It stands to reason, therefore, that any movement to elevate an infantile populace and once more make them into a people will be regarded as a threat to the very properties and persons of those who define themselves by their sexual desires, expressions, imaginations, and actions. Locke says that you may legitimately kill someone on the highway who threatens to rob you, because any man who would take your purse will not scruple to take your life as well. The attack is an implicit declaration of war, and the thief has thereby set himself outside of human society as a wild and noxious beast. In our time, he who would by law, custom, or religious ordinance deny or condemn or even but criticize your sexual property is viewed in the same way, or worse, as desiring that you should not exist and therefore as fair game for all kinds of civil and social penalties. It is irrational, sure, to equate “John should not do such and such things sexually” with “There should be no such person as John,” but in a fragmented and amnesiac society such as ours, if it can be called a society, the sexual is the last refuge of selfhood.

Imagine a miser, antisocial, without connections to the distant past or to the future, without a culture, without that sense of the divine that alone suffices to bring people together and to elevate them beyond the troubles of the common day, huddling over the strongbox he has smuggled under a trap door beneath his bed, petting the coins and the jewels in it, loving even copper for its smell, and suspicious of any footstep along the road beyond his greasy window; hating with a vindictive passion anybody who would dare to say, though it were in the gentlest tone, “Dear sir, what you are doing is not natural, not healthy for you or for anyone else whom you serve as an example,” hating them, and therefore believing that they cannot possibly be motivated by anything other than hate; and desiring to shut their mouths for good. There you have the sexual capitalist of our time.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: John Locke (1632 – 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism".Vintage engraving circa late 19th century.