Monday, August 15, 2016

Quiggin on Locke: Against freedom

According to John Quiggin's 2015 article, John Locke Against Freedom, John Locke’s classical liberalism isn’t a doctrine of freedom. It’s a defense of "expropriation and enslavement."

In fine deconstructionist form, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's specific historical situation informs a reading of his works, especially the Second Treatise on Government and Letters on Toleration. Quiggin (2015) claims that it widely known that Locke justifies slavery and denies property right to indigenous people, but that these elements are peripheral to the main themes of Locke's writing, but Quiggin (2015) argues these themes are central. Quiggin (2015) reports that Locke "was intimately involved with American affairs," drafting the constitution of the Carolinas, serving on American trading boards, and, most importantly, was "a major investor in the English slave trade." Quiggin (2015) argues that an interpretation of the latter in light of his supposed advocacy of liberty as mere hypocrisy is "too charitable." Instead, Quiggin (2015) argues that the contradictions between liberty and slavery finds its way into Locke's work: they
are designed to fit his political positions both in England, where he supported resistance to the absolutist pretensions of the Catholic James II, and in America, where he was part of the slave-owning ruling class (albeit from afar).

Quiggin (2015) observes that Locke's argument for religious toleration in Letters on Toleration excludes "both Catholics and atheists"; Locke does not argue for toleration per se, but rather for tolerating only good ideas, i.e. his own. Similarly, given Locke's deep involvement in the colonization of North America and expropriation from the indigenous people, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's theory of "original acquisition" is not just a benign historical fiction but an active justification of expropriation: a property right lies not just in temporal priority, but in best economic use. Quiggin (2015) compares the idea that agriculture is a superior economic use to hunting-gathering, justifying American colonial expropriation, and Kelo v. City of New London, where superior commercial use justified the exercise of eminent domain over Ms. Kelo merely temporal priority. Locke does not stake out truly universal standards; he simply universalizes his own specific interests.

Quiggin (2015) reinterprets Locke's "oft-quoted statement": “SLAVERY is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” (Locke, 1821, book 1, ch. 1. § 1). Quiggin (2015) denies that Locke does not categorically condemn slavery; instead, Locke condemns slavery only for Englishmen, and only the "slavery" of submission to an absolute monarch. Locke approves of "the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive [emphasis original]" (Locke, 1821. book 2, ch. 4. § 24). Alexander Mosely (N.d.) describes Locke's extension of this argument to enslaved Africans as "defending, if somewhat naively, colonial slavery," but Quiggin (2015) rejects the apologia of naivete. Quiggin (2015) argues that all these positions fit a consistent pattern: rights, freedom, liberty are only for people like Locke, with his particular interests situated in his particular historical context.

(I hope soon to summarize the next two installments in Quiggin's polemic: John Locke’s Road to Serfdom and Locke’s Folly, with Quiggin's summary.)


Locke, John. 1821. Two treatises on government. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Moseley, Alexander. N.d. John Locke: Political philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Quiggen, John. 2015. John Locke against freedom. Jacobin. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

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