John Locke, philosopher of distinction - The Centre for Independent Studies
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John Locke, philosopher of distinction

On Thursday some of us commemorated the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke, the man whose ideas on philosophy and political economy are still more powerful than is commonly understood. More than anyone else, this English academic, physician, diplomat, civil servant and philosopher shaped the foundations of modernity and what some now call “Western values”‘. Locke lived in turbulent times from 1632 to 1704, through Cromwell’s republic and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 and was an outspoken champion of individual freedom and inalienable human rights. As all are born equal, the people cannot be subject to a ruler. They are the real sovereign, who should control the government’s powers through an elected parliament. The government’s main role is to protect life, liberty and property, but it has no role in controlling prices and interest rates, since they are determined by free human interaction in markets.

Locke underpinned his liberal philosophy with path-breaking reflections on human psychology and pedagogy. But he, the son of a cloth merchant in the Bristol area, also served as a high government official, crossing the bridge between practical affairs and philosophic reflection about the political turmoil of his day.

Our modern civilisation, with its intensive exchange, ceaseless innovation and sustained prosperity, rests on three pillars, which Locke identified: limited, secular government, the rule of law, and secure property rights exercised freely in markets. Locke rejected the absolutist notion of the nation as an extended family with a natural patriarch ruling by the grace of God. Instead, he said, free people create government to make better use of their “natural freedom”.

As labour and skills created the lion’s share of wealth, he argued, the people had a natural right to enjoy inviolate and natural private property rights. Owners did not have to prove anything to anyone, as long as they did not harm others. It was the foremost task of government to protect private property, so that people could trade the results of their labours and thus increase overall prosperity. Locke thus became the first noted philosopher of the emerging democratic-capitalist civilisation.

Locke distinguished between law and legislation. He maintained that governments have no authority to pass legislation that takes private property away, other than with parliamentary consent for taxes. Where legislators confiscated private property, he wrote, they acted unlawfully, and citizens were entitled to rebel.

His contention that rulers are also bound by the law was fairly revolutionary at the time. His views forced him into exile in France and Holland, sometimes even to live and publish under an assumed name. He returned home when William of Orange was placed on the British throne. His long-held ideas, when they were published in essays and pamphlets, gave philosophical depth to the Glorious Revolution and a cohesive intellectual base to constitutional, limited government and parliamentary representation. Two generations later, the American colonists drew explicitly on Locke, when they staged the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

In our times, when governments habitually confiscate private property rights and place the onus of justifying property uses on individual owners, Locke’s concepts of individual freedom and absolute property rights again begin to look revolutionary. He would have been outraged by present-day councils that take development rights of home owners away by heritage orders, or by State governments that confiscate the right of land owners to harvest the rain and the trees on their land.

Locke’s conception of private property laid the basis for the subsequent take-off into sustained economic growth, which has since gone global. We understand that the growing and often arbitrary constriction of economic freedom by governments is now again undermining our prosperity, security and liberty. In poor, repressed countries, people now increasingly embrace Locke’s concepts of property and government, normally without even knowing his name. In the affluent countries, where prosperity and material security are taken for granted, we may yet again have to rediscover his insights.

Locke saw that price controls interfere with private property rights, therefore he made a strong case against interest-rate controls. Those in Australia who fought for an end to capital controls and the deregulation of product and capital markets in the 1970s and 1980s, though probably unaware of Locke’s ideas, employed arguments developed by him nearly 300 years earlier. And those of us, who now make a case for unshackling Australian labour markets, owe Locke a debt of gratitude. He explained that people have self-ownership of their bodies, labour and skills and have an inalienable, unrestricted right to use these assets as they see fit, as long as they do not harm others.

After wars of religion had nearly destroyed the fabric of British society and pushed many European countries into abject poverty, Locke advocated religious and civic tolerance and a secular state. His, at the time controversial, advocacy of secular government soon became official policy in Britain and is now accepted around the world except in a limited number of intolerant and hence backward countries.

His writings, most of which he published late in life, initiated the great classical liberal tradition. It has inspired free people ever since to do battle with power groups and collectivists of the conservative and the socialist variety. Locke became a hero to the generation that built Britain’s constitutional monarchy after the Glorious Revolution, and later inspired the thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment, among them David Hume and Adam Smith. Soon, his ideas were made popular in France by Voltaire and Montesquieu and in Germany by Immanuel Kant and Alexander von Humboldt. Two generations after his death, his ideas were expressed in the French human rights declaration of 1789 that stipulated liberte{aac}, e{aac}galite{aac}, proprie{aac}te{aac} (the collectivist-socialist notion of fraternite{aac} came a little later when the radicals hijacked the French revolution). At the same time, the Americans took his concepts straight into the Declaration of Independence and the amendments to the US Constitution, including the division of the powers of government, the freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. In our day, the core elements of Locke’s classical liberal thought equality before the law, constitutional, small government, and free markets built on secure property are embraced by young third-world observers, who understand that human creativity requires individual freedom, secure property rights and democracy.

Rarely, if ever, has a single mind had such a pervasive influence on how people think about the economy, society and government.