Locke and Legitimacy

I’m ashamed to say that I’d never before read from start to finish John Locke’s First Treatise of Government. I finally got through it and learned a good bit. (I’d read the Second Treatise a number of times, of course.) It’s truly an astonishing demolition job on the crazy theory of absolute government offered by Sir Robert Filmer, a theory that has cropped up in various forms in the writings of contemporary socialists (notably G. A. Cohen). In addition to enjoying Locke’s rigorous demolition of a dangerous theory, I also gained a better understanding of the passage that is quoted by numerous socialists in support of coercive redistribution (First Treatise, Chapter 4, Section 42), which is a response to Filmer’s claim that, since God gave all the world to Adam, he (and his heirs, all eldest male sons of the eldest male sons) could deny all the rest of mankind the use of anything if they did not obey the commands (of Adam or his heirs) unconditionally. The point was not to argue for a right to redistribute from those who produce to those who don’t, but to argue that (Section 43), “tho’ God should have given Adam Private Dominion, yet that Private Dominion could give him no Sovereignty; But we have already sufficiently proved, that God gave him no Private Dominion.” The best answer to the threat of some person or group being sole owner of everything in the world (i.e., socialism) is not socialism or the welfare state, which simply creates the same problems, but what Locke and others called “property in severalty” or “several property,” which deprives any person (the sovereign) of the power to condemn to death
(through starvation) anyone who refuses obedience. Locke’s argument, which I’ve seen quoted out of context by socialists and welfre-rights advocates so often, is not an argument for socialism, but an argument against the version of socialism being advanced in his day, viz. the idea that the state (in the person of the sovereign, the king) enjoyed absolute ownership over everything in the country.

3 Responses to “Locke and Legitimacy”

  1. Tom G. Palme

    I was indeed warned by a number of faculty members at Oxford, including socialists, that G. A. Cohen is a malicious toad who would be almost sure to do what he could do to make sure that I not receive a degree there. Not only is his personal conduct atrocious (and I include his remarkable dishonesty), but I loathe him for his cavalier approach to mass murder, which he justifies as necessary to create a “non-capitalist mental space” within which Cohen and his comrades in the West could think about socialism. Cohen deserves no better treatment than any old National Socialist who yearns for the good old days of the Reich.