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CREDIT AND THE PROBLEM OF TRUST IN THE THOUGHT OF JOHN LOCKE, c. 1668–1704

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 June 2020

JON COOPER*
Affiliation:
Stanford University
*
Lane History Corner, 450 Jane Stanford Way, Bldg 200, Stanford, CA94305, USAjtcooper@stanford.edu

Abstract

This article presents a reinterpretation of John Locke's contribution to debates about the interest rate in the seventeenth century. It suggests that his argument that England should maintain the ‘natural’ rate, rather than impose a lower rate, was motivated by his theological, moral, and social conceptions of credit and its dependence on trust. In order to solve the endemic shortage of metal coin limiting the growth of monetary exchange in England, Locke stressed that the higher, ‘natural’ rate of interest would facilitate interpersonal borrowing and lending among neighbours, allowing currency to flow more freely around the country. By contrast, while he acknowledged that institutional creditors such as goldsmith-bankers could quicken the circulation of money by issuing debt instruments like bills of exchange, he saw institutional credit as a threat to the moral community. Not only did he question how people could rationally trust financiers without any epistemic apprehension of their personal probity, but he moreover doubted whether individuals accumulating so much money were likely to act trustworthily. Finally, using an otherwise unstudied dialogue about the Bank of England, this article argues Locke extended his criticisms about the threats posted by private banks to the country's nascent system of public credit.

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Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press.

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Footnotes

This article originated as an undergraduate dissertation at Cambridge. I would like to thank Craig Muldrew for supervising it, John Dunn for providing invaluable feedback, and my director of studies Paul Cavill for his support along the way. Thanks also to the Bodleian Library for kindly allowing me access to its collections, and for the anonymous referees’ helpful comments.

References

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26 See Marshall, Resistance, religion and responsibility, pp. 119, 177–80, 121–3. By 1695, Locke argued ‘Faith without Work…is not sufficient for our Justification’ – see Locke, John, The reasonableness of Christianity, ed. Higgins-Biddle, John C. (Oxford, 2000), p. 211Google Scholar. For an emerging contemporary emphasis on the utility of consumption, see Slack, Paul, The invention of improvement: information and material progress in seventeenth-century England (Oxford, 2014), pp. 130–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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41 Ibid., p. 177.

42 Ibid., p. 191.

43 Joyce Appleby argued that there had been ‘little in the Western philosophical tradition to lend support to the adoption of a market ethic which would dethrone authority and unravel the fabric of social responsibilities’, and Locke was among the first to adopt the idea of natural law as a rationale for the impersonal economic forces of the market. See her ‘Locke, liberalism and the natural law of money’, at p. 44. The argument presented here and below by contrast suggests that Locke's idea of a natural rate of interest was intended to preserve the fabric of social responsibility by encouraging neighbours to lend to one another.

44 Locke, Some of the consequences, p. 182; John Locke, Some considerations of the consequences of lowering of interest and raising the value of money, in Kelly, ed., Locke on money, ii, pp. 209–342, at p. 251, which reads ‘Borrowing Money upon Use is…the necessity of Affairs, and the Constitution of Humane Society.’

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59 Ibid., p. 216; a similar phrase appears in Locke, Some of the consequences, p. 171.

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64 The correspondence of John Locke (8 vols., Oxford, 1976–89) (Correspondence: references are to volume and letter), ii, 297.

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66 Ibid., p. 216

67 Ibid., p. 213.

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72 Locke, Two treatises, ii, 15, §171.

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74 Locke, Some considerations, p. 229.

75 Locke, Essays on the law of nature, p. 212; Locke, Two treatises, ii, 2, §14.

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85 Ibid., v, 1705. The sums were paid soon afterwards through an assignable debt instrument, as Clarke paid Locke the full sum, receiving from Codrington a bill of £40, with Codrington delaying payment of the remaining £6 8sd (Correspondence, v, 1706; Locke's journal, 8 Feb. 1694, MS Locke f. 10, fo. 218).

86 Correspondence, iv, 1701, v, 1705.

87 For Stratton, see Locke's journal in MS Locke f. 10, fos. 270–1, 3 May 1695, where Locke notes a payment ‘by oversight omitted in his account’, and his accounts in MS Locke c. 1, where p. 119 correspondingly notes a ‘memorand’ that three payments, including the £46 8sd, were ‘not taken notice of here because they belong not to this account which was closed & signed before these sums were paid which are therefore brought account & writ agn p303’; for Shaftesbury, see Correspondence, iv, 1686 and 1689, v, 1719, 1722, 1723, 1724, 1922; and MS Locke f. 10, fos. 231, 241, 280–1; for Pawling, see Correspondence, v, 1715; for another account settling see ibid., v, 1771, 1804, 1871; for the debacle with the bereaved family of Thomas, see ibid., v, 1731, 1733, 1745, 1815, 1937, 1942, 1943, 2081, 2097, 2137; and MS Locke f. 10, fo. 287.

88 Locke especially emphasized the importance of harnessing human motivation in the pursuit of justice during the 1690s. See Marshall, Resistance, religion and responsibility, pp. 319, 329–451, 453. John Locke, ‘Venditio (1695)’, in Goldie, ed., Political essays, pp. 340–3. For this aspect of Cicero's influence on Locke, see Mitsis, Philip, ‘Locke's offices’, in Miller, Jon and Inwood, Brad, eds., Hellenistic and early modern philosophy (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 4561, at p. 27CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Marshall, Resistance, religion and responsibility, pp. 303–26.

89 Locke, ‘Venditio’, pp. 340–3.

90 Locke, Some considerations, p. 213.

91 Locke, Some thoughts, §56.

92 John Locke, ‘Reputation (1678)’, in Goldie, ed., Political essays, pp. 271–2, at p. 271.

93 Ibid., p. 272. Note the similarity with Locke's statement about the monetary age in Two treatises, ii, 8, §111, which ‘corrupted Mens minds into a Mistake of true Power and Honour’.

94 Locke, ‘Reputation (1678)’, p. 272.

95 For a detailed outline of such proposals, see Wennerlind, Casualties of credit, pp. 104–21; and Horsefield, J. Keith, British monetary experiments, 1650–1710 (London, 1960)Google Scholar.

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100 Correspondence, v, 1755.

101 On 5 Oct. 1694: ‘Assignd my stock in the Bank to Mr for £255-’ (MS Locke f. 10, fos. 244–5).

102 Correspondence, v, 1811.

103 MS Locke c. 1, pp. 262–3, 368–9; Woolhouse, ‘Locke and Somerset’, p. 8. On one occasion, Locke told King ‘you need not excuse your not purchaseing of Stock, for I am not fond of it, But perfectly leave it to you to doe with it as if it were your own money…Buy or forbear as you would doe for yourself’ (Correspondence, vii, 2938).

104 Correspondence, v, 1849. For more complaints, see ibid., 1844, 1845, and 1847.

105 Ibid., vii, 3135.

106 MS Locke b. 3, fos. 31–2.

107 Ibid., fo. 31.

108 Ibid., fo. 32. Distrust for the incumbent chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Montagu, who was also involved in devising the bill for the Bank at the treasury, is expressed clearly by the College in Correspondence, v, 2154.

109 MS Locke b. 3, fos. 35–7.

110 Ibid., fo. 35v.

111 Ibid., fo. 36r.

112 Ibid., fos. 36r–v; this seems to accord with Liddell's reflection in Correspondence, v, 1811, that ‘one may perceive…powerfull Court applycations, and the glut of present immergencies’.

113 MS Locke b. 3, fo. 37r.

114 See North, Douglass C. and Weingast, Barry R., ‘Constitutions and commitment: the evolution of institutions governing public choice in seventeenth-century England’, Journal of Economic History, 49 (1989), pp. 803–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

115 For instance, in Barbon, Nicholas, A discourse of trade (London, 1690), pp. 2831Google Scholar.

116 Cranston, Locke, p. 313. Locke petitioned William III to pay this debt in 1690, though to no avail.

117 See Murphy, Anne L., ‘Demanding “credible commitment”: public reactions to the failure of the early financial revolution’, Economic History Review, 66 (2013), pp. 178–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Against North and Weingast, Murphy points out that ‘far from being viewed as a credible debtor, the English Parliament was often judged to be financially incompetent and untrustworthy; in fact no more credible than the sovereign’, p. 183.

118 Correspondence, v, 1874.

119 Seiichiro Ito has fruitfully shown that institutional credit required foundation on ‘the same moral underpinnings of trustworthiness and reputation that Muldrew identified as the essential elements supporting pre-institutional credit’. See Ito, Seiichiro, ‘The making of institutional credit in England, 1600–1688’, European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 18 (2011), pp. 487519, at p. 489CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

120 Correspondence, v, 2150.

121 Anon., A letter to a friend concerning the credit of the nation and with relation to the present Bank of England as now establish'd by act of parliament (London, 1697), p. 4Google Scholar. See also Anon., Some considerations offered against the continuance of the Bank of England (London, 1694), pp. 12Google Scholar.

122 Anon., Observations upon the constitution of the company of the Bank of England (London, 1698), p. 1Google Scholar.

123 Ibid., p. 4.

124 Carey, Daniel, ‘Locke's species: money and philosophy in the 1690s’, Annals of Science, 70 (2013), pp. 357–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Desan, Christine, Making money: coin, currency, and the coming of capitalism (Oxford, 2014), pp. 346–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Courtney Weiss Smith, A “foundation in nature”: new economic criticism and the problem of money in 1690s England’, Eighteenth Century, 53 (2012), pp. 209–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

125 Stefan Eich has recently highlighted the importance of ‘societal trust’ in Locke's approach to the recoinage, though for different reasons. See his John Locke and the politics of monetary depoliticization’, Modern Intellectual History, 17 (2020), pp. 128CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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