Enclosing in God's Name, Accumulating for Mankind: Money, Morality, and Accumulation in John Locke's Theory of Property
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 February 2011
John Locke's theory of property has been the subject of sustained contention between two major perspectives: a socioeconomic perspective, which conceives Locke's thought as an expression of the rising bourgeois sensibility and a defense of the nascent capitalist relations, and a theological perspective, which prioritizes his moral worldview grounded in the Christian natural law tradition. This essay argues that a closer analysis of Locke's theory of money in the Second Treatise can provide an alternative to this binary. It maintains that the notion of money comprises a conceptual area of indeterminacy in which the theological universals of the natural law and the historical fact of capital accumulation shade into each other. More specifically, the ambiguity of the status of money enables Locke to navigate an antinomy within the natural law such that he establishes a relation of necessity between the divine telos and accumulative practices.
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1 This interpretation flows from the sociological-economic perspective on Locke opened up by C. B. Macpherson in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. However, the construal of Locke as a distinctively bourgeois thinker finds an earlier articulation in the esoteric-hermeneutic mode of reading pioneered by Leo Strauss in his Natural Right and History, which reconstructs from Locke's writings a modern, robust, and singularly liberal philosophical edifice of natural rights. Despite their divergences on method and philosophical orientation, the two interpretations concur on the decisively modern, liberal, and bourgeois character of Locke's thought. For the socioeconomic perspective on Locke, see Macpherson, C. B., “Locke on Capitalist Appropriation,” Western Political Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1951): 550–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962)Google Scholar; Hundert, E. J., “The Making of Homo Faber: John Locke between Ideology and History,” Journal of the History of Ideas 33, no. 1 (1972): 3–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Appleby, Joyce O., Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978)Google Scholar and Liberalism and Republicanism in Historical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Vaughn, Karen I., John Locke, Economist and Social Scientist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and “The Economic Background to Locke's Two Treatises of Government,” in John Locke's “Two Treatises of Government”: New Interpretations, ed. Harpham, Edward J. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992)Google Scholar; Wood, Neal, The Politics of Locke's Philosophy: A Social Study of “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)Google Scholar and John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)Google Scholar. For the Straussian school, see Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953)Google Scholar; Pangle, Thomas L., The Spirit of Modern Republicanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Zuckert, Michael P., Natural Rights and the New Republicanism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)Google Scholar and Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002)Google Scholar; Myers, Peter C., Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for Political Rationality (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998)Google Scholar.
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4 The methodological implication of this argument is that the peculiar connection between the natural law and accumulation can only be grasped by focusing on the structural composition of the chapter on property (and of the Second Treatise in general). This approach is paralleled and necessitated by the manner of Locke's own theorization, which manages to derive the necessity of accumulation from a holistic narrative rendering of the natural law, without assigning it to any single natural law precept that enters the composition of the narrative.
5 The term “Cambridge school” refers to the group of scholars, including Peter Laslett, John Dunn, James Tully, and Richard Ashcraft, whose work coheres to form a historicist diatribe against the interpretations of Locke generated by Macpherson and Strauss. I borrow the term from Zuckert, Michael P., “Appropriation and Understanding in the History of Political Philosophy: On Quentin Skinner's Method,” Interpretation 13 (1985): 403–24Google Scholar.
6 The complicated connection between Christian theology based on biblical teaching and revelation, and the notion of natural law as an immanent framework of order and morality accessible to unassisted human reason, has been the subject of meticulous inquiry. Strauss, for instance, draws attention to the incompatibility between biblical teaching and Locke's endeavor to elaborate a capacious law of nature demonstrable by reason alone, which he argues has led Locke to conclude (yet obfuscate through religious language) that such law was not law in the proper sense of the term but a self-standing framework of natural rights (Natural Right and History, 202–22). Taking his cue from Strauss's reading, Zuckert holds that Locke's thought harbors an ambiguity vis-à-vis biblical teaching such that Locke advances by way of crafting a “natural theology” and supporting it with biblical exegesis when appropriate. Locke proposes his own transcendent natural law instead of the Christian-Aristotelian immanent natural law, and later blurs the difference between reason and revelation to the point of undermining this transcendent framework (Natural Rights, 253, 258–62; Launching Liberalism, 5, 14–15, 187–90). While Myers follows Zuckert's transcendent-theocentric natural law argument (Our Only Star, esp. chap. 2), Pangle maintains that the internal moral contradictions of the biblical teaching render its authority on Locke's thought conditional upon its compatibility with the “supreme authority of the ‘Law of Nature, which is the Law of Reason,’” and this process of filtering culminates in a new, “reasonable” Christian theology (Modern Republicanism, 145, 149–51). In a more recent analysis, Steven Forde identifies a bifurcated legacy ensuing from the disjuncture between theological explication and the theory of natural law in Locke's writings. While acknowledging the “theological underpinnings” of the natural law, Forde concludes that Locke's inability to fully develop his philosophy of natural theology prompted him to present his political theory mostly shorn of its theological supports (“Natural Law, Theology, and Morality in Locke,” American Journal of Political Science 45, no. 2 : 396–409CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Finally, Waldron conjectures that Locke's deployment of natural law as the basis of morality cannot be completely divorced from theology (at least a natural theology) and needs to be supplemented by biblical elements in order to cohere (God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 94–106Google Scholar).
7 Yolton, John, Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 195Google Scholar.
8 I retain Locke's gender denomination throughout the essay.
9 The Two Treatises are cited by treatise and section number, using the following edition of the text: Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government: A Critical Edition with an Introduction and Apparatus Criticus, ed. Laslett, Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960)Google Scholar.
10 The terms “sufficiency limitation” and “spoilage limitation” were first coined by Macpherson.
11 Macpherson, Possessive Individualism, 197, 204. For a detailed account of the removal of limits, see 204–20.
12 Reservations about viewing this question through Marxist class analysis notwithstanding, Strauss, Pangle, and Zuckert concur with this line of conjecture. See Strauss, Natural Right and History, 246 and especially 234n, where he states his explicit agreement with Macpherson's (1951) reading of Locke's theory of property; Pangle, Modern Republicanism, 167–69; Zuckert, Natural Rights, 268, and Launching Liberalism, 192.
13 Macpherson, Possessive Individualism, 210.
14 Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 60.
15 Vaughn, “Economic Background,” 125, 134.
17 Vaughn, “Economic Background,” 138; Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 80; Kelly, Patrick H., “General Introduction: Locke on Money,” in Locke on Money, ed. Kelly, Patrick H. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)Google Scholar, 1:3.
18 Wood, Agrarian Capitalism, esp. chaps. 3 and 4.
19 Caffentzis, George, Clipped Coins, Abused Words, and Civil Government: John Locke's Philosophy of Money (New York: Autonomedia, 1989), 118–19Google Scholar.
20 Macpherson, Possessive Individualism, 213; Vaughn, “Economic Background,” 135.
21 Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 89.
22 Lebovics, “Uses of America,” 580.
23 Dunn, Political Thought; James Tully, A Discourse on Property, and “After the Macpherson Thesis,” in An Approach to Political Philosophy, chap. 2; Ashcraft, Richard, “Faith and Knowledge in Locke's Philosophy,” in John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, ed. Yolton, John (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969)Google Scholar; Kramer, Origins of Private Property. Also see Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality, chap. 6.
24 Ashcraft, Locke's “Two Treatises,” 139, 141, and Revolutionary Politics, 274–77.
25 Ashcraft, Locke's “Two Treatises,” 50, 53–54, and “Politics of Locke's Two Treatises,” 32; also see Kramer, Origins of Private Property, 192. The same point has been reiterated more recently in Parker, Biblical Politics, 137.
26 Tully, A Discourse on Property, 150. The earliest articulation of this contention can be found in Dunn, Political Thought, 117–19, 247–48. Also see Ashcraft, Locke's “Two Treatises,” 144–45; McClure, Judging Rights, 157–60, 180–81. For a psychoanalytic interpretation of the problems that ensue from the introduction of money, see Carol Pech, “His Nuts for a Piece of Metal: Fetishism in the Monetary Writings of John Locke,” in Feminist Interpretations of John Locke, ed. Nancy J. Hirschmann and Kirstie M. McClure (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press), 269–95.
27 Tully, A Discourse on Property, 148.
28 Ibid., 151–54. For a more bivalent interpretation of the “desire to have more than one needs,” see Kelly, “General Introduction,” 95.
29 Laslett, introduction to Two Treatises, 105. Also see Parker, Biblical Politics, chap. 1.
30 Wood, Agrarian Capitalism, 74.
31 Ashcraft, “Politics,” 19.
32 Ashcraft, Locke's “Two Treatises,” 38.
33 For further discussion of the teleological aspect of Locke's philosophy, see Waldron, Private Property, 141–46, and God, Locke, and Equality, 159–63; Ashcraft, Locke's “Two Treatises,” 38, 50, 135, and “Politics,” 19–25.
34 For similar passages see I. 41, 87, 88, and II. 6, 7, 16, 25, 26, 36, 37, 43, 44, 87, 171.
35 Pangle perceives in the penury of man's natural condition and the drudgery of labor the signs of a “grotesquely unjust” and “tyrannically cruel” God (Modern Republicanism, 145). Zuckert elaborates a less extreme version of the disjuncture between labor as an instrumental activity and its biblical rendering as a moral dictate from God (Natural Rights, 262–63). Although Waldron's initial interpretation of labor follows a similar instrumentalist perspective (Private Property, 147), his later work adopts a more providentialist position and rejects the idea of an indifferent God (God, Locke, Equality, 96, 158).
36 Waldron, God, Locke, Equality, 160. On the morality of labor, also see Ashcraft, “Politics,” 32; Tully, A Discourse on Property, 116–21; Hundert, “Homo Faber,” 5; Parker, Biblical Politics, 136.
37 Ashcraft, Locke's “Two Treatises,” 134. The labor theory of appropriation is articulated in sections 27–36 in the Second Treatise.
38 The contrast between common waste and improved private property is developed in II. 36–37, 41–45. On the binary of waste and improvement, see Strauss, Natural Right and History, 243–44; Ashcraft, “Politics,” 37–38; Pangle, Modern Republicanism, 163–65; Waldron, Private Property, 169–70, 221–22.
39 This is not to imply that the material progress and comfortable (as opposed to bare) subsistence that Strauss attributes to the “pursuit of happiness” are in fact the unintended consequence of an ascetic work ethic, as has been held by Weberian explanations (Natural Right and History, 235–36). Rather, it is vital for Locke's overall thesis that a utilitarian practical orientation and the fulfillment of moral obligations reveal themselves at every turn to be identical. This identity opens up the possibility of a reading of Locke's theory of property beyond a minimalist conception of moral obligations.
40 As a result, the “enough and as good” proviso is satisfied by the increase in the amount of available land, and where this is not possible, by the increase in the amount of available provisions, prior to the invention of money. Dispossession does not violate the “enough and as good” proviso insofar as the dispossessed is offered the opportunity to labor for a living wage. For a brief and cogent account of the way in which the spoilage limitation supplants the “enough and as good” limitation by way of subsistence, increased common stock, welfare, and charity, see Zuckert, Natural Rights, 255, 266–71; Forde, “Natural Law,” 401.
41 Despite its exclusion of teleology, Strauss's observation regarding the centrality of “conveniences” to Locke's theory of property remains more compelling than Ashcraft's account, which downplays the significance of all property beyond subsistence (Strauss, Natural Right, 238; Ashcraft, “Politics,” 32, and Locke's “Two Treatises,” 139). The element of historical teleology, while reduced to a secular-materialist Whiggish skeleton, also finds its place in Pangle's interpretation of Locke's theory of property (Pangle, Modern Republicanism, 165).
42 Hundert notes that Locke was cognizant of the complex systems of barter and symbolic exchange among the natives of America, yet disqualified them as a proper solution to the spoilage limitation (Hundert, “Homo Faber,” 573–74).
43 Strauss, Natural Right and History, 237.
44 Ashcraft, “Politics,” 38.
45 For a detailed discussion of the relation of money to spoilage limitation, see Waldron, Private Property, 207–8, and God, Locke, Equality, 170–71.
46 Tully, A Discourse on Property, 150.
47 On money's centrality to unleashing the productive, transformative, and edifying powers of labor, and to introducing an element of future-orientation in acquisitive behavior, see Strauss, Natural Right and History, 240–49; Pangle, Modern Republicanism, 163–66; Zuckert, Natural Rights, 268–69. On Locke's ideas on “hand-to-mouth existence,” as emblematized by the seventeenth-century English poor, see Appleby, Economic Thought and Ideology, 83, and Hundert, “Homo Faber,” 19–20.
48 Locke's comparison of uncultivated land in America to its cultivated counterpart in England on the basis of the “profit” it would yield “if it were to be valued and sold” (II. 43) is a suggestive expression of this acquisitive outlook.
49 In this respect I find Ashcraft's assertion “Money, that is, is useful in the context of trade, and trade, Locke believes—not ‘unlimited appropriation’—is beneficial to everyone” to be incomplete (Ashcraft, “Politics,” 38–39). Ashcraft's criticism of Macpherson is justified only insofar as “unlimited appropriation” is taken in the narrow sense of individual wealth, whereas I think the stakes in Locke's theory are far larger than “possessive individualism” and accumulation of individual fortune. What is articulated here is indeed “unlimited accumulation” but at the global level whose scale is “mankind,” or, to use Caffentzis's phrase, a theory of “possessive universalism” (Caffentzis, Clipped Coins, 118–19). Also evocative is Pangle's expression “dynamic individualism,” which underlies the “goal of unlimited accumulation of exchangeable value … in a society suffused with the Lockean spirit” (Pangle, Modern Republicanism, 168–69).
50 From this perspective, such capitalist relations on land as large enclosures and agricultural improvement that Locke endorsed in seventeenth-century England are part and parcel of the theological parameters of his theory of property. For the agrarian capitalist tenets of Locke's thought and his historical involvement with the “Baconian improvers,” see Wood, Agrarian Capitalism, chapters 2 and 3; Kelly, “General Introduction,” 100. For a more textual extrapolation of the Baconian influence in Locke's thought, see Pangle, Modern Republicanism, 166; Zuckert, Natural Rights, 203.
51 What Locke inaugurates here is nothing short of a magnificent reversal of the conventional terms governing the reception and understanding of property relations and social justice. Locke renders “the private” the door opening onto “the common good,” or in Zuckert's words, “by taking, he gives” (Natural Rights, 269–70). Particularization of the common becomes the precondition for universal prosperity; dispossession paves the road to welfare (as in the case of the day laborer), while persistence in holding things in common (as do the Indians) appears as virtual theft from the prospective wealth of mankind.
52 Most importantly, the much-debated right to charity espoused in the First Treatise (I. 42) remains in force, and it operates even more efficiently since there is now a larger common stock from which to dispense charity. The issue of charity in Locke has been a major node of contention, particularly inasmuch as it has been made into a bulwark against unlimited accumulation (see, for example, Tully, A Discourse on Property, esp. chap. 6). While it is the case that for Locke charity is an enforceable right that gives the destitute a minimal entitlement to others' economic surplus, this right circumscribes accumulation only insofar as one conceives of the economy as a “zero-sum game” whereby one's gain is another's loss. However, it has been consistently argued throughout this paper that a “positive-sum game” qua increased common stock is a fundamental premise of Locke's theory of property. Consequently, charity as a right to surplus under conditions of extreme want, especially when prequalified with work obligations, is quite compatible with Locke's accumulative worldview. This position can be most readily gleaned from Locke's, “An Essay on the Poor Law,” in Locke: Political Essays, ed. Goldie, Mark (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar. For a comprehensive articulation of the idea of charity as an enforceable right, see Simmons, John, The Lockean Theory of Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992)Google Scholar, esp. 307–54. For a similar argument, see Waldron, God, Locke, Equality, 170–87. For an account of Locke's vision of political economy as a positive-sum game based on labor, efficiency, and commerce, see Pincus, Steven, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, chap. 12.
53 Ashcraft, Locke's “Two Treatises,” 139; “Politics,” 30; Tully, A Discourse on Property, 147. Also see Parker, Biblical Politics, 136–37; McClure, Judging Rights, 171.
54 Macpherson, Possessive Individualism, 210; Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism, 60; Vaughn, “The Economic Background,” 125, 134.
55 Caffentzis deserves credit for recognizing the exclusion of money from both the natural law and the social contract. However, he concludes by subsuming money under “philosophical law” or “the law of fashion,” which misses its theological significance by reducing its use to a matter of habit. See Caffentzis, Clipped Coins, 68, 144–50. Similarly, Howard Schweber makes a promising move by recognizing the “ambiguous developmental space” in which the invention of money occurs but immediately reduces it to an “example of customary law in action” (Schweber, “From Nature to Convention: The Political Implications of Locke's Theories of Law and Language” [paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, April 2009], 23).
56 A decade later, Locke reiterates this point all the more clearly in his famous economic tract Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money: “For Mankind, having consented to put an imaginary Value upon Gold and Silver … have made them by general consent the common Pledges” (Locke, Some Considerations, in Locke on Money, ed. Kelly, 1:233). This suggests that the assumption of universality espoused earlier in the Second Treatise is neither accidental nor temporary.
57 Lebovics notes that Locke “understood that Wampompeke was used in ceremonial situations not primarily as a means of commercial exchange (‘common Money’) in the sense that coins of precious metals were in Europe” (Lebovics, “Uses of America,” 578).
58 Kelly tries to resolve this conundrum by construing the term “universal” as “analogous to its use in the term ‘universal truth,’ i.e., everyone on having the advantages of gold and silver as the medium of exchange explained to him, necessarily consents to their adoption” (“General Introduction,” 88). This interpretation fails to explain how the status of a consensual practice can be akin to “universal truth” unless it is already inscribed in the natural order of human reality, which redirects one to the domain of the natural law.
59 The position of consent in Locke's political philosophy, and in particular the relationship between express and tacit consent, has been a controversial subject. A major point of contention is whether the notion of consent encompasses a broad array of voluntary acquiescence, as Dunn maintains, or denotes a much more clearly delimited domain of informed and intentional acts, an argument forwarded by John Simmons. A comprehensive review of the relevant literature here, let alone a conclusive treatment of the matter, surpasses the scope of this essay. However, I would like to mention briefly the inadequacy of the views presented above with respect to the analysis of money. While Simmons's examination of the express and tacit forms of consent is to my knowledge the most meticulous one, it principally concerns itself with their political dimension, and the invention of money as a prepolitical act of tacit consent (and a very peculiar one at that) falls outside its purview. In contrast, while Dunn's discussion is more expansive, his stretched conception of consent lacks the analytic acuity necessary to analyze the “universal tacit consent” to money. These points merely underscore that the question of money could provide a fresh avenue of thinking about Locke's theory of consent. See Dunn, John, “Consent in the Political Theory of John Locke,” in Political Obligation in Its Historical Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, chap. 3; Simmons, John, “‘Denisons’ and ‘Aliens’: Locke's Problem of Political Consent,” Social Theory and Practice 24, no. 2 (1998): 161–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and On the Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent, and the Limits of Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)Google Scholar.
60 One could argue that inheritance of property partakes in the same conceptual ambiguity. However, inheritance is directly traceable to the “strong desire of propagating their kind … and continuing themselves in posterity” that “God planted in men” (which qualifies inheritance as an innate right: II. 56, 88, 190), and can be more broadly subsumed under the natural law obligation to preserve mankind (I. 41, 86). What renders money peculiar in comparison is that it lacks a parallel recourse to a natural framework of rights and obligations while having the normative-obligatory efficacy of this framework.
61 Formation of commonwealths, while remedying the “inconveniences” (inequality, contention, and quarrel) ushered in by the invention of money, opens to question the universalistic tendencies of accumulation extrapolated from Locke's theory. In a recently published article, Alex Tuckness interrogates the limits of Lockean altruism and concludes that governments are empowered to act to preserve mankind only if such actions do not impair their own citizens' interests. Nevertheless, Tuckness distinguishes between the national objectives of specific governments and the objectives of government as such, contending “that a government limited to pursuing the preservation of its own members was furthering, not hindering, the preservation of all mankind” (Tuckness, Alex, “Punishment, Property, and the Limits of Altruism: Locke's International Asymmetry,” American Political Science Review 102, no. 4 : 472CrossRefGoogle Scholar). From this perspective, it is possible to conceive of Locke's notion of commonwealth mainly as a contrivance devised to make mankind better off, first and foremost by securing the conditions of investment, innovation, and accumulation. The degree to which these conditions are maintained and improved becomes the universal criterion for judging the performance of specific governments. Therefore, although I concur with Tuckness's observation that the role Locke tailored for government was the promotion of “economic growth,” I disagree with his conclusion that economic growth was exclusively geared to buttress national security. As Pincus demonstrates, the secular welfare of citizens and subjects was a self-standing concern of the Whig political vision (Pincus, 1688, 369, 372, 396–97).
62 Zuckert, Natural Rights, 279–87, and Launching Liberalism, 195–97; Waldron, God, Locke, Equality, 75; McClure, Judging Rights, 176.
63 One exception is Caffentzis (Clipped Coins, 70–1).
64 There is a striking, if mainly heuristic, resemblance between Locke's statement on the condition of the English working poor, “For the Labourer's share, being seldom more than a bare subsistence, never allows that Body of Men time or opportunity to raise their Thoughts above that, or struggle with the Richer for theirs” (Some Considerations, 290–91) and Zuckert's explication of Locke's theory of the person, “Abstracting lifts the mind out of the given flow of sensation and allows it to stand in semisovereign sway over its own contents” (Zuckert, Natural Rights, 283; cf. Waldron, God, Locke, Equality, 75; Caffentzis, Clipped Coins, 70–71; and McClure, Judging Rights, 176).