Liberty Matters

Michael Zuckert’s Comment on Eric Mack

Eric’s generous opening gesture about my comment bringing out insights “beyond his ken” may be a bit of an overstatement, but it does bring out something of a difference between many of us who approach political philosophy from within political science and those, like Eric, who do so from within the discipline of philosophy. I suppose there are many ways to describe the difference but one way is to note what Eric’s comment directly points to—readers like me are more emphatically concerned with the text of the philosophers than readers like Eric. He is directly concerned with the arguments and tends to see them in an acontextual and ahistorical manner. We tend to be concerned more with the text as text and to be attentive to the place of arguments within texts and within history. Thus in my original post I was trying to solve a puzzle about Locke’s organization and order of argument. But in doing so, I believe, some substantive points of interest emerged that do not nullify the excellent interpretation that Eric developed but give some different emphases to Locke’s property doctrine. Although the differences between us are slight I think they do mostly revolve around this difference in the way we approach philosophers like Locke.
With that preface let me make some specific responses to Eric’s comments.
1. On a relatively fine textual point: Eric observes quite correctly that the only place where Locke refers to the master-servant relation directly in chapter five is the famous “the turfs my servant has cut” passage. This was the passage that C.B. Macpherson (Possessive Individualism) referred to as merely reflecting emerging market relations in and therefore as evidence for his Marxist way of reading major texts of the 17th century.[1] One of my points was to show that Locke was not merely not taking for granted relations in his society, but that the very point of the chapter was to show how there might rightly be masters and servants. But beyond that, Locke refers once more, though not in these terms, to the master-servant relation when he speaks of the day laborer in a passage Eric too makes much of. Locke has shown us how there come to be day laborers, i.e., men who have no land and no direct access to the fruits of the land and who therefore must sell their labor. To show that they are not harmed in their rights or in their welfare is, one could plausibly say, the main point of the chapter.
2. Eric uses this example of the servant and turf to raise an interesting philosophical question: How does Locke explain the force of exchange and contract in creating rights against all comers, not just vis-à-vis the exchangers. Here Eric makes a move rather like Macpherson—he concludes that Locke is just taking for granted a relation or practice that exists in his society and has not given it any thought. Perhaps, but I wonder if the Lockean line of answer to this question would follow tracks similar to those that lead to rights against all comers for original appropriators. I do not follow that up here, but it would be an interesting argument to pursue.
3. Similarly, Eric says that it does not occur to Locke to investigate the gap between his account and current holdings. I cannot believe that this is correct. Locke’s discussion in the immediate context has the purpose of refuting Filmer’s claim that existing property relations cannot be justified on the basis of the contractarian/state of nature/original commons arguments he means to counter with his patriarchal doctrine. Only if the world is originally owned and then passed on can private ownership rightly exist, as Filmer has it. This point comes out very strongly in Filmer’s critique of Grotius on property and the law of nature. So Locke’s task is precisely to show the legitimacy of the existing relations and distribution of property—in general if not in every detail. He could not have overlooked the bearing of his argument on property holdings in his society. I actually think Eric and I agree more here than he sees, for he makes much of Locke’s poor-law proposal, which is a response to the “gap” between the very general account he gives of property in a money economy with its assumption for this purpose of a full employment economy and the realities of his and all societies.
4. Eric suggests that my claims about the class character of Lockean society is perhaps more a result of economic and political practices and policies of which Locke would not approve and which he would work to overcome. Probably correct to some degree. Nonetheless, I believe the main point still holds. First, as I suggested above, Locke is writing to legitimate the property relations of his society. These are marked by great inequality of holdings. Second, he seems to believe that the dynamic of the money economy leads to great inequality under all conditions. After all, he takes on the burden of trying to show that the situation of the day laborer is just and right. And advantageous for all. The reason I raised the class issue in the first place is that it poses a serious political problem that Locke should need to face, and it is not evident how he meets it. That problem is how to maintain the property regime that benefits all but does so unequally in the face of temptations of the disadvantaged to disrupt those relations. We enter here issues such as the distribution of political power among the population, special constitutional means to protect property, and so on. The problem Locke points to but does not seem to resolve set the agenda for much of the political thinking and action of the next century, as men like Montesquieu and Madison (and many others) grappled with it.
[1] Macpherson, C.B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford University Press, 1964).