Locke’s Second Treatise on Government is famously cited as providing the philosophic foundations of the liberal democratic world. Arguing against the right of of absolute monarchs, Locke says that if we imagine how we might have existed in an original state of nature, presumably after the eviction from any Garden of Eden,we would recollect our fundamental equality with each other. All busy trying to preserve themselves and their loved ones, no one would have an obvious right to rule over any other. From such a poor and thus equal position, individuals would also have known themselves as rightly free from the interference of others.
The creation of money and the subsequent accumulation of property muddies these waters. On the one hand, people are able to better secure their existence. No longer having to live hand to mouth, individuals can accumulate more property, and exchange the perishable goods they produce for a non-perishable currency that they can store and use at a later date. On the other hand, some people will be able to accrue more property than others, giving them seemingly more stakes in society and thus deserving of more power than others. Correspondingly, there will be those, either because of need or malignancy, who will seek to take what others have accrued, leading to a state of mistrust and the greater tendency to cement one’s power.
Weighing the various consequences, Locke ultimately argues that the development of money and the greater accumulation of property is a good thing. In part, this is Locke merely responding to a history that has already occurred. At the same time, however, Locke sees how the culture of property that had been developed could be used to cement individual freedom as the proper foundation of government.
Freedom, Locke argues, is as essential your survival as the food that you eat and just as you would not merely surrender the food in your house, so too you should be fierce in defending your freedom. After all, as Locke says, once you have surrendered your freedom, you will have no recourse, no means of defence, when your aggressor next chooses to take your life. Locke thus says that people are only “willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.” Our freedom is our property, for without it, our very survival is in question.
Liberal democrats that we now are, we might merely accept this as fact. However, when push comes shove, or to actual pushing we might begin to think that some philosophic trickery has been played. After all, I wouldn’t defend the apple that I hold in my hand in the same way that I would defend my life. In fact, I’d quickly give up an apple, for the sake of my life, just as I might be willing to exchange some or even a good deal of my freedom for assurances that shoving won’t turn into shooting.
Locke, however, understands our freedom as essential not only to our mere physical survival, but more importantly, to the survival of our very humanity. All of this, he understands, is in some essential way dependent on the creation of money.
The development of currency, Locke argues, is a sign of the development of our reason. Going beyond squirrels, who understand that they need to stock up on nuts to get through the winter, people create the abstract concept of money, a thing that has no practical use except insofar as we choose to assign worth to it. Unlike nuts, which eventually rot and have limited exchange value, a universally recognized currency – in sufficient quantities – represents anything that you desire.
The capacity to imagine and then create currency indicates a recognition of both the possibly infinite nature of our desire and the possibility of satisfying the same. Unlike the squirrel, whose instincts insist that he fill up on nuts while he can, humans transcend what they instinctually need and are free to imagine other, potentially better possibilities. The same cognitive developments that lead to the creation of money and the greater security of individuals’ greater physical security, also allow us to think about possibilities that transcend our mere physical existence.
Realistically, we know that, in and of itself, a state of nature reveals nothing about equality – rabbits, for instance, are never equal to nor free from the advances of a lion. Instead, it is our ability to rationally rise above, be freed as it were, from our obvious physical differences to recognize an essential equality in our natures. Locke’s work in The Second Treatise is to make the essential nature of our souls as concrete and meaningful to us as our physical bodies and the property that sustains them.
He thus describes the manner by which one accumulates property as particularly intimate, even sexual in nature, saying “Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property”(II, 5, 27j. Property is acquired when you mix something of yourself, in this instance, your labour, with the object you desire. In this way, property becomes an extension of yourself, and you should be inclined to defend and protect it with the same ferocity that you would defend your life, or more aptly perhaps, the life of your child – something else you “acquire” by mixing yourself with another. (It is no coincidence that the chapter on the limits of parental power comes immediately after the chapter on property.)
In our property, as in our children, Locke suggests that we become external to ourselves. These things are visible and objective markers of our own natures. Yet, as Locke takes great pains to point out, however similar property and children might be, and as inclined as an overbearing parent might be to control all aspects of their children’s lives, children are not the same as property. And while this seems to contradict the strength of Locke’s argument, it actually makes his point.
In the end, Locke understands that we are free to do what we want with the things that we own, just as we are free to divest ourselves of our rights if we are so inclined. However, no rational and loving parent would ever trade their children for profit, even if that profit were the parent’s own life. In our children, we recognize our fundamental humanity, one that insists on their autonomy and freedom from tyranny, even if that tyranny is our own. In other words, in the existence of our children, we might recognize the inherent necessity of freedom to a truly happy life.
Depending on the nature of circumstances, one can still imagine trading freedom, even the freedom of one’s children, for the sake of preserving their lives. The choice, however, could never be made easily and without a real sense of wonder if what is being sacrificed is worth that which is being gained.