John Locke’s Road to Serfdom

John Locke advocated for a world based on expropriation, enslavement, and serfdom.

A few months back, I looked at the reasons why John Locke, often regarded as the founder of classical liberalism, advocated, and personally benefitted from, chattel slavery in the American colonies. I argued that this was not a matter of personal hypocrisy: rather, Locke’s entire theoretical position constitutes a justification for the expropriation of Native Americans and the enslavement of black Africans.

The contrast between Locke’s reputation as an advocate of freedom for Englishmen and his support for the enslavement and expropriation of Africans and Native Americans has caused some to label him a racist.

But Locke was more than a simple bigot. Not content with advocating slavery for blacks, Locke proposed the reintroduction of a form of serfdom for white workers.

As the example of slavery shows, there is a striking incongruity between Locke’s position in English politics, where he was aligned with the radical dissenting section of the upper middle class, and that in America, where he supported, and aspired to join, the Southern aristocracy. The same contrast emerges in Locke’s discussion of the relationship between masters and servants.

In the late seventeenth century, when Locke wrote, the term “servant” encompassed everyone who worked for wages, typically under the direct control of their masters. Locke only mentions “servants” a couple of times in the Treatise. The first is in the English context, where Locke describes the standard conditions of service but is at pains to distinguish it from slavery, noting the limits on the power of masters and the finitude of servants’ contracts:

Master and servant are names as old as history, but given to those of far different condition; for a freeman makes himself a servant to another, by selling him, for a certain time, the service he undertakes to do, in exchange for wages he is to receive: and though this commonly puts him into the family of his master, and under the ordinary discipline thereof; yet it gives the master but a temporary power over him, and no greater than what is contained in the contract between them. But there is another sort of servants, which by a peculiar name we call slaves, who being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties, and lost their estates; and being in the state of slavery, not capable of any property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society; the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.

This is of a piece with Locke’s general line of argument against the monarchist theories of Sir Robert Filmer, downplaying the power of the pater familias, and therefore of the monarch.

But even more interesting is the question of how land might be appropriated. Locke’s central idea is that ownership of land is acquired through labor, specifically agricultural labor. In the English context, where Locke is defending long-established property rights, this isn’t much of a problem. The original acquisition of the land by the ancestors of the current owners is lost in a mythical past where, presumably, Adam delved and Eve span.

Locke’s theory of property inherited from a just acquisition located in a mythical past is open to the same derision as Locke himself deployed against Filmer’s attempt to justify monarchical power by invoking Adam’s patriarchal authority. But this didn’t worry Locke. Nor, for that matter, does it seem to worry latter-day Lockeans like Robert Nozick.

But when used as a justification for expropriating Native Americans, on the (factually incorrect) basis that they were mere hunter-gatherers, the idea of acquiring land through agricultural labor raises a problem. Locke wasn’t an agricultural laborer, and neither were his readers. How were gentlemen like Locke to acquire property if not through labor?

Locke’s solution, relying on the relationship between master and servant is simple. The laborers are servants; in Locke’s analysis they are, in effect, human livestock. Hence, by extension, any property they acquire belongs to their masters:

We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that part, does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. [emphasis added]

As a theoretical solution, addressed to an English audience consisting of masters rather than servants, this analysis works well enough. In actual practice, when applied in the Americas, there was an obvious problem. If there is plenty of land available for appropriation, why should an able-bodied worker dig it up for someone else, rather than taking it for themselves?

In his proposed Constitution of the Carolinas, Locke addressed this problem in his characteristically brutal fashion. He suggested the creation of “leetmen” — a hereditary class of landless laborers, tied to specific areas, and bound to work for the aristocratic owners. Locke didn’t really need a new word for this institution. The founding figure of classical liberalism was proposing, literally rather than metaphorically, a road to serfdom.

Like most of Locke’s constitutional ideas, the idea of serfdom didn’t work in the American context. Whatever the legalities, any white American worker dissatisfied with his conditions could escape and disappear into the general population, or go west and acquire land expropriated from Native Americans. The indentured labor system, the early form of white slavery on which the American colonies were founded, broke down for this reason. But it was the only way in which Locke’s theory of property could be reconciled with the maintenance of the existing class system.

There is, then, no inconsistency between Locke’s theoretical position and his political practice in the United States. His attempt to create a theory of property based on original acquisition, while defending actually-existing property systems, leads inevitably to expropriation, enslavement, and serfdom.