Why Every Millennial Needs to Read John Locke


In his article for Salon, writer Michael Lind did a brave thing. Instead of relying on the easy and unsupported assertions of "paying one's fair share" that the liberal establishment has been baldly brandishing about the past six years, Lind attempted to explain and unravel conservatives' disdain for the welfare state at the level of ideas. It was a right and noble thing to do, and I laud Lind for his efforts. I only wish his arguments were better. Lind clearly knows his Locke, but he mischaracterizes and distorts both Locke's own beliefs and the implications of those beliefs in order to score points in the modern social safety net debate.

Lind's basic argument is something like this: Locke's outline for the proper role and scope of government allows for two types of rights: natural rights (for the folks at home, these are the ones Thomas Jefferson pilfered for some declaration or other) and subsidiary rights, which are lesser rights that can be applied to particular political circumstances and contexts to support their bigger siblings, the natural rights. These subsidiary rights are "flexible," and Lind thinks ideology of the modern welfare state — that we can tax Peter to give Paul healthcare, food, etc. — can be covered by these lesser rights. If we need to create a right to free health care in order to protect the right of the pursuit of happiness, so be it. The "classical liberal" idea that only strict "negative rights" against direct harm are legitimate is mistaken.

It's a fairly detailed argument, and if you aren't careful you'll miss how it's slightly deceitfull. According to Lind, subsidiary rights must support and secure the natural rights, not supplant or contradict them. "Helping to secure [natural rights] in the world of 2213 may require the creation of lesser, instrumental rights by law or constitutional amendment that differ from the subsidiary rights of the U.S. of 2013 or 1813."

Here we run into a problem. For if two of our natural rights are "liberty" and "property," as Locke believed, then it's easy to see how someone might think a law forcing you to pay for someone else's food or health care should not be allowed. For people who believe that the Lockean "liberty" and "property" are primarily individualistic and negative (conservatives and libertarians), Lind's favored "subsidiary rights" don't uphold natural rights, they subvert them.

The history of interpreting Locke's political philosophy is a long one, long enough for a ton of tomes and 320 years of political philosophy. Famously, a liberal thinker named John John Rawls used Locke's theory on the state of nature to justify the modern welfare state and the principle that any advantage to the wealthy must benefit the least well off. His friend and rival Robert Robert Nozick took the exact same ideas from Locke and tried to justify near-anarchy, or the "minimal state," in which a just state could enforce contracts and protect citizens from harming each other. No welfare, no health care, no food stamps, nada.

To clarify, I'm not arguing that either interpretation of Locke — Lind's "flexible" one, or the more individualist conservative one — is correct. I'm pointing out that anyone who knows Locke, as Lind clearly does, must know that he's doing a disservice to a very, very long line of discourse on the topic to try to ostracize conservatives from the house that Locke Built.

So, in case you're wondering why this matters, it matters because we talk about rights an awful lot in American politics. Natural rights are the intellectual basis of our Republic and the basis of countless amendments, protests, and reform movements since 1776. Yes, we owe a lot to John Locke. How much? Hard to say, but certainly more than Michael Lind gave him here.