John Locke’s time is past, suggests Sam Gregg in The Public Discourse last week. Social contract theory has been the formative influence on American political thought, and our current debates can be broadly generalized as debates between the two poles of that tradition, with Locke on one end and Rawls on the other. Gregg points out the vacuity of Rawls; I would add that serious political theorists have long since recognized not only his vacuity, but his implicit political totalism (see, for example, Allan Bloom’s classic evisceration). And if this were just Rawls-bashing, I’d be having too much fun to contribute a response. But Gregg thinks we need to move beyond the social contract tradition entirely; Locke may be better than Rawls, but Gregg asserts that he doesn’t have what we need – a vision of human flourishing. Gregg would prefer to develop a new approach in which subsidiarity, not social contract, provides the formative theoretical construction.
Your humble servant begs to differ. The basic problem here is that Gregg, like most people, is talking about a cardboard cutout “Locke” that bears no relationship to the actual historical John Locke or his writings. There are, certainly, deficiencies in Locke. And I’m not sure whether “social contract” as such will continue to be the constitutive framework for political theory in the 21st century, given the state of degredation into which it has fallen. But I am quite sure that whatever framework does emerge will be one that drinks deeply from the Lockean well.
The origin of the cardboard cutout “Locke” lies in the secularization of Locke scholarship in the 20th century. The popular idea of what “Locke” stands for has been shaped by people whose understanding of Locke is deeply deficient because of their secularism. Locke confounds the secular mind because his project is precisely to build political and moral consensus among different kinds of Christians who are fighting over the social meaning of Christianity in a civilization that understands itself to be Christian. Secular readers who haven’t developed a sensitivity to the religious significance of the topics Locke deals with – and to the ways in which those topics were being discussed in late 17th century Anglican religious discourse – are simply not equipped to understand what is going on.
Gregg, of course, is not a secularist. But it seems clear to me that his ideas about “Locke” have been deeply shaped by the secularist consensus view of Locke that emerged in 20th century Locke scholarship. (Naturally I’m open to correction if Gregg wants to stick up for himself as a Locke scholar against this supposition.)
The interesting thing is that in the last generation, there has been a total revolution of thought among Locke scholars. This has been driven by the emergence of a new school of Locke studies that stresses the central constitutive role of religion in all Locke’s thought. The new generation of Locke scholars, having developed a sensitivity to the role of religion in late 17th century English society and in Locke particularly, paints a radically different picture of Locke’s political thought. In general, they find Locke to be a far more profound thinker than the older generations did, and far more relevant to the concerns of western – especially English-speaking - societies in the 21st century. (I have attempted to summarize this – in my opinion – much more historically accurate picture of Locke in a short little book that came out earlier this year.)
Thus, Gregg isn’t really persuasive when he quotes Robert Nozick asserting that Locke’s thought is deficient. Of course people like Nozick find Locke deficient – they have no idea what Locke is even talking about. You might just as well try to establish that Thomas Aquinas is deficient by quoting Richard Dawkins.
Gregg goes on to identify three problems that he thinks are inherent to the concept of social contract as a constitutive framework. I think they represent a misunderstanding of what social contract theory is, or at least what it was in Locke and other early contract theorists.
The whole idea of the social contract was a thought experiment. It can be summarized thus: “OK, you want to know why we have an obligation to obey the rulers. Let’s ask what would happen if we didn’t. Suppose no one had an obligation to obey the rulers. That would mean there would be no rulers. So what would society look like if there were no rulers? If you think seriously about that, what you discover is that you would need to create rulers – and pretty darn quickly. So it’s reasonable to say we have an obligation to obey the rulers, because if we didn’t have them we’d be obligated to create them.”
Starting from that as a basis, I think Gregg’s three problems can be shown not to be what he thinks they are:
One problem is social contract theory’s assumption that society is essentially artificial. This flies in the face of the commonsense observation that humans are naturally social and political beings.
But social contract theory, in its earlier manifestation, gave considerable weight to the constitutive role played by social institutions in forming the human person. Locke in particular insists that both families and economic institutions are natural and are primary constitutive frameworks for the formation of the person. And his approach to politics reflects this; his concern to shield economic institutions from interference is well known, but he is also strongly restrictionist when it comes to laws governing sexuality and marriage, in order to protect the natural institution of the family.
The picture you get of people in the “state of nature” entering into a “social contract” creates the impression of a shallow anthropology. But that’s because the state of nature and the social contract are thought experiments, conducted for a limited purpose and within the context of a much more robust social anthropology. The person who says “let’s suppose there were no rulers and we were all on our own, what would we do then?” is not saying that this is the way human societies actually form.
Another difficulty is that the people’s supposed delegation of authority to a government is—as figures as different as the natural law scholar John Finnis and the father of modern skepticism David Hume have noted—invariably a fiction rather than a real historical act.
But this is a straw man argument. The liberal social contract theorists never saw the social contract as historical, and their argument never depended on its being historical. It was Rousseau and the other illiberal social contract theorists who were offering what they took to be history. In Locke (as in Hobbes) the idea of the social contract is to express what would happen if political institutions were not present, not what did happen at some mythological “parliament in the woods” (as a friend of mine put it). Criticizing the social contract tradition on grounds that there was never an actual historical signing of a contract is like criticizing Adam Smith’s analysis of market incentives on grounds that there isn’t an actual, literal “invisible hand.”
A third problem lies in social contract theory’s conscious choice to eschew robust conceptions of human happiness, flourishing, or any substantive discussion of the proper ends of human choice. Much social contract theory assumes there is such disagreement about these matters that it is better to avoid them altogether (which itself invariably ends up privileging particular positions). With other social contract theorists, there’s often an unspoken commitment to relativism.
Here we strike a more substantive critique. Yet even here the critique fails to do justice to Locke. The picture of Locke that we are asked to accept, in which there is such disagreement about happiness that there is no sense discussing it, is radically oversimplified. Locke does argue, against Plato and Aristotle, that there is no one best model of life that makes those who follow it more happy than anyone else. Different people are constructed to gain happiness from different kinds of lives. Sometimes Locke did push this point too far.
Yet there is a great deal of discussion in Locke about what does, and does not, create human flourishing and make people happy in general. Diligent labor makes people virtuous and happy; fornication doesn’t. Thus the former should be encouraged and the latter discouraged.
To see how close Gregg and Locke really are, consider this:
But what if there are in fact conceptions of the flourishing of free, rational, individual, social, creative, and flawed human beings that can be demonstrated by reason alone to be more coherent than other conceptions? What would be, for instance, the implications for political economy if it could be reasonably demonstrated that entrepreneurship, for example, is not only central to wealth-creation but also an action through which I can realize virtues such as industriousness, prudent risk-taking, and courage?
That reads like it came straight out of Locke. The whole Lockean enterprise is to overcome the moral fragmentation of a society deeply divided over religion by using natural reason to persuade people to adopt shared conceptions of human flourishing (within the limits of reason’s ability to provide such demonstration). Entrepreneurship as an activity necessary for the realization of important virtues is in fact central to Locke’s political economy.
The primary difference (besides the use of the term “entrepreneurship,” of course) is that Locke filters this through the language of obedience to biblical command and natural law, rather than the language of virtue realization. If Gregg had acknowledged the moral seriousness of Locke and then argued that the rubric of virtue realization is preferable to command ethics as a framework for political economy, I’d have agreed with him. But let’s not just hit straw men.
One more point before I leave the subject. Of Locke, Gregg writes:
Issues of distribution according to criteria such as need are deemed beyond the state’s competence.
This is untrue. Locke insisted that because the purpose of the state is to preserve (and, secondarily, increase) human life, alleviating poverty is a legitimate basis of political action. The state has a responsibility to see to it that all the able-bodied have an opportunity to work, and none of the unable perishes for lack of support. At one point, he even went so far as to propose that if anyone able to work starved to death for lack of opportunity to work, or if anyone unable to work starved to death for lack of relief, whoever was in charge of caring for the poor in that parish should be tried for manslaughter. As I keep saying, the moral seriousness of Locke is in need of rediscovery.