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  • Possessive Individualism and Locke's Doctrine on Taxation
  • Edward Andrew (bio)


Crawford Brough Macpherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke has been republished just before the fiftieth anniversary of its first publication,1 which might constitute an approximation to a scholar's dream of immortality. Possessive Individualism was widely hailed as a path-breaking interpretation of seventeenth-century English political thought but, by the 1980s, was commonly judged to have been surpassed by subsequent critiques of its central claims. John Dunn wrote in 1980 that, "the analysis which Macpherson advances is at least as inadequate as his purely historical account of the development of liberal thought is inept."2 I shall try to argue that the all-too-common dismissal of Possessive Individualism is ill-considered3 and that many of Macpherson's insights, particularly about Locke, retain substantial validity.

Macpherson's central theses are that seventeenth-century English thought was conditioned by an emerging market society and that the primary task of thinkers was to justify private property and facilitate capital accumulation through the exchange of goods and labor services. These theses engendered spirited opposition from its first publication.4 I do not propose to take on the critics of the applicability of "possessive individualism" to Thomas Hobbes, the Levelers, and James Harrington,5 but wish to limit my remarks to critics of Macpherson's interpretation of Locke. I shall do so by means of an examination of Locke's doctrine of taxation [End Page 151] and representation. Macpherson dealt with Locke's views on taxation and representation in passing; he argued that Locke could identify individual consent to taxation with the consent of a majority of elected representatives only because the class interests of the propertied overrode individual differences of interest amongst the landed interest (aristocrats and gentry), the moneyed men (bankers, goldsmiths and investors in government debt) and merchants.6 Locke, Macpherson wrote, restricted the franchise to those with taxable estate.7

Justice and Charity

The fundamental criticism of Macpherson's Locke is that he was not primarily a capitalist apologist, devoted to a profit-maximizing ethos. Macpherson asserted that, for Locke, "the individual right of appropriation overrides any moral claims of the society. The traditional view that property and labour were social functions, and that the ownership of property involved social obligations, is thereby undermined."8 This view, while supported by Leo Strauss and his followers,9 has been vigorously challenged by Locke scholars, such as James Tully, John C. Winfrey, John Dunn, and A. John Simmons.10 Macpherson's opponents cite Locke's First Treatise, where in the course of an argument against absolute monarchy and the eminent domain of the crown with respect to property, Locke wrote: "As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry; so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another's Plenty, as will keep him from extream want . . . ."11 Locke's "Venditio", where Locke stipulated that a grain merchant may charge whatever the market may bear but may not allow citizens to starve by sailing away from a famine stricken city is also cited to support the view that Locke's view of property right retained traditional Christian views of property with those of an emerging market ethos.12

By wrenching Locke's statement about the right to charity out of the context of his denial of eminent domain to the crown over a subject's property, Tully and others propose that Locke advocated a generalized right to charity. However, Gopal Sreenivasan rightly stated, "Locke decidedly does not mean that everyone has a right to meat, drink, and what not, even if he [End Page 152] does not work: indeed his proposed reforms could hardly have had a more contrary objective." Locke's Report to the Board of Trade indicates that if the needy are not forced to work, they will unjustly live off the labor of others.13 Locke wrote to William Molyneux and Cornelius Lyde (urging his reluctant agent [Lyde] to evict a widow from Locke's property) that those who do not work do not deserve to eat.14

James Tully...


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