John Locke

Among the writers concerned with monetary issues as part of more general reflections on society and human beings, let us recall the [1]

English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), author of a tract on Some Considerations on the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money (1692; a preliminary version had been written in 1668): one of the first texts of the time (after Petty and before Cantillon) to utilize the notion of velocity of circulation of money.

Locke’s essay was a contribution to the lively debate that arose in the last decade of the seventeenth century on the relationship between low interest rates and prosperity. Josiah Child (1630-1699), governor of the India Company and one of the richest men of his time, had maintained that the first element (low interest rates) is the cause of the second (prosperity) and on this ground had asked for legal constraints on interest rates (Child 1688). In criticising this thesis, Locke argued that it is prosperity that favours a moderate level of interest rates and that any attempt to reduce them by law is doomed to failure; besides, insofar as it may succeed, such an attempt may prove detrimental, slowing down accumulation.

In the Two Treatises of Government (1690), Locke presented his view of private property as a natural right of man. It opposed the ideas of Hobbes and others, who took private property to have been instituted through an agreement (or ‘social contract’) marking transition from the state of nature to organised society, and thus to be of a conventional nature.

Locke began his argument by recognising that land and all the lower creatures have been given to all men in common. However, he observed,

every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person’. This nobody has any right to but himself. The ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. (Locke 1690, p. 130: II.27)

Nevertheless, Locke attributed to the notions of labour and capital a broader connotation than usual. Labour included all kinds of productive activity - the entrepreneurs’ as much as the wage labourer’s - and therefore constituted the source of all wealth and the religious duty of every individual. Similarly, Locke (1690, p. 180: II.123) defined property as including not only private property in its common meaning but also man’s fundamental rights: ‘lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name - property’. We should thus view his argument not so much as a justification of an economic system based on private property but rather as a reaction to ‘social contract’ theses, particularly Hobbes’s (1651), and the conclusions they lead to, favourable to political absolutism. Locke was a defender of the rights of the individual against government; this included a defence of private property against residual feudal elements, such as the fact that the political powers still played an important role as origin (and not simply guarantee) of property titles, with the arbitrariness that this implied for the distribution of wealth.

  • [1] Within this current there is also a spate of publications considering issues of (elementary)financial mathematics. Cf. Poitras 2000.
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