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John Quiggin

I think you are reading too much into this. It reads like straightforward mercantilism to me. And while he supports population growth, I don't see here, or in the other passage you link to, any evidence of thinking about education and human capital. He sounds just like a large class of contemporary Australian politicians who want trade surpluses, a big population and a strong military, without any conscious theory

Eric Schliesser

Hi John,
Yes, it's quite natural to read Locke as a mercantilist here (which is why I say, at the end it is not obvious to call him a 'liberal'). But note he does explicitly advocate a high wage strategy and that is, I think, unusual for a mercantilist (note that even Toland, who explicitly relies on Locke, does not do that in the piece I link to). On the human capital stuff (not a word I used), I rely on section 42 of the Two Treatises for that argument (the part on the art of government). It should be linked above.
But I claim that Locke's mercantilism really is a second best theory--coordination by princes for European framework would better. (Admittedly that is speculative.)
And, finally, I agree that Locke sounds like a certain contemporary politicians here. But unlike them, I think he had to partially invent the framework.

Bas van der Vossen

Interesting post, Eric. For some time now, I've been wondering if Locke might be really a pivotal figure in the history of economic thought. Quite plainly, he starts out with the standard old Natural Law-type views on economics. (Exchange as zero-sum, etc.) That's in the Essays on the Laws of Nature, for example. The mercantilist reading would fit that. But throughout his life he seems to shift away from this and towards a more subjectivist, culminating in the quite radical Venditio, where economic value and exchange are understood in much more subjectivist terms.

So, I wonder about this interpretation you put forward here: is he endorsing a strategy of national glory / great power? Or is he just telling those in power: you guys care a lot about power, right? Well, then you should still do what I've been telling you is the right thing anyway.

One last thing: I'm not quite sure I see the opposition between (a) the idea that money is at least initially a social or conventional phenomenon (and therefore not essentially "political"), and (b) the claim that sovereign might have a salutary role to play with respect to money, i.e. the public goods provision you mention. Both claims seem to me perfectly consistent.

Eric Schliesser

Hi Bas,
I agree that Locke's impact on the history of economic thought is really underappreciated (by philosophers and even, perhaps, historians of economics). This is something I am slowly starting to recognize (in part due to your nudges).

I agree there is no inconsistency between (a) and (b). It's just that certain partial readers tend to downplay (b) and don't see how it fits into his larger political project (which attributes agency to policymakers).

Jon Cooper

Hi Eric, thanks for this great post. I've also been trying to grapple with the political vision underlying Locke's economic writings. I've recently published a piece (forgive the self-promotion) which looks at a neglected aspect of Locke's economic thought, which I think helps get to grips with that vision. Looking closely at Locke's thought on credit and the interest rate suggested to me that he balanced a resolve to establish secure property/ a strong circulating currency in England's national interest (part perhaps of a more cosmopolitan, divinely-ordained mission to cultivate the earth,) with an astute and deep concern for upholding interpersonal trust in social relations. Do take a look if you have a spare moment: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/historical-journal/article/credit-and-the-problem-of-trust-in-the-thought-of-john-locke-c-16681704/892F79609C5391BAF91F12A6D7D8128D

Eric Schliesser

Hi Jon,
I can be the last person to object to self-promotion! (Anyway thank you for the kind comments.) I just downloaded your paper and look forward to reading it before long. I am re-reading Emily Nacol's *An Age of Risk*, and she is also emphasizing Locke concern for upholding interpersonal trust in social relations while simultaneously noting how fragile that can be for Locke. (In case you have not seen it.)

Jon Cooper

Yes, definitely. Unfortunately I discovered Nacol's work only after writing that paper. But her focus on risk really clarifies for me that disjuncture between Locke's strict epistemic requirements for rationally trusting someone/something (whether a monarch or money), and the necessity of what Luhmann calls system trust (as a sort of unthinking, impersonal confidence) for complex modern institutions like banking and public credit to function.

Emily Nacol

I look forward to reading your article, too, Jon (if I may)! I am still thinking about some of these questions in Locke's work. I sometimes find it difficult to untangle the different forms of trust in play in Locke's work: interpersonal trust, trust in institutions (political or economic), and systemic trust of the kind you and Luhmann are writing about. As I said to Eric, I suppose this is a salutary feature of Locke's work, as these forms of trust are interlocking even as they are distinct. But I find it a challenge to tease them apart and look at them individually in his work.

While here, I will also add a couple of additional references to this conversation about money, interest, national greatness, and empire in Locke's thought.

Stefan Eich's work on money and trust in Locke's political thought seems very salient here!:


Lucas Pinheiro has a new piece out that revisits the mercantilism question about Locke, and it situates him as a kind of agrarian proto-industrialist:


Thank you for this fruitful discussion!

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