John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
Inequality Within Society
Modern political thinkers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are significant fixtures in political science history. Their ideas on democracy and individual rights help move us away from a feudalist, monarchical world. Because of these two giants, we find ourselves centuries later governed by consent with the proper government roles to protect the natural rights of all. This essay will describe and examine how each thought of man in the state of nature, how man comes to own property, the creation of civil government, its role in our lives, and the rise of inequality within society.
The state of nature, according to John Locke, man is a social creature in a state of equality. People are free from the burden of government, able to use the possession he has acquired. He is free to live life in any way he pleases as long as he does not infringe on those around him. Locke describes the state of nature as a “State of perfect Freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man” (Capaldi & Lloyd 2011, 9). This state of nature also brings a state of equality, where people are born with the same advantages and are equal among others without subordination to another (Capaldi & Lloyd 2011,10).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau felt that Locke’s description of humans in a civil society state did not go back far enough and frankly gave man more credit than deserved. Rousseau writes in The Second Discourse: “Such was the condition of infant man; the life of an animal limited at first to mere sensations, and hardly profiting by the gifts nature bestowed on him, much less capable of entertaining a thought of forcing anything from her” (Capaldi & Lloyd 2011, 66). Before entering society, man is nothing but an animal roaming the forest searching for nourishment (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 258). In this version of Man in the state of nature, man can keep all that gather, but he cannot speak, nor does he have the ability to think ahead. In this state, we are all free, but we are also not entirely human.
According to Locke and Rousseau, man starts moving from the state of nature towards civil society and inequality through property ownership. Rousseau wrote that the person who brought the greatest evils to humanity was the first who said, “This land belongs to me” (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 256). It was agriculture that is the primary source of all private property and, according to Rousseau, the origin of inequality. In the primitive state of nature, man is only concerned about surviving day-to-day life. The invention of agriculture, desire to increase and protect his crops multiplies his desires and causes him to seek power (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 256).
Locke believed that private property springs from the idea of self-ownership. No one has the legal or moral right to own another person. From that self-ownership claim, Locke wrote, “the labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his” (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 222). The work that is done with your body is the basis for natural private property. We are moving towards a move recognizable society but one that is the basis for economic and political equality. According to Locke, this form of inequality was mostly unavoidable, “different degrees of industry were apt to give men possessions in different proportions” (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 225). Mixing labor with the land and benefiting from the fruits of labor widens the inequality gap because we all possess different skills, leading to different outcomes.
Man is moving towards the government only after he acquired the property via agriculture. The abundance of goods that farming brings, the creation of money allows for an economy of a higher order over a barter system and allows those at the top to acquire even more possessions. The race to acquire more and produce more goods made it impossible for people to live together without greater private property protections (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 224). To protect private property, man forms governments, and according to Locke, the proper role of government is to protect life and property. “The great and chief end, therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property” (Capaldi & Lloyd 2011, 23).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that before humans entered into social society and finally into a social contract, they were nearly subhuman. It was a society that gave people the qualities that make us human. The desire to problem solve and learn lead us to acquire property and lead to inequality. He claims that man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains (Capaldi & Lloyd 2011, 87). If he is born free, how did he come to find himself in chains? For Rousseau, the invention of private property and government establishment to protect the wealthy’s assets lead to a society where man is a slave to the law and subordinate to other men (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 254). Man has given up his freedom in a state of nature to become a slave to other men in society.
Rousseau claims that an excessive amount can lead to inequalities, which then always leads to moral corruption. The arts and sciences, he claims, “require an atmosphere of luxury and leisure to flourish. They Themselves emerge, in general, from vices of the soul (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 254). He sees the arts and sciences stemming from the rich’s idle curiosity and desire for unnecessary comforts, which only weaken men and satisfy unnecessary wants. Society’s efforts to support the wealthy arts create a life full of vain self-interest and injustice. In this state, man becomes vain, and instead of mere self-interest, he now searches for “infinite yearnings for possessions he can never use and a glory he despises as soon as it is gained” (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 256).
Inequality, to John Locke, is a natural occurrence because people are born with different qualities that make them unequal. It is not a crime or even a moral outrage for those better at farming to grow more food and make more money than those less skilled. The poorest of men in a society with agriculture and money are more prosperous than the most fortunate in the primitive, pre-agricultural natural common (Strauss & Cropsey 2006 225). As society advances economically, nearly everyone is better off, even if there are inequality levels of wealth. As we look around our world today, there are individuals with incredible wealth, but our standard of living would worsen without them. Unlike Rousseau, who claimed that wealth and the arts as an injustice, Locke saw the labor of the land, invention, and arts make an increase possible, thus solving the economic problems of scarcity in the state of nature (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 225).
A political order grounded in natural rights will allow each member of society to pursue their interest and maximize their abilities. According to Locke, men enter into civil society and give the government the “right of making laws, with penalties of death and, consequently, all fewer penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws and the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good” (Strauss & Cropsey 2006, 218). They enter this society after the invention of agriculture and money. It would be hard to imagine that this point differences in wealth have not already materialized. That inequality is the state or humans, whether in a society of nature, and those who made the first leap were well aware.
Far from the Lockean point of view regarding human nature and inequality, Rousseau saw no inequalities among man in a state of nature. He claims that Locke is wrong when it when asserting property is natural to man and that the inequalities stabilized by civil society conform to real standards of justice (Strauss et al., 2006, p. 257). Unlike John Locke, who thought the government’s primary consideration was to protect people’s lives and property, Rousseau believed that men need the government to give them direction in exercising their freedom (Strauss et al., 2006, p. 261). For Rousseau, building the citizens’ virtue was a priority and would prevent extreme wealth and poverty would be prevented (Capaldi & Lloyd 2011, 81). Rousseau thinks that man is born free, but he seems to rush them into chains. He knows that the government leads to inequality (Strauss et al., 2006, p. 261) and believes that man needs authority to teach them how to live a virtuous life (Capaldi & Lloyd 2011, 81).
Capaldi, Nicholas, and Gordon Lloyd. “John Locke.” Essay. In The Two Narratives of Political Economy, 9–46. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
— — — . . “JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU.” Essay. In The Two Narratives of Political Economy, 79–94. Scrivener Pub., 2011.
Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey. “John Locke.” Essay. In History of Political Philosophy, 218–32. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.
— — — . “JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU.” Essay. In History of Political Philosophy, 254–63. The University of Chicago Press, 2006.