188.8.131.52 Benefits of Lockean Individualism: Capitalism and the US Constitution
John Locke described “natural liberty” in his Second Treatise of Civil Government :
“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, 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.” [chap. 2, section 4– my emphasis]
The US Constitution was the first large-scale implementation of Locke’s ideas:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This form of individualism has economic benefits:
● The desire for wealth, to have money to spend, is an important engine of economic growth (3.2.1). It harnesses people’s instinctive urge to compete with those around them, so they work harder and are rewarded for doing so.
● Consumer choice, in addition to being a desirable form of individual freedom, drives innovation and opportunities for others to create wealth (3.2.2).
● The relationship between supply and demand (3.3.2), in a situation where there is competition between suppliers, ensures that customers benefit from continual improvement in value for money: lower prices and/or higher quality.
● Free trade benefits both rich and poor countries (184.108.40.206) and has led to a huge reduction in global poverty.
These positive aspects of capitalism are reasons why many people are such passionate individualists.
One of the criteria for good governance, as defined at the beginning of this book (2.1), is that it “should allow people a considerable freedom of choice and not unduly restrict their individual liberty”. Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, declared that:
“the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy of individualism is based …(is) that the individuals should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own values and preferences rather than somebody else’s”. [p. 62]
If one thinks of society as an aggregation of individuals, it seems logical that allowing them all to have freedom of choice would be the best way of making everybody happy. Hayek recognised the need for some government regulation though, as noted earlier (3.3.6), both for the smooth working of the economy and for the protection of society.
Lockean individualism is not an unregulated ‘free for all’. Locke envisaged government by consent, which “puts on the bonds of civil society” to benefit everyone whilst delivering the benefits of capitalism. It is a profoundly democratic vision.
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6222.htm.