Locke’s political philosophy is compared and contrasted with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. The motivation in both cases is self-preservation with Hobbes arguing the need of an absolute monarch to prevent the war of “all against all” inherent in anarchy while Locke argues that the protection of life, liberty, and property can be achieve by a parliamentary process that protects, not violates, one’s rights.
Leo Strauss and C. B. Macpherson stress the continuity of thought. In their view Locke and Hobbes describe an atomistic man largely driven by a hedonistic materialistic acquisitiveness. Strauss’ Locke is little more than Hobbes in “sheep’s clothing.” C. B. Macpherson argued in his Political Theory of Possessive Individualism that Locke sets the stage for unlimited acquisition and appropriation of property by the powerful creating gross inequality. Government is the protector of interests of capitalists while the “labouring class [are] not considered to have an interest.”
Unlike Macpherson, James Tully finds no evidence that Locke specifically advocates capitalism. In his A Discourse on Property, Tully describes Locke’s view of man as a social dependent, with Christian sensibilities, and a God-given duty to care for others. Property, in Tully’s explanation of Locke, belong to the community as the public commons but becomes “private” so long as the property owner, or more correctly the “custodian,” serves the community. Zuckert believes Tully is reading into Locke rights and duties that just aren’t there. Huyler finds that Locke explicitly condemned government privileges for rich, contrary to Macpherson’s pro-capitalism critique, but also rejected subsidies to aid the poor, in contrast to Tully’s social justice apologetics.
The Cambridge School of political thought, led principally by Quentin Skinner, J. G. A. Pocock, Richard Ashcraft, and Peter Laslett, uses a historical methodology to situate Locke in the political context of his times. But they also restrict his importance to those times. Ashcraft’s Locke takes the side of the burgeoning merchant class against the aristocracy. Neal Wood puts Locke on the side of the agrarian interests, not the manufacturing bourgeoisie.
Jerome Huyler and Michael. P. Zuckert approach Locke in the broader context of his oeuvre and historical influence. Locke is situated within changing religious, philosophical, scientific, and political dimensions of 17th century England. Objecting to the use of the contemporary concept of economic man to describe Locke’s view of human nature, Huyler emphases the “virtue of industriousness” of Locke’s Protestant England. Productive work is man’s earthly function or calling, ordained by God and required by self-preservation. The government’s protection of property rights insures that the results of industry, i.e. “fruits of one’s labor,” are secure. Locke’s prohibition of ill-gotten gains, whether for well-connected gentry or the profligate, is not a lack of Locke’s foresight to the problems in the latter stages of liberalism but an application of equal protection of the law to every individual.
Richard Pipes argues that Locke holds a labor theory of value that leads to the socialist critique that those not engaging in physical labor exploit wage earners. Huyler, relying on Locke’s Essays on the Law of Nature shows that reason is the most fundamental virtue, underwrites all productive virtue, and leads to human flourishing or happiness in an Aristotelean sense.