Locke and Rousseau on Commercial Society and Its Preconditions


Democracy and its principles of Commercial society has been coloured by the works of many philosophers. This essay compares and contrasts between John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s approach to the dynamics of the modern commercial society.

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The essay develops the argument by first examining the chronological differences in times of publication of the works of the two philosophers as also their personality traits. The essay then points out to the differences in the concept of social contract between Locke and Rousseau. It examines the origin of land ownership concepts according to Locke and the difference in interpretation as offered by Rousseau. The essay points out to the emphasis on individual rights by Locke as against community rights by Rousseau on the concept of land ownership.

The essay then examines Locke’s concept of using excess capacity of the land to generate profits and expand dominions. Rousseau’s approach to negate such a concept by emphasizing the need for common good and that expansion leads to greed and corruption stands as a stark contrast. Locke’s argument hints that mercantile policies based on expansion legitimizes conquest is contrasted by Rousseau who holds that autarky is a better concept. The essay concludes by following through the practical adoption of the ideas of the two philosophers by stating that while Locke became the role model for western liberal democracy based on capitalism, Rousseau was adopted by the Socialist and the Marxists into their philosophical systems. However, Europe adopted both Locke and Rousseau to produce a democratic system and a commercial system based on socialistic principles.

Locke and Rousseau on Commercial Society and its Preconditions

Democracy has meant different things to different people. The various shades and hues of democratic principles have normally been colored by the works of eminent philosophers and social contract theorists who at some point or other held significant influence over the process of nation-building. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ as charted by the ‘American Dream’ has been, colored to a great extent by the works of John Locke while the more ‘Socialist’ approach of Rousseau has seen its dominance in the European approach to commercial activity. This essay examines the similarities and contrasts between Locke and Rousseau’s approach to the dynamics of modern commercial society.

Chronological and Psychological Differences

Comparing and contrasting the works of Locke and Rousseau is a complex exercise. The reasons are that Locke preceded Rousseau and thus Rousseau had the luxury to study John Locke to arrive at his conclusions. While Locke’s works are easy to comprehend as they are written logicallya with little flourish, Rousseau’s works have a rhetorical flare and are often contradictory. While Locke was not known to have had suffered from any mental or psychological infirmities, Rousseau has been chronicled for his unstable mind and psychological difficulties (Grimsley, 1961, 14) that make some doubt the veracity of Rousseau’s works. Locke’s Two Treatise of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration was published in 1689. Rousseau was born in 1712 and published his Social Contract in 1762 thus there was almost a generational separation between the two philosophers. Nevertheless, the two philosophers share a lot in common and some marked differences.

On Similarities and Differences in the Meaning of Social Contract

Rousseau’s concept of the social pact though based on the Lockean model of a social contract had some significant differences. Rousseau agrees that in a society man had to be subject to the general will to maintain social order but this subjection had to be reconciled with individual freedom. Rousseau claimed that this subjection to the common will was just ‘lip service’ being paid by man and that the actual individual freedom was not curbed at all. This surmise seems to suggest relativity of values as against the more concrete formulations of Locke who stated that the limits to freedoms that man subjects himself to in logicallya society are real in exchange for the security that the state provides him. Locke’s contract clearly defines the basis of the contract as between two people, Rousseau theorizes that this contract is with himself which becomes a nebulous construct open to interpretation.

Similarities and Differences on the Interpretation to Right to Individual Property

Locke uses the omnipotence of God as a start point to explain man’s right to property. According to him, God has given the man this world in common to make the best use of it to get the best advantage in life and convenience. Locke argues that the fruits of nature are produced naturally that no individual could claim property over and thus by extension is open to universal ownership. However, when a man removes the fruits of nature by his labor, he then acquires a right to own those fruits and thus the notion of individual ‘property’ becomes valid. Locke then extends his argument to the land that produced the fruits of labor stating that the land too became an object of individual ownership because of the labor involved (Locke, 1689, 85). In his Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau theorizes the right to the property having its origin in agriculture and goes on to say that although labor does convey ownership of the land or property, such ownership was notional and that land always returned to a state of nature. However, in his Discourse on Political Economy, Rousseau changes his stance to state that the property right is one of the most sacred rights of citizens because it bears directly on the preservation of life and is a true foundation of civil society. In Emile, Rousseau almost reconciles to the Lockean construct of property by stating that the notion of property naturally goes back to the first occupant by right of labor. Rousseau however qualifies this right with need and does not agree to the precept that declaration or seizure of lands confers the property right. Here there is an obvious divergence from the arguments of John Locke as Rousseau’s theorization acquires more socialistic hues. Rousseau qualifies this by stating that though a person has the individual right to property, it is subordinate to the right of the community in which he lives. Therefore, such an arrangement by its nature offers greater security as the community or nation now will have a stake in protecting the lands from an outside power.

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Differences in the Use of Excess Capacity

Locke applied the reason of necessity to the question of ownership by stating that though individual labor becomes a defining criterion for ownership, the fruits that are plenty and excess of own needs could be considered as an individual property worthy of exploitation in ways deemed fit. Locke further argues that man has the right to property more than his needs because even one acre of land tilled, produces more fruits than hundreds of acres of ungoverned land that may produce fruits in the wild. Hence productivity becomes yet another defining factor for ownership of property. The convenience that property ownership increases in meeting the needs of the men in society make it justifiable to seize from the natural state where non-ownership meant that lands would continue to lie unutilized and thus not help the common convenience of the society. Locke concludes his argument by stating that while labor, in the beginning, gave the right of property, the extent of that property did not matter till such time land was aplenty. However, as man settled in communities, and the land became scarce, boundaries were established that prevented strife, these boundaries expanded from villages to towns to finally become kingdoms or nations that by tacit consent laid down laws giving up the natural right to ownership to rights decided by consented laws that accommodated the convenience of the people, the community and the nation. Locke then forwards his argument that hints at conquests or re-appropriation on the premise that there are still other lands to be found which are lying fallow, unused, and that required to be utilized for the greater convenience of mankind (Locke, 86). Rousseau argues against precisely this line of reasoning. According to him while the state has no right to seize the lands of a ‘few individuals’, it has the right to seize the land of all. Rousseau believed that it was the responsibility of the sovereign or the state to disperse possession so that all citizens have sufficient holdings and inequalities could then be reduced. Rousseau considered Democracy to be an impractical form of government and favored older examples like the small city-states of Sparta. According to Rousseau, a state which was small in size had an elective aristocracy, had equality of wealth and status and the absence of luxury was the best form of governance. Thus Rousseau rejected commercialism in any form. Commercialism according to him led to vice and corruption.

Differences in Mercantile Policies

Locke supported the mercantile concept of value addition and the need for its expansion. According to Locke, improvements in labor added value to the land and the produce. For example, the labor involved in tilling the land to produce wheat added some value to the produce. However, further labor was required to convert that wheat into bread and that value addition was made possible because of the labor involved. Ownership of land and its utilization gave rise to commerce and the advent of money. Locke reasons that man has produced more than his needs had sufficient perishables that he could barter for other perishables. The man could also barter the same for imperishable commodities such as Gold or jewels and thus money was born that man by mutual consent agreed to exchange for the perishables so necessary for life sustenance. The invention of money allowed them to expand and enlarge further in the world. Gold and silver being imperishable, slowly but surely acquired disproportionate value in comparison to the perishable produce of man again by tacit mutual consent. Thus the Lockean analysis of the commercial property and mercantile policy encouraged the formulation of modern-day capitalism. To Rousseau, such a policy was an anathema that harmed the common good of the people. According to Rousseau, autarky or self-sufficiency was the best policy for a nation as it ensured that external influences could not impinge upon them. The pursuit of profit was a sin that only led to vice and corruption and thus required to be discouraged. The only way to ensure that such mercantile policies were not followed was to have a small elective aristocracy that ruled justly, dispersing holdings equally so that social and economic inequalities were reduced. A state thus formed needed to pursue the common goal of civic virtues and the common good over individual happiness, which according to Rousseau was overstated by Locke.

Differences in Practical Adoption of the Philosophies by the Nation-States

Locke’s philosophy with its emphasis on individualism led to the formulation of the concepts of Capitalism and free trade (Medina, 2006, 260). Locke’s influence on the formation of the capitalist ideology was profound as his philosophy became the foundation stone for American Democracy and the American concept of capitalism, free trade, and globalization. Rousseau’s questioning of the legitimacy of private property became the root of Socialism and Marxism in particular (Dent, 2005, 211). Contradictorily, Rousseau’s concept of ‘elective aristocracy’ very closely resembles modern-day representative governments though not very many proponents of the western democratic ideal would agree.

In conclusion, it can be reiterated that while there are many similarities between the writings of John Locke and Rousseau, how each of these bodies of work was interpreted by later generations has accentuated the contrasts. Locke’s logical formulation of the Social Contract and concepts of commercial property became the bedrock for Western Liberal democracy led by America with Capitalism as its main engine. Rousseau evocative, often contradictory prose inspired the socialists to follow suit and build upon Socialism and Marxism as a separate stream of philosophy. However, the fusion of the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau form the basis of many European democratic systems such as France as well as European economic policies.

Works Cited

Dent, NJH. Rousseau. NY: Routledge, 2005.

Grimsley, Ronald. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Study in Self-awareness Edn 2. Wales: University of Wales, 1961.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration. Massachusetts: Digireads.com Publishing, 2005.

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Medina, John Fitzgerald. Faith, Physics, and Psychology: Rethinking Society and the Human Spirit. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 2006.

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