On John Locke: The Equal Protection of Inequality

We have given the essentials of Locke’s doctrine, but a few details will add color. In spite of the happy end, there has been a bit too much talk about equality for the comfort of Locke’s readers. In sec. 54 [ of the second of the Treatises of Government, 1690 [Fn 1] ] he allays their misgivings by assuring them: “Though I have said above ‘That all men by nature are equal,’ I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of equality” (p.142). He then enumerates as sources of legitimate inequality “age and virtue,” “excellency of parts/and merit,” birth, benefits received, etc. Equality is confined to the “natural freedom” of not being subjected to authority without consent. Governmental authority, however, has the one and only end of the “preservation of property” (sec.123; p.179).

Throughout the Treatise runs the iron principle that men may be unequal in every conceivable respect, but that they are equal in the protection that they receive for the inequality. The government will preserve with divine impartiality the poverty of the poor and the wealth of the rich. Marx is usually credited with the criticism leveled against the legal order of the bourgeois system as being the superstructure serving the ends of class differentiation. As a matter of fact, it is not necessary to make this statement in form of a criticism bringing out a hitherto unobserved flaw; the preservation of the inequality of property is, on the contrary, the avowed purpose of the Lockean system of government.

Locke was almost an inventive genius in producing the phrases that lent themselves to later criticism. To give just one example: in sec. 142 ( p. 189) he sets forth the bounds that the law of God and Nature have set to the legislative power of every commonwealth, in all forms of government, the first of them is “ to have one rule for rich and poor, for the favorite at Court, and the countryman at plough.” Who would not be reminded in reading this sentence of Anatole France’s praise of the law that in its eternal majesty punishes with equal severity the theft of the poor and of the rich and permits them impartially to sleep under a bridge?

CW Vol 25 (HPI-VII)
Chapter 6 LOCKE,
§ 12. The Equal Protection of Inequality, pp 150-151.

1. Of Civil Government: Two Treatises , Everyman's Library (London: J.M. Dent; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1924).