Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

In 1999 I offered a qualified defense of a pro-perty rights-based “duty to tolerate” against a traditionalist Catholic's ridicule of the same.  In 2007 I added an asterisked note citing an eminent libertarian theoretician's denial of my position that a libertarian society must tolerate anti-libertarian advocacy if it consists in the exercise of one's property rights and the violation of no one else's. 

Two Cheers for Locke

Anthony Flood

Jeffrey Bond’s dialectical alchemy by which he morphed John Locke, a Christian philoso-pher of freedom, into a tyrannical anti-Christ seemed plausible only because he overlooked Locke’s doctrine of property.[1] The “duty to tolerate” that Bond disparages presupposes that doctrine: the objects of toleration are property owners, not propositions.

Religious division characterizes not only mankind as a whole, but also significant subsets thereof, e.g., the English people of the 17th century or the American people of the 21st. Painful awareness of this fact inspired the first formulation of the duty to tolerate. Given the volatile potential of ethical and religious diversity in the same polity, how can we agree to limit interpersonal violence?

Locke believed that, unlike animals who only physically control things, people morally own things as well: it is morally wrong for one person to interfere with another’s use of his justly held property, even in the name of religion. Within the limits of one’s property one ought to be free from threats of violence for disobeying God’s laws except where such disobedience violates someone’s property rights. To sin is to abuse liberty, but no less an exercise thereof. To violently interfere with another’s sinning within the limits of his property is itself a sin that should also be a crime.

Men have purposes, and they act to achieve them by using scarce resources. After the Garden of Eden, resource competition is a given. If there is to be civil life instead of permanent civil war, men must agree about how one justly acquires ownership of scarce resources and how to deal with those who acquire them unjustly.

All members of society share roughly the same physical domain, the totality of things on which they physically could act. To reduce violent conflict, however, we need to know what things fall within each member’s moral domain, the range of things on which he may act, outside of which domain he may not. Once we know that, the liberal imperative is clear: act within, and only within, your moral domain; refrain from acting outside of that domain. The duty to tolerate follows as a corollary: tolerate the within-domain actions of others.

To tolerate is not to celebrate. I tolerate your acting within your moral domain when I put up with something you do that I think is morally reprehensible. If you justly own a thing, you may use, consume, alter, give away, exchange, or destroy it. If I approve, I will encourage you. If I disapprove, I must nevertheless tolerate you. For if I were morally within my rights to express my disapproval by depriving you of your property or its use, I would be implying that it was in effect mine and not yours. If you could later overpower me, you could make “my” property “yours” again. There is no civil life where this kind of alternation of possession is the norm.

What are Locke’s rules for just ownership? First, each person owns his own body. Second, he owns whatever he may find in nature that was unowned but with which he “mixes his labor” by picking it up, fencing it off, or cultivating it. Third, he owns the increase his property yields. Fourth, he owns what he acquires through the exchange of property with another. Fifth, he owns what others give him outright from their justly owned property. One may test each of these assertions by reflecting on its denial.

These rules yield a single policy toward both illiberals and deniers of geometrical theo-rems: we may combat either intellectually, but we must tolerate both within the limits of their property. Here is where the liberal rubber meets the illiberal road. No doubt Bond would ignore the geometry denier, so long as his denial remained merely verbal, but Bond would probably not show the same benign neglect toward the person who openly denied a Catholic dogma.

In an illiberal Catholic State, the expres-sion of heresy would be a capital crime. For if heretics endanger souls and if the civil authority ought to promote their salvation, then it has the right to execute heretics. Bond does not formulate this syllogism, but I challenge him to repudiate or affirm it. It bears directly on the issue between traditional Catholicism and its liberal challenger.

Locke could provide a framework within which both illiberals as well as liberals would be free, but that was not enough to please the former. A theorist of a liberal regime can only recommend the outlawry of actions that undermine it and the surveillance of those inclined to commit them. Liberalism is like other political theories in this respect.

Bond thinks this fatally undermines liberal-ism. For if we’re really all illiberals under the skin, he argues, then the so-called “liberal” contradicts his profession of tolerance if he keeps any party of illiberals under surveil-lance. Once again, however, the doctrine of property rights illuminates the solution: illiber-als may propagandize and organize in a liberal society without fear of reprisal. Should they convince a critical mass of liberal citizens to renounce Locke and all his works, then that liberal polity would soon dissolve. Liberals will not stand idly by, however, while their enemies cause its overthrow. (Cause, please note, not merely motivate people to cause.)

Liberals must, for example, tolerate mon-archist rallies, publications, broadcasts, and other actions that further monarchism, but oppose any attempt to impose a monarchy. Again, Communists may propagandize freely against property rights,* but if they try to set up a Communist regime with other people’s property, they must be prosecuted as thieves. Similarly, traditional Catholics may persuade as many people as they can that the Catholic Church alone has religious truth, but Catholics may not, even when they are the majority, force people to act like Catholics or suppress non- or anti-Catholic opinions. Liberals violate no one’s rights if they take illiberals seriously by keeping a watchful eye on them.

    John Locke believed people of opposed reli-gious convictions could co-exist in the same polity and peacefully pursue their sometimes convergent, sometimes divergent, interests. For that he deserves one cheer. Another goes to his theory of property rights as interper-sonal boundaries. For his theory of ideas, however, a Bronx cheer.  There is no neces-sary connection, however, between his epis-temology and his politics: the duty to tolerate neither presupposes nor entails indifferentism, agnosticism, idealism, or skepticism. Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), for instance, was a radical Lockean in politics and a Thomist realist in epistemology.

Locke did not take the logic of property rights to its anarchistic conclusion. Had he done so, there would have been no room in his system for a civil magistrate to put Catholics, or anyone else, under a cloud. The individu-alist anarchists of the 19th and 20th centuries took that step, Rothbard being the most systematic and scholarly among them.[2]  Strict adherence to Lockean rules of ownership is a firewall against the emergence and con-tinuance of rights-violating States that tax, conscript, and forbid and compel certain exchanges of property between their owners.

That Locke regarded Catholics as disloyal subjects of the English crown should not affect one’s assessment of liberalism. Today’s liber-als, or libertarians, have gone beyond their philosophical grandfather in theory and in practice. Perhaps one day their thought will be engaged directly in the pages of The Roman Forum.


 1 Jeffrey Bond, “Locke’s Doctrine of Tolera-tion: A Contract with Nothingness,” The Roman Forum, Feb. 1999.

 2   See his The Ethics of Liberty, New York: New York University Press, Second Edition, 1998.  

* Libertarian theoretician Hans-Hermann Hoppe disagrees:

As soon as mature members of society habitually express accep-tance or even advocate egalitarian sentiments, whether in the form of democracy (majority rule) or of communism, it becomes essential that other members, and in particular the natural social elites, be prepared to act decisively and, in the case of continued noncon-formity, exclude and ultimately expel these members from soci-ety.  In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protect-ing their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to un-limited speech on one's own tenant-property.   One may say in-numerable things and promote al-most any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to ad-vocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of pre-serving and protecting private pro-perty, such as democracy and communism.  There can be no tol-erance toward democrats and com-munists in a libertarian social order.  They will have to be phy-sically separated and expelled from society.  Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protect-ing family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. Theythe advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for in-stance, individual hedonism, para-sitism, nature-environment wor-ship, homosexuality, or commun-ismwill have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.

Democracy: The God That Failed, Transaction Publishers, 2001, 218.

Hoppe does not, however, tell his reader what the separation, expulsion, and physical re-moval of advocates of dangerous ideas might consist of.  Unless those actions are voluntary refusals, on virtually everyone else's part, to have any dealings with such advocateswhich boycotts could have the same effect as physical ejectionit is hard to see how a libertarian society's legal code could encom-pass the possibility of ejecting someone for peaceful advocacy.

Anthony Flood

August 17, 2007