Three Centuries of the Lockean-Rousseauean Debate

Our intractable debates over politics—how much are they driven by philosophy and how much by psychology?

The world should have more books in it like Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rousseau to the Present. I enjoyed the read and learned a lot. My main complaint is the opposite of the common one, about the authors out there who have a 100-page book but stretch it into 500 pages. Nicholas Capaldi and Gordon Lloyd, by contrast, have written a fertile 200-page book that left me wanting more.

Liberty and Equality in Political Economy is structured around a content claim, and a method claim.

The content claim is that the major philosophical and political battle in the modern world is between broadly Lockean and Rousseauean approaches. Lockeans and Rousseaueans disagree on the priority of liberty and equality, the priority of the individual and the collective, the status of property rights, and about what Capaldi and Gordon call the “Technological Project”—the integration of knowledge with action/technê, including the extended market economy, that characterizes the modern transformation of the world.

The historical Locke and Rousseau function primarily as fountainheads in Capaldi and Lloyd’s account, each of the thinkers grounding and inspiring others in their respective traditions—with Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, F.A. Hayek, and Michael Oakeshott as milestones in the Lockean, and Karl Marx, Charles Beard, and Thomas Piketty in the Rousseauean. Other thinkers borrow from both traditions or synthesize them, so a third strand includes mixed figures such as G.F.W. Hegel, John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith, and John Rawls.

The value of books such as this is not primarily the summary overviews of the 30 or so major thinkers they cover in both traditions. Such overviews are available in plentiful quantity in encyclopedias and other standard histories.

Nor is the value in their distinctive interpretations of each major figure. Each typically has two or three versions—there are conservative and radical Lockes, liberal and anti-liberal Kants, right-wing and left-wing Hegels, and so on. Capaldi and Lloyd are well aware of the scholarship and stake out their own positions, and while their positions could generate lots of fun arguments, those arguments would be quibbles in the context of their major purpose.

The real value lies in the distinctive interpretative frameworks offered by such books as this one.  Capaldi and Lloyd present a high-level, integrating account of how the Lockean-Rousseauean debate evolved across several centuries. In one especially strong formulation, they state that most thinkers can be said to have a basically Lockean or Rousseauean “inclination.” So deeply embedded have those inclinations become that the history of debate across the generations is a matter of variations on those two basic themes. Having noted, for example, the huge split between Anglo-American and Continental approaches to political philosophy over the last two centuries, they explain the split fundamentally in terms of underlying Lockean and Rousseauean commitments.

Their other major structuring claim, as I said, is about method, and in this regard, they give priority to narrative over argument. Narrative accounts better frame and enable us to understand the causal power of the Lockean liberty-philosophy and the Rousseauean equality-philosophy, according to Capaldi and Lloyd.

Why is it that, as they put it, “narratives are more important than arguments”? Arguments are about soundness—true premises integrated validly should yield true conclusions—and when one argues philosophically, one’s focus is on truth and logic. But when it comes to narratives, we are not so concerned with truth. Much fiction is narrative, for example, and when reading fiction we don’t care whether the story is true. Instead, we want an imaginative story about causality and values, and the story’s psychological appeal is broader than the question of whether it speaks to our cognitive concerns for logic and truth. Our imaginations, emotions, as well as our intellects, are brought into play. Competing narratives are more about compelling conversation than about argument.

In Capaldi and Lloyd’s telling, one’s core narrative is typically acquired when young. Then, as one matures, one fits a formal and abstract philosophy into it. Consequently, while philosophies come and go, it is narratives that have cultural power across lifetimes and generations. Intellectuals might critique and refute particular versions of those narratives, but the narratives’ core themes return again and again. Intellectual and applied history are thus to be understood in terms of the power of the Lockean and Rousseauean narratives, not solely or even primarily in terms of the power of their abstract philosophies or the arguments for them.

So in addition to explicating 30 or so variations on Lockean and Rousseauean philosophy and political and economic theory, Capaldi and Lloyd make a series of developmental psychology and social-psychology claims.

Both Lockean and Rousseauean narratives, for example, confront the fact of inequality, and both dislike it intensely. Neither accepts it as an inescapable fact about the divine or natural order. But the two have distinct follow-up questions with important psychological-framing consequences. The Lockeans ask, “How can we raise everyone up?” while the Rousseaueans ask, “If we can’t raise all of the poor up, how can we lower the rich to an appropriate level?” Psychologically, then, Lockeans are oriented toward success, while Rousseaueans are oriented toward alienation. Further, Lockean social psychology emphasizes respect for others’ achievements while Rousseauean social psychology attends to the envy felt toward those who have more.

Capaldi and Lloyd sometimes have their thumb on the scale for the Lockean narrative, but their book’s official stance is neutral. So in giving their conversational account across generations, they (mostly) grapple fairly with the great appeal that the Rousseauean narrative has for many, attending to the psychological buttons it pushes, so to speak, as well as its claims to philosophical truth.

The book’s thesis is thus original and strong; would that it were longer, as I said, for its key content claim and its method claim both seem to me underdeveloped.

Again let us first take up the content claim. The authors do not say that Lockean-versus-Rousseauean exhausts the territory. They do suggest, though, that the prominence of that debate means that the modern era’s political philosophy is best understood as a contest between these two contrasting outlooks.

Yet any binary presentation invites us to ask whether a third or even a fourth fundamental option exists. There are, of course, many fundamental oppositions between the Lockeans and the Rousseaueans, so the binary presentation has strength. But there are also many fundamental points that are common to Lockeans and Rousseaueans—and thinkers who identify and reject those points of commonality are also important to understanding how the modern debate has evolved. Some examples:

  • Locke and Rousseau share an optimistic view of human nature. The former argue for tabula rasa and the view that proper education can train us all to be competent and moral adults. The latter argue that we are born essentially good but become bad because of preexisting, corrupt institutions. A fundamental third alternative would be to hold (pessimistically) that we are born basically bad or sinful. If we make that assumption, as many major thinkers in the modern era do—for example Martin Luther, John Calvin, Immanuel Kant, Joseph de Maistre, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—it is not clear that anything like either Lockean or Rousseauean politics follows.
  • While Lockeans make liberty our basic social-political value and Rousseaueans make equality basic, one could instead make hierarchy basic, emphasizing the fundamental authority of tradition, the institutions it has generated, and the place one finds oneself in them—as do, for example, many Catholic social thinkers, and also Edmund Burke and Russell and Kirk.
  • Lockeans and Rousseaueans understand politics as the pursuit of a normative ideal, but one could reject ideals and explain politics only in descriptive, power-play terms—as, for example, some versions of Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Otto von Bismarck.
  • Lockeans and Rousseaueans project peace as a desired political teleology (whether perhaps in bourgeois or tribalist forms), but other major theorists deride peace and valorize war as essential to human political development. One thinks here of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, and Martin Heidegger, all of whom are anti-Lockean and anti-Rousseauean.

Those latter three names—Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Heidegger—especially point up a question about the explanatory sufficiency of the Locke-versus-Rousseau narrative. Nietzsche was arguably the most influential philosopher come the 20th century, Heidegger was the most influential philosopher in the Continental tradition, and Schmitt is on most people’s lists of the top legal-political thinkers of the 20th century. Yet they do not figure in Capaldi and Lloyd’s telling.

A closely related point about the connections of political philosophy to applied political history arises here. Capaldi and Lloyd make good in connecting Lockean philosophy to the American Revolution, Rousseauean philosophy to the French Revolution, Rousseauean-via-Marxist philosophy to the Russian Revolution, and a variety of mixed thinkers to the American New Deal under Roosevelt. But we do not get a discussion of the National Socialist revolution in Germany or the earlier Fascist revolution in Italy, both of which are of major importance and neither of which fits easily into a Lockean, Rousseauean, or mixed narrative.

After a chapter-length discussion of Piketty’s writings, the authors bring their book to a sudden end: “The conversation goes on between the liberty narrative and the equality narrative.”

Closing with narrative brings us full circle to the opening chapter’s emphasis upon the importance of narratives and the method by which we present, understand, and evaluate political philosophies. Capaldi and Lloyd’s motivation in covering three-and-a-half centuries of history is based on the view that understanding that history matters: We should know how the debate evolved to understand how we got where we are now.

And where exactly are we now?

One place we are is fully enmeshed in political debates that seem to be intractable. If we apply Capaldi and Lloyd’s approach to the intractability, the explanation would include understanding how the intellectual power of rational argumentation combines with the psychological and social-psychological power of narrative.

So, after reading their book’s three-century overview of the dynamic, a series of natural questions follow: How should we utilize their insight about narratives? Does history teach us that no solution is possible? Or have we learned enough about the combined power of rational philosophy and psychological narratives to help us solve the intractability? Or, more modestly, does Capaldi and Lloyd’s account help us predict whether the Lockeans or the Rousseaueans are more likely to prevail in the short- and medium terms?

Perhaps neither will.

Another place we are now is in a global geopolitical era. That’s not just a cliché, for both contemporary Western political-philosophical and political-practical thinking must be informed by developments in the new Russia, the new China, a newly resurgent Middle East, and significant improvements in parts of Africa. How much, for example, is the new Russia being shaping by claimed new political philosophies such as those of Alexander Dugin and his Russian “fourth way” that, according to its proponents, is neither liberal nor egalitarian nor fascist? How much of the Islamic world is being shaped by Islamists such as Seyyid Qutb? What can we expect from the new China, given its combination of formal Marxism, informal Confucianism, and semi-openness to Western intellectual influences?

One of the normative themes of Capaldi and Lloyd’s approach is that ideas have consequences. If so, great value is to be had in learning from them what import the Lockean-Rousseauean debate will have for our near future. Do they think their liberty-equality-narrative-conflict thesis is limited to understanding how part of the debate will proceed in part of the globe, or does their thesis have broader application to understanding where the world is going?

Liberty and Equality in Political Economy is a product of deep thinking and insight, so I hope they will write a follow-up book.