I don’t enjoy any debate that has to do with history or exegesis. But I found myself right in the middle of one such debate today that I found absolutely hilarious.

So I wrote this post at Demos today. It’s a pretty vacuous post in which I observe that being economically insecure harms your genuine liberty to do the things you’d like. In particular, when your well-being is not publicly secured, you have to always be concerned about what those who have the private economic resources your life depends on might do to you. This is standard, no ground broken.

In the piece, I included a quote from John Locke. Libertarians have built up this myth of John Locke (sort of like how others built up myths of Adam Smith) and think he is one of them. But he isn’t. He is a good ole left-liberal. He wrote that the poor have a right to the surplus of the rich:

God, the lord and father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it

He also wrote, as my post today spelled out, that the needy must be given relief from that need lest they be susceptible to the economic coercion brought on by having very few options. More vividly he says that it is wrong to take advantage of someone who is very needy to essentially offer them a choice between “death or slavery.” Good times right?

Well not for Jason Kuznicki, some Cato person. In the comments on my post, he copied and pasted a long quote from Locke’s Second Treatise (my quote was from the First Treatise) that says that private property, because it does not suffer from problem of the commons, is more productive.

Now I know what you are thinking. Isn’t Kuznicki’s Locke quote totally and entirely 100% consistent with my Locke quote? Isn’t it totally possible for someone to think private property leads to greater productivity while believing that the needy must be provided relief from that need in order to be protected against economic coercion? And the answer to these two questions is yes. It is a total mystery to me what tension Kuznicki think exists between these two quotes. A sensible person who had actually read Locke would probably think Locke would favor a private property regime that had packed into it an obligation to provide alms to the needy. Shrug.

Now Kuznicki actually manages to go one step further in the utter confusion department. On twitter various people tried to figure out what he was going on about. Here are three of his responses:

I am reading these tweets confused and then it struck me. Jason Kuznicki has created a story in his mind in which Locke wrote the First Treatise. Then he hung out for a bit and wrote the Second Treatise once he had figured some things out. This is not a silly story necessarily. Writers evolve over time. But the problem here is that the First and Second Treatise are literally the same book. They were written together and published in the exact same pamphlet/volume. In fact, they were originally called Book I and Book II.

But you can see the creative mind of Kuznicki at work here. He decided that he needed some story as to why this Second Treatise quote trumped the First Treatise quote. (In fact, the quotes are totally consistent with one another.) So he decided to make up this story about how Locke believed economic coercion was a real thing and a problem and then later on in his career figured out how it wasn’t and wrote the Second Treatise. Totally made up, totally false, provably false. Why would someone just pull things out of the sky like that?

Locke printed the First and Second Treatise together at the same time. They were not separate books written over different times. They are separated into books just like people today separate things into sections. But hey, maybe Locke put out a book in which he forcefully argued that economic coercion is a serious problem only to change his mind later on in the exact same book. Or I don’t know: maybe Locke believed both that private property was a good thing and that providing relief to the needy was necessary to prevent economic coercion. The world may never know.

Edit: For what it’s worth, Peter Laslett, foremost Locke scholar, has argued again and again that physically speaking, the First Treatise was written after the Second Treatise. It’s even in Laslett’s introduction to the Cambridge University Press printing of the Two Treatises, aka the blue book.