Locke and Hobhouse on coercion

L. T. Hobhouse and John Locke are two great British liberals separated by two centuries. But they both saw the coercion inherent in economic inequality. They both saw the way in which the person who has much can dominate and subordinate the person who has little. And they both found it reprehensible, something that must be protected against, for liberty.

Here is Locke:

And a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal by withholding that relief God required him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and, with a dagger at his throat, offer him death or slavery.

Here is Hobhouse:

Well, it may be said, volenti non fit injuria. No wrong is done to a man by a bargain to which he is a willing party. That may be, though there are doubtful cases. But in the field that has been in question the contention is that one party is not willing. The bargain is a forced bargain. The weaker man consents as one slipping over a precipice might consent to give all his fortune to one who will throw him a rope on no other terms. This is not true consent. True consent is free consent, and full freedom of consent implies equality on the part of both parties to the bargain. Just as government first secured the elements of freedom for all when it prevented the physically stronger man from slaying, beating, despoiling his neighbors, so it secures a larger measure of freedom for all by every restriction which it imposes with a view to preventing one man from making use of any of his advantages to the disadvantage of others.

Hobhouse’s rhetorical approach is much watered down. Locke is downright proto-Marxist.