I am researching on the origin of the "economic growth imperative". In this book it says:

A central theme of Locke's political teachings is growth; a theme which will not only be central to the philosophy of the liberal state, but also to the other ideologies that are to emerge in the course of the two hundred years following the philosopher's death. This emphasis on economic growth, or on the wealth of nations (to use the language of the time), brought with it - as is well-known - concerted and varied forms of exploitation. (p38-9)

I am a bit amazed to read Locke being associated with the concept of economic growth, not because I know a thing about Locke, but because I have not so far found such reference elsewhere.

I started to explore Locke's writings but so far have failed to find evidence of his potential influence on the issue. He did write of course about property rights (e.g. see here), an issue Adam Smith put a lot of emphasis in terms of the proper policies to promote economic growth. This other scholarly work delving on Locke's contribution to economics through property rights seem to mention nothing on the issue of economic growth either (the word "growth" does not appear). Like many others exploring mercantilism, Locke wrote about money and interest rates (e.g. see here), but that is hardly a basis for founding the economic growth social goal. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy mentions some writing about economic inequality and money, but has no single mention of the word "growth". The only passing reference I found, without suggesting an exact text, is here, where we read:

The mercantilist Locke argues that the end of trade is “riches and power” – and trade increases a nation’s wealth and its people, producing a virtuous circle of economic improvement; yet, like most mercantilists, he condemns activity that are not conducive to economic growth.

Can someone shed some light on the potential relevance of John Locke as a precursor, either explicitly or implicitly, of the idea of "economic growth" as a social goal to be achieved? Perhaps finding the exact reference to which the above quote is referring to might be a good start (I did not find such reference).

  • 2
    See Arneil, Trade, Plantations, and Property:"Other works by Locke defending English colonialism include "For a Generall Naturalization" and Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest. Both defend foreign trade as the source of England's future wealth". Locke certainly was not the "father", Mun and Child promoted trade as the source of "riches" before him. But he was influential not only though his writings, but also directly through his work in the colonial bodies under Shaftesbury.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 21:59
  • 1
    My guess is that Locke does not use the exact words "economic growth" but writes about general "prosperity", "maximazing the conveniences" etc. It's the spirit, not the letter.
    – sand1
    Commented Sep 30, 2020 at 17:29
  • Why him though? Has it not been everyone's belief since forever?... That delivering higher living standards to their subjects was pretty much the measure of the ruler's benevolence? Pushing "benevolence" to extremes, sometimes (Roman "bread and circuses" policy immediately comes to mind). Why single out Locke, then? Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 20:35
  • @YuriAlexandrovich Adam Smith is usually presented as the father of economic growth as a social goal. Never seen Locke mentioned until I read the quoted book. Hence my surprise and question. If you want to challenge the Adam Smith dominance you are welcome to do so and I am happy to read about it (although perhaps that is fitting for another question).
    – luchonacho
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 20:43
  • @luchonacho > "If you want to challenge the Adam Smith dominance" -- moi?.. impossible, I have too much respect for the great Scotsman... Which is another reason why I'm puzzled as to why Locke, of all ppl, is being framed as the Godfather of predatory trade. Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 21:47

1 Answer 1


In the Second Treatise of Government, Locke writes that 'the increase of lands and the right imploying [employing] of them is the great art of government' (§46; P. Laslett, ed., Locke: Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: CUP, 1994: 297-8). This is not the formal aim of government, which is the protection of citzens' natural rights, but it is seen as the principal subsidiary task. The quotation lends some credence to Locke's status as a proponent of economic growth - 'an intellectual father'.

A connexion can be made to C.B. Macpherson's view of Locke:

The "increase of lands" is consistent with C.B. Macpherson's interpretation that Locke's political theory is a justification of capitalist accumulation, increasing the size and disparity of land ownership (1962: 197-238), refined by Neal Wood's interpretation that Locke's great art of government consists in England's enrichment through enclosure of common lands, drainage and afforestation, applying Baconian methods to increase yield in cultivated lands (1984). Alternatively, one could point to Barbara Arneil's (1996) and David Armitage's (2000) view that Locke's Second Treatise of Government is properly understood only by taking into account England's increase of lands in the Americas. To be sure, there is no reason why Macpherson's and Wood's interpretation of Locke as an agrarian capitalist cannot be supplemented profitably by Arneil's and Armitage's emphasis on colonial plantations. (Edward Andrew, 'A Note on Locke's "The Great Art of Government"', Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Jun., 2009, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 511-519: 511-2.)

Arneil is referenced in Conifold's comment.


There is a textual crux over the word 'lands' in the opening quotation. Some commentators conjecturally emend the text to read 'hands' or regard 'hands' as a possible reading. See Goldie, Wootton, and Sigmund. Edward Andrew discusses the matter in his article but I have found no reason to depart from Laslett's text.


J. Locke, Locke: Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge: CUP, 1994.

Armitage, David. 2000. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arneil, Barbara. 1996. John Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism. Oxford: Clarendon.

Goldie, Mark, ed. 1993. Two Treatises of Government, by John Locke (1689). London: Everyman.

Macpherson, C.B. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Signmund, Paul E., ed. 2005. The Selected Political Writings of John Locke: Texts, Background Selections, Sources, Interpretations, NY: Norton.

Wood, Neal. 1984. John Locke and Agrarian Capitalism. Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

Wootton, David, ed. 1993. John Locke: Political Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  • Thank you very much. Lands and capitalism are connected but not enough to be considered as a father of economic growth imo. David Ricardo saw landowners as detrimental for capitalistic accumulation, since to him (urban) capitalists were the ones saving and therefore investing whereas rural aristocrats were building mansions and spending on lavish goods, art and parties. He saw expansion of commerce through foreign trade as an important source to get cheap food (hitting landowners) and foster British comparative advantage in industry. So land, if anything, is bad for growth in the classics.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 19:27
  • Thank you. I didn't tie the answer to 'the classics' and to what views they held about economic growth. I don't know what to do about my answer. Let it stand along with your critique? Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 19:57
  • Sure, I think it is a good insight. I only expressed my reading of the evidence. Let's see if something else comes to complement or supplement it.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 20:14

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