Book review: Neil Lock’s “Honest Common Sense”


Mustela nivalis

Neil Lock (an occasional contributor to this site) has a background in mathematics and software development. It is therefore no surprise that Neil is an early adopter of the current wave of libertarianism. The philosophy of freedom is a logical system that does not tolerate contradictions. True to form, Neil’s book “Honest Common Sense” contains a rigorously methodical and systematic exposition of this philosophy. Lock has built his book on the four humanities metaphysics, epistemology, politics/ethics and economics. As he has aimed his book at “non-academic people” he is not above simplifying these concepts into “be”, “think”, “relate” and “do” and to explain each category in everyday terms. “Honesty” is the centrepiece of his work, holding these four concepts together.

In his explanation of these concepts, Lock divides each of them into easily digestible subsections. For example in “relate” he sets out four political principles, which he says are the fundamental rules by which a society ought to be organised: justice, equality, rights and freedom. Interestingly, he ranks them in that order in a hierarchy, one building on the other. He thereby avoids problems that would result from treating each principle equally. Indeed, how would a justice system work if A had the right to judge B only if B has an equal right to judge A? The solution: “justice trumps equality”. How human beings ought to behave within this framework of the four guiding political principles is then set out in Lock’s ten ethical laws. Within the law of truthfulness, for example, Lock discusses the circumstances “where it’s OK to lie in self defence”, and where not, saying: “if justice is not truthful, it is nothing”.

The author often bases his ideas on the works of pre-eminent thinkers such as John Locke and Franz Oppenheimer. Commendably however, Lock has the confidence to formulate his own original thoughts and insights. For example, according to Lock, “government” and “political state” are not the same thing, they are in fact “all but opposites”. Neil, who likes to play with words, compares a government with an “umpire” and the state with a “vampire”. Another original thought is when he describes the free market with his “Free Marxet [!] Percept”: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his deserts [instead of needs, as Marx had said]. In another chapter, he goes beyond saying “taxation is theft”. For him, “taxation kills”, because taking property means “taking life”, as “property is life” – it is one’s life’s energy solidified into valuables. His simplifying, but not simplistic, style and catchy phrases make his message very memorable.

Lock does not shy away from more practical questions where it matters. He discusses for example whether or not and under which circumstances it is OK to take state money. Basically it is, says Lock, if it is to “take back your own”. You may also accept help if you couldn’t survive without it – but should try to find out who actually paid for the benefits and thank them. State paid jobs are also OK, as long as they would exist in the private sector if the state wasn’t in the way. This is solid advice, especially so as it leaves room for the individual to make up his own mind on each specific matter concerning him.

Although Lock seems to have avoided the word libertarian (with or without the ism), his book is a very accessible, easily readable primer for the philosophy and practice of freedom. Being a book about honesty, it is in part quite challenging as well. But in a good way. Lock is no puritan fundamentalist. He is aware that honesty is a difficult path to follow – which is why he talks about paths (corresponding to the five divisions of his philosophy) “which you must do your best to keep to, rather than Laws which you must always keep to.”

Up to this point there are only couple of minor quibbles I have. One is that Lock sees the immigration debate as an attempt by the state to “shore up their false ‘community’ by concentrating on its walls.” He certainly has a point here. However, this view is one-sided. The other side is the (seemingly contrary) attempt by the state’s ruling class to balkanise its subjects to make it difficult, if not impossible for them to bunch up against the establishment. The other quibble is where he writes that whenever we run out of natural resources, “that’s the time to develop better alternatives”. Here it would have been good to explain that in a free market the price mechanism would drive this development.

The book ends with a few chapters more or less devoted to a vision of a free society and the question of “how do we get from here [being the political state] to there [the ‘Age of the Individual and of Civilization’]?” Lock correctly identifies the nature of the current struggle towards this civilization as a “paradigm war”. There are some aspects here however where I depart from Lock more fundamentally. He acknowledges setbacks in our societal evolution towards freedom, but sees us now in a phase comparable to “contractions which precede the birth of a baby”. This may or may not be so – the evidence provided is scant. The bigger problem however is the air of inevitability which accompanies this statement of faith. If something considered as “good” is assumed to be inevitable there will always be some who will want to hasten things along, irrespective of the consequences in the detail: After all, heaven on earth is just around the corner. Omelettes and eggs.

To his credit Lock explicitly warns against revolutions “because our enemies are better than we are at violence”. However, on the other hand he hopes that “it shouldn’t be too hard to raise a tidal wave of anger, contempt and hatred, directed at the state, its politics, and the proprietors and beneficiaries of the state. A tidal wave is exactly what we need … it will happen quickly. How long did it take to pull down the Berlin Wall.” Apart from being contradictory, the author is too optimistic here, even if the “tidal wave” he envisages remained peaceful. It is not without reason that German libertarians today talk of their country as being “GDR light” or “GDR 2.0”. Also, the phrase EUSSR is not without foundation.

Lock counters by pointing to England’s Glorious Revolution: his almost-namesake and paragon John Locke who in 1683 had to flee from England became in 1689 Commissioner of Excise Appeals. “Paradigm wars do things like that.” Indeed. However, that particular shift was preceded by 150 years or so of Reformation, which planted into people’s minds ideas of individuality and its relationship with the divine. Not to forget the civil war. Paradigm shifts happen, and happen fast, but, like earthquakes, take a long time to build up and a lot of energy and drive to actually happen. This reviewer believes that a societal shift towards libertarianism will need to be preceded by something that changes hearts and minds as much and as deeply as the Reformation did.

However, these last few chapters (comprising about 40 of 150 pages) do not lessen the merits of the bulk of Lock’s book. Indeed, “Honest Common Sense” has the potential to be part of the “build up” to the paradigm shift he hopes for. From his book any reader, the seasoned libertarian as well as the novice, can glean many original insights as well as a coherent exposition and overview of the philosophy of freedom. Apart from the above caveats, the reviewer recommends it wholeheartedly.

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3 comments

  • Thank you, Mustela, for your kind “weasel words.” Your review was much more positive than I expected! Over-optimism is something I don’t at all mind being (even justifiably) accused of – particularly when so many libertarians tend to go the other way.

  • One of the things that interests me is why politics developed so differently on this island, especially in the south of it (England and Wales) to in “mainland” Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    In the rest of Europe (with a few small exceptions) politics became more absolute – old Parliaments and other restraints on government were swept away and monarchs became absolute. Here things went the other way – Parliament (then an unpaid and part time check upon the government – just about the opposite of what it has become in modern times) became more powerful, and such things as freedom of speech and the right to keep and bear arms became normal principles of everyday life – and it became an outrage to violate them.

    I suspect there was a link between political evolution and theology – please do not scream and run away, although I know that theology is an unpopular subject today.

    In most of Europe (with the partial exception of Holland) the Reformation meant a decline in the belief in individual moral responsibility – after all both Martin Luther and John Calvin were strong predestinationists and Luther had even, in opposition to the humanist Erasmus, written extensively against human moral responsibility – agency (free will), the possibility of humans knowing the difference between right and wrong (independently of scripture) and choosing to do right.

    Just as with mainstream (Sunni) Islam, Luther and Calvin had taught that moral good and moral evil were just arbitrary commands of the WILL of God – that reason was a “whore” (as Luther put it). And that human beings were not a mixture of good and bad, but utterly and completely evil (without even the possibility of choosing to do good – even if we could know what good was) with a few people saved by the arbitrary giving of the grace of God – why some people saved and others not, being an unacceptable question.

    True they differed on some matters, for example Luther thought the State should control the Church and Calvin (basically) believed in theocracy (the Church controlling the State) – but on the above they seem to have been in accord.

    However, things developed very differently in England and Wales. Even in the 16th century a writer such as Richard Hooker (whose writings were later to inspire John Locke and others) does not “feel” like a Protestant writer from mainland Europe, or really like a Roman Catholic writer either. The “three legged stool” of scripture, tradition and REASON (my stress) may seem Catholic (perhaps it is) but there is no Pope in it (so it is not Roman Catholic) and philosophically there is a strong influence of Aristotle – the very thinker whom Martin Luther hated above all.

    By the 18th century the Anglican Church did not stress human agency (free will) less than the Roman Catholics did (as was the case with most of the Reformed Churches did) it stressed human agency (individual moral responsibility) MORE than the Roman Catholic Church did – and thus Anglicans (at least by the 18th century) tended to be less happy with such things as censorship than Roman Catholics (or Continental Protestants) were. And it is also true of many (although certainly not all) “dissenters” on this island also (although not all of them). Even Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century showed a tolerance towards Protestants who did not agree with him (although not to Catholics or Anglicans) that was shocking even in Scotland (where the idea of a single Calvinist Church was the default position) let alone on mainland Europe. And his attitude towards Jews would have horrified Martin Luther (at least the older Luther – the younger Luther was far less savage).

    In the late 17th and 18th century such people as “Quakers” were not known as less tolerant than Anglicans – but actually more so (as they showed in their American colony as well as in Britain), they were very unlike the Reformed Churches in Europe – and this showed in their attitude to slavery and so on.

    What is interesting is not the theological and political differences of someone like Edmund Burke (Irish I know – but I am not going to discuss Ireland just now) and the dissenter Dr Richard Price (their opposite interpretations of the French Revolution and so on) – but their similarities. Both hostile to slavery, both basically free market people, both hostile to debt, and (more important) both Aristotelians in certain key ways – the universal nature of fundamental right and wrong (the rejection of “geographical morality” and racial morality, and historical stage morality) – their certainty that human beings could, with great effort, know moral right from moral wrong, and that (again with great effort) people could choose good against evil – and yes Edmund Burke did apply these principles as much to drugs and so on as he did the legal status of “forestalling and engrossing” and other economic questions.

    The shared philosophical position of Richard Price and Edmund Burke (even though they were at odds politically) was considered unremarkable in 18th century England – but it would have marked them both as freaks in mainland Continental Europe.

    And in the late 18th century we have John Wesley and his Methodists – who may indeed have been inspired by a small sect in Germany (a sect that was fleeing to America because of persecution at home – of course in America even some Scots, and especially some of the Ulster “Scots Irish” [what Americans came to call “Red Necks” – for better or worse the backbone of every war America has ever fought], tended to reject predestination whilst remaining strong Protestants) became a mass movement on this island, with attitudes concerning the individual moral conscious (the duty to stand against the entire world, if need be, to save the life of the innocent) that can be seen in the quiet “hobbit like” courage and moral virtue (please do not sneer) of someone like Alfred Roberts – the father of Margaret Thatcher, who shared his home with people of another religion who came to him from Europe with nothing to offer, save their humanity.

    So why did theology and politics turn out rather differently on this island, or parts of it, than in Continental Europe?

    I do not actually know.

    I know that Karl Bath once said (more in resignation than in anger) that the English were “hopelessly Pelagian” – but that does not seem satisfactory as a solution to the problem, Surely there must be more to it than that?

    I just do not know. Still I wish Mr Neil Locke every success with his book and I apologise if his writing style (alien to me – but perhaps far more in line with the modern mind) has led me to radically misinterpret him in the past.

  • Julie near Chicago

    If the doctrine of Predestination is true–if God has determined from the Beginning which of us will be Saved and which not–then why bother about trying to be Good, i.e. virtuous?

    The Congregational church that we attended when I was a kid had no theological nor doctrinal answer to this question (it was a church with only the most fundamental of Christian theological doctrines: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, Jesus as His Son, Jesus as our Saviour, I think that’s about it). There was certainly no doctrine of predestination, but the general attitude seemed to be on the order of “some denominations or sects believe this doctrine, but it’s not held by most Congregationalists.” But the question could be an interesting one, and some people were interested in it, so there was some discussion from the pulpit.

    The answer the minister(s?) presented was simply that even if our ultimate fates have been sealed by God from the Beginning, no one could know in advance what his fate would be; all one could say is that the unvirtuous could not be among those who go to heaven. In other words, if you were a bad person, that would already be proof you weren’t going to make it. Putting it vulgarly, the smart money is on being as virtuous as one can possibly manage. (Whatever constitutes virtue is a separate question.)

    As with all the major obstacles we are forced to deal with, “the only way out is through.”

    So from that point of view, the doctrine of Predestination, at least in its bare-bones form, simply does not negate the presence of human will, human free will, human agency, or the importance of trying to be moral; and if anything it is an incentive TOWARD moral conduct rather than a reason not to bother with it.

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