John Locke publishes his plan to reform the poor laws

John Locke (1632–1704) was a political philosopher known for advocating for human rights [2]. He is famously known for saying that men are by nature free and equal, and that all people have the inherent right to life, liberty, and property, regardless of governments [2]. While these statements portray him as an advocate for human rights, his stance on assisting the poor differs significantly from the sentiments expressed above. Locke’s essay on The Poor Law even seems to contradict some of the aforementioned principals he is so famously known for. In his essay, Locke states that the reason for the increasing poverty rates “can be [caused] by nothing else but the relaxation of discipline and corruption of manners…[such as] vice and idleness” [1]. Locke’s view that the poor are to be blamed for their poverty drives his suggested reforms, most of which are harsh and focused on disciplining the poor and instilling them with positive characteristics like hard work. The first step in Locke’s proposal for poor reform is the “suppressing of superfluous brandy shops and unnecessary alehouses,” which sets the tone for how his poor reform is based upon his beliefs that the poor are to blame for their situations [1]. Locke’s main proposal for poor reform centers around workhouses and his beliefs that for the “effectual restraining of idle vagabonds” the poor should be put to work. Vagrants could be forced into service in the army/navy, hard labor,  severe punishment, and working on plantations [1]. Locke’s proposed reform of the poor laws is based on his view that the purpose of poor reform is to suppress idle vagabonds, superseding providing assistance to the deserving poor, which seems to contradict the very ideals he is known for.

  1. Locke, John, and Mark Goldie. Locke: Political Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  2. Tuckness, Alex. “Locke’s Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. November 09, 2005. Accessed January 22, 2018.

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