Liberal Fantasies and Collective Dynamics: The Strange Case of John Locke and the English Money Supply

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:50 PM
Chicago Ballroom H (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Christine Desan, Harvard Law School
In 1695, John Locke entered a monetary debate that gripped England.  At first glance, the issue appeared strictly technical.  The nation's coin supply had deteriorated badly from wear and tear, clipping, and counterfeiting.  It needed to be collected and re-minted at a weight that minimized price disruptions and maximized the flow of silver to the mint.  As Locke recognized, however, there were profoundly political stakes hidden within the technical envelope.  Coin represented the heart of private property as both a store and a marker of value:  as the money in each person's purse, it held immediate value and as the measure of other goods, it defined their very price. 

Locke acted out the liberal logic.  Money must be identified with a metal weight that was static and sanctified.   That character would secure it from sovereign abuse, the figure of political power most salient under the circumstances.  The answer changed the terms of the debate.  Dramatically divorcing public from private, it overpowered opposing arguments and created a lasting reference point for modern debates on money and the market.  Impressed by the dangers Locke exposed, Parliament designed the recoinage to meet his recommendations.

The results acted out another logic altogether.  Silver and gold coin, the currency of centuries, had never circulated merely as metal, nor had the value of a penny ever amounted to the commodity it contained.  Money was, in fact, a collectively orchestrated affair, a constant negotiation of public definition and private use that created liquidity.  Locke's answer wreaked havoc with the English economy and visited particular burdens upon the poor.  Its conceptual consequences were just as problematic, framing an emancipatory effort in a vocabulary that obscured the communally engineered character of exchange, interest, and property.