Moral Economy in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Locke’s Second Treatise of Government

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Moral Economy in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Locke’s Second Treatise of Government


James Joyce on Robinson Crusoe: “…the man alone, on a desert island, constructing a simple and moral economy which becomes the basis of a commonwealth presided over by a benevolent sovereign” (Liu 731).

Issues of property and ownership were important during the 18th century both to scholars and the common man. The case of America demonstrates that politicians, such as Thomas Jefferson, were highly influenced by John Locke’s ideas including those on property and the individual’s right to it. Readers in the revolutionary era were also deeply interested in issues of spirituality and independence and read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Both Locke and Defoe address the issues of property, private ownership, and property accumulation, connecting them with the notions of individual and political independence. Although they appear to converge, their philosophies vary greatly on these topics. Several scholars conclude that both Defoe’s and Locke’s ideals support the development of a moral economy although neither express this desire directly.

Locke theorizeds extensively on property, privatization, and the means an individual can use for increasing his property. Initially, in the state of nature, man did not own property in the form of resources or land. All fruits of the earth were for the use of all men,“and nobody has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state” (Locke 353). In this state, people could appropriate only what they could make use of. It was unfair for one person to take more than he could use because some of that natural commodity would go to waste unless another man might have made use of it for his own benefit (360). Locke felt that God gave the bounties of nature to the people of earth and they, by default, should treat these bounties rationally. This rationalistic theory discourages waste.

According to Locke’s theory, a commodity becomes the private possession of an individual who labors for it. Thus it is no longer a direct gift of nature: [A man] “that so employed his pains about any of the spontaneous products of nature, as any way to alter them from the state which nature put them in, by placing any of his labour on them, did thereby acquire a propriety in them” ( 360).

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Ownership therefore results from labor.
In time, however, trade (bartering, etc.) increases a person’s property, especially when he works for more material than he can use without wasting it, but instead sells it to others in exchange for other goods or a form of currency. As vehicle for trade, currency has value not in itself, but because men have consented to give it value. Trade is justified because of Earth’s abundance and "since there is land enough in the world to suffice double the inhabitants” ( 359). Land and money are important resources because they allow men to labor and acquire more and more wealth as a product of labor. There is no offense, involving wastefulness when a man stores wealth in the form of money because it will not spoil in the way that vegetables or meat do. With money, an individual “invaded not the right of others; he might heap as much of these durable things [metal, stone, shell] as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in it ( 365).

As a result of individual industry and the invention of money, disparities between the wealth of individual men existed in the state of nature. Because man needed protection for his property, it became necessary that authority be created. At this point, civil society emerged: “But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve property, and, in order thereunto, punish the offences of all those of that society; there, and there only is political society…” (388). Men provide consent to a government in order to protect their property. Government retains the people’s consent as long as it proves an effective protection for them and their rights—especially the right to property. Because private property exists in a state of nature, it has priority and any government that does not adequately protect such property may lose the people’s consent and the power to govern.

Locke theorized and wrote during a capitalist revolution (Henry 609). Because European economies had not yet experienced a true form of capitalism, Locke’s ideas on property and ownership were forward-looking. Although the state of nature appears to apply to the old adage, “every man for himself,” Locke’s writing supports a moral economy. As John F. Henry observes, "Initially, Locke proposes that the state of nature within which people interact is part of a God-created system in which certain moral rules are to be enforced and in which the individual’s relationship to God is established" (611).

Henry discusses Locke’s moral economy in connection with neoclassical economics-- concluding that Locke’s theory cannot be precisely connected to such economics for one reason. Neoclassicism is based on self-interest while Locke’s theories on property and ownership are morally based: “Property holders, in other words, have a moral (or social) obligation that transcends ‘best use’ considerations as determined by markets” (612). Although Henry is able to define Locke’s influence in neoclassical economy, he concludes that moral economy is what separates the two.

Locke states that it is proper for man to acquire and accumulate wealth on one condition: that this ownership does not lead to the injury of another. Locke believes that man who labors justly owns the product of his labors. While Locke might criticize a poor man who does not work, he verges also upon criticizing the rich who are idle. In this manner, he unofficially affiliates himself with the Diggers who supported seizing feudal land that lay uncultivated and he supported this for reasons of avoiding the waste of God’s gifts (612).

Several other scholars affirm that Locke’s writings on property and ownership do indeed embody a sense of morality: "Man assumes a duty not to harm others (or himself); government protects property rights to prevent harm from occurring and otherwise promotes the common good… Tully and others believe that Locke’s moral philosophy was duty-base" (Stevens 27).

Locke recognizes that when fields are left fallow or foods left to spoil, those who possess them are passively inflicting harm on those who do not. When civil society is formed to protect the property of man, man gives consent to a just government if he feels that the government will adequately protect his rights. To Locke, all men who labor have the right to sustain themselves and an economy is not moral unless it grants all laborers the right to needed resources. Economies should be able to provide for all who are willing to labor in order to survive.

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe presents ideas on property that, for the most part, vary from Locke’s views. Crusoe has many resources on the island where he shipwrecks but few are ready for direct consumption. He must labor on the island in order to survive and in accord with Locke’s view, whatever Crusoe applies his labor to he owns. Thus he picks grapes and dries them in order to have raisins. He plants and grows grain so that he can have bread. To have meat, he domesticates goats on a plot of land. He also designates specific areas of land for drying grapes, growing grain, and containing goats. Crusoe works parts of the island for his benefit but it is far too large for him to work the entire island. The fruits of Crusoe’s labor provide him with sustenance. Although he labors for goods by foraging wrecked ships, he claims these goods by default. Because there are no other people who might use the barrels of gunpowder and other goods he forages, he claims them for his own. He has a similar attitude towards the gold and riches he finds in the wrecked ships. Although he acts as if he may never leave the island, he collects all of the wealth that he can and hoards it in case he should eventually leave the island and return to civilization. In essence, Crusoe behaves like a middle-class capitalist, as Michael Shinagel points out. Money was important to England’s emerging commercial middle-class, because they depended on it, rather than land, for survival. As Shinagel observes, “Defoe’s characters, especially Crusoe, conform to the formula by their steadfast pursuit of money and by their inevitable evaluation of everything by its golden standard” (Shinagel 125).

Crusoe seems to accord with Lockean views in that he recognizes there can be no benefit from the surplus of perishable items: “But all I could make use of was all that was valuable. I had enough to eat and supply my wants, and what was all the rest to me?” (Defoe 115-116). Although he avoids the waste of items like meat and vegetables, Crusoe does collect mass quantities of gunpowder, liquor, and money. He collects all that he can from the shipwrecks and has more provisions than he can make use of. While he believes that he is insuring his future, his efforts illustrate that he is going above and beyond his own necessity. As he admits, a wrecked ship “had, no doubt, a great treasure in her; but of no use at that time to anybody” (Defoe 172). To Crusoe’s knowledge, no sailors survived this wreck and so he feels that it doesn’t do any harm for him to claim what would otherwise go to waste. Crusoe gains wealth by having a surplus of goods and money while complying with Locke’s rationalistic theory on waste.

Crusoe’s labor gives him a powerful sense of ownership. When he first arrives on the island, he makes provisions for himself in order that he may be secure from savages and the elements. He creates a small “fence or fortress” where he can protect himself during the night (Defoe 52). Later in the novel, there is evidence that Crusoe’s view of the island has changed. Because he must labor in order to survive, he develops a sense of ownership over the entire island and the island itself becomes a sort of fortress in that the surrounding ocean is a barrier from the rest of the world. After he sees the first foreign footprint in the beach, Crusoe not only works to secure a small fortress for himself again, but he also organizes his weaponry and gunpowder so that he is capable both defense and offense. Crusoe’s response is almost maniacal in that he is nearly paralyzed by fear and stockpiles weaponry obsessively. Due to his apprehensions, he is even unable to sleep the first night after discovering the footprint and admits that his fear has taken over: “I foresaw nothing at the time more than my mere fear suggested to me (Defoe 145). The amount of gunpowder and rifles he has collected are enough to outfit a small army. Crusoe’s behavior towards the island shifts and he labors for his livelihood. Although he begins to feel as if he owns the entire island, Cruse hasn’t actually labored over its entirety and thus violates Locke’s theory that ownership comes directly from labor.

Partly because he thinks he is the sole arbiter on the island, Crusoe eventually believes that he has the right to kill savages that land there. At first he questions his place in doing so: "What authority or call I had to pretend to be judge and executioner upon these men as criminals… How far these people were offenders against me, and what right I had to engage in the quarrel of that blood, which they shed so promiscuously one upon another" (Defoe 153).

However, Crusoe goes on to kill a number of savages and makes Friday and his father his servants. In doing so, Crusoe exercises authoritarian political power on the island and he increases his power when others arrive there. Because he has inhabited it and labored there, he acts upon his feelings of ownership. Even Crusoe’s use of personal pronouns suggests his sense of authority. As Gustaf Lannert points out, Crusoe’s use of thou “sometimes … give[s] a touch of superiority or condescension towards the persons spoken to … expressing [sometimes] the highest degree of ‘Contempt, Anger, Disdain’” (Lannert 48). Through language, Crusoe reveals his relationship with the island and the savages. His attitudes seem flexible but are not necessarily positive. His tone can be arrogant and scornful, which shows him to be a man who places himself above others because of his resources (not to mention his religion and nationality). Crusoe acts like the king of the island because he has labored and acquired ownership over it.

Because Defoe avidly supported domestic business, he used his writing to promote it. He also discouraged importation and trade where Great Britain had the ability to be self-reliant. Raised as a middleclass gentleman, Defoe saw the benefits of domestic business and made this clear to his readers. In essays like “Reasons Why This Nation Ought to Put A Speedy End to This Expensive War,” “Some Thoughts upon the Subject of Commerce with France,” and “A Brief Deduction of the Original, Progress, and Immense Greatness of the British Woollen Manufacture [sic],” Defoe makes his stance on the domestic economy of Great Britain clear.

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe reveals his disdain for importation implicitly. One way he does this is through Crusoe’s apparent self-sufficiency on the island. Crusoe is one man on one island in the sea and he survives a great part of his life there. He is like an island in that he is alone and able to survive by his own labor. In the same way, England is one island in the sea. Through Crusoe’s example, Defoe could be demonstrating that an island, just like a man, may be self-sufficient.

Defoe’s emphasis on self-sufficiency can be seen even in Crusoe’s making of an earthenware pot. During Defoe’s time, English society was obsessed with all things Chinese, porcelain being the main attraction. Because porcelain’s characteristics were unmatched by European earthenware in their transparency, clarity, delicacy, and artistry, European manufacturers labored in an attempt to recreate true china. Even more than Crusoe, Defoe had personal experience working with European earthenware, which partially explains his strong feelings against china. Thus, regarding England’s increasing fascination with chinoiserie, Defoe felt that “the humours of the common people…make them grievous to our trade, and [are] ruining…our manufactures and the poor; so [much] that the Parliament were oblig’d to make two Acts at several times to restrain, and at last prohibit the use of them” (Liu 729). By identifying with the needs of the poor in his own country, Defoe encourages a moral economy just as Locke did.

According to Lydia Liu, Crusoe’s ability to create his own earthenware included other significance for Defoe’s time. Porcelain and earthenware seem to blend on Crusoe’s island. As Liu points out, Defoe chooses words that describe porcelain in order to depict Crusoe’s own island-manufactured earthenware (735). In Chinese translations of the novel, Crusoe’s crude earthenware earns the (same) name of “porcelain” due to the process he goes through to create it. Although Crusoe learns to fire and glaze the clay by accident, his ability to create his own bowls and jars seems to urge England to do the same. Defoe depicts Crusoe as a man who is self-sufficient. He wanted Great Britain to be a self-sufficient country and he uses Crusoe to demonstrate symbolically this desire through his labor, his acquisition of property, and ownership, all of which accord largely with Lockean principles.

Ideas on ownership and property are not rigid. According to Locke, man’s labor creates ownership. If man works a piece land, that land becomes his. Crusoe does labor for his provisions, but he does not actually work on the entire island that he takes ownership of. To Locke, the concepts of individual property and wealth grow out of a state of nature. Government is a secondary result. Crusoe appears to function similarly in that he literally exists within a state of nature; he is on an uninhabited island and he is far from civil society. Largely through his efforts, he acquires possessions and wealth and later develops a sense of ownership and power over the island. Because he has property to protect, Crusoe, in effect, forms his own government. He kills or puts savages in his service showing that he holds authority over the island. Stored wealth works similarly in both Locke’s and Defoe’s view. Because money does not spoil, it does not harm another for one to store it. Crusoe takes the money from the wrecked ships because there was no one else who could benefit from it. Defoe’s support of English commerce with France demonstrates how he was unwilling to allow available money go to waste (Curtis 158). In Defoe’s middle-class background, there was a great emphasis placed on money and this is reflected in his writing. As a political writer, Locke’s writing is more theoretical than Defoe’s fiction. Nonetheless, Defoe and Locke address the same issues of property. Each writer also develops a sense of moral economy. Through Locke’s theories on waste and excess, he demonstrates moral obligations about property. Defoe promotes moral economy through Crusoe’s character by illustrating his self-sufficiency. Although these writers differ in the way they choose to define how man comes to wield power through property, they each take an approach that is based on moral economy.

Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Auckland: Bantam Books, 1991.

Defoe, Daniel. “Some Thoughts upon the Subject of Commerce with France.” The Versatile Defoe. Ed. L. A. Curtis. London: George Prior Publishers, 1979.

Henry, John F. “John Locke, property rights, and economic theory.” Journal of Economic Issues Sept. 1999:609-618.

Lannert, Gustaf L:Son. An Investigation into the Language of Robinson Crusoe as Compared with That of Other 18th Century Works. Uppsala, 1910.

Liu, Lydia H. “Robinson Crusoe’s Earthenware Pot.” Critical Inquiry Summer 1999: 728-745.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Vol. 5. London, The Works of John Locke, 1823.

Shinagel, Michael. Daniel Defoe and Middle-Class Gentility. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Stevens, Joe B. “John Locke, environmental property, and instream water rights.” Land Economics May 1996: 26-33.


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