John Locke: Theft as the Little Murder

In section 11 of his 2d Treatise on Government: On Civil Government," John Locke sets down a very different moral basis and very different location of the right of enforcement for civil as opposed to criminal law:

From these two distinct rights, the one of punishing the crime for restraint, and preventing the like offence, which right of punishing is in every body; the other of taking reparation, which belongs only to the injured party, comes it to pass that the magistrate, who by being magistrate hath the common right of punishing put into his hands, can often, where the public good demands not the execution of the law, remit the punishment of criminal offences by his own authority, but yet cannot remit the satisfaction due to any private man for the damage he has received. That, he who has suffered the damage has a right to demand in his own name, and he alone can remit: the damnified person has this power of appropriating to himself the goods or service of the offender, by right of self-preservation, as every man has a power to punish the crime, to prevent its being committed again, by the right he has of preserving all mankind, and doing all reasonable things he can in order to that end: and thus it is, that every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury, which no reparation can compensate, by the example of the punishment that attends it from every body, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tyger, one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security: and upon this is grounded that great law of nature, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” And Cain was so fully convinced, that every one had a right to destroy such a criminal, that after the murder of his brother, he cries out, Every one that findeth me, shall slay me; so plain was it writ in the hearts of all mankind.

That is, in the state of nature, everyone has the right to enforce natural criminal law, but the right to enforce natural civil law (or have an agent enforce it) belongs to the one wronged. 

In his discussion of natural criminal law, I am struck by John Locke's repeated recourse to murder as a metaphor for other crimes as well. In section 6, he makes the connection explicit: 

[One] may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

A possible reaction to this might be that in 1689, when John Locke published the Two Treatises of Government, even many people in upper percentiles of the population in income were living close enough to the margin that the typical effect of having goods stolen on mortality was much greater than it would be for the rich today. But that is much too partial an analysis. If theft is not deterred in a nation, the whole nation will remain poor and many, many will die. Blocking theft, deception and threats of violence are the most basic tasks of government in order to give a nation a fighting chance to become rich. (See my column "The Government and the Mob" for a related discussion.) Most of the poorest nations on earth are poor either because of some failure to block theft, deception and threats of violence on the part of private individuals or because the government itself has resorted too readily to theft, deception and threats of violence.  

Nevertheless, when carefully regulated so as not to interfere with economic growth, "theft" by the government of resources from the very wealthy probably cannot be appropriately called a "little murder." But other things equal, actions that do inhibit economic growth will have a cost in lives, and are hard to justify unless they contribute to the preservation of life enough in other ways to counterbalance the lost life from slower economic growth.