John Locke, Indian-fighter

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What do Indians have to say about the Bush Administration's tax cut policy? Plenty, we think, and pretty important stuff too. Native peoples have had an on-going beef with the guiding spirit of American economics for about 300 years now. It's not just an academic debate, either. For most of the time, it was a struggle for survival. Now, possibly, it will be a contest for the soul of the continent.

The great adversary of the Indians for these three centuries has been John Locke, the English economist and political philosopher who shaped modern capitalism, representative government and most of the horizon of the United States. Locke is the ultimate source of the Republican Party's tax-cutting ideology (which at one time was also the Democratic Party ideology). He was also repeatedly invoked, accurately or not, whenever European settlers wanted to take over Indian land. We are by no means the first to say this. For an update on this very interesting debate, take a look at the 1996 article "Locke and the Dispossession of the American Indian" by Purdue philosophy professor Kathy Squadrito in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal.

Ironically Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704, was far and away the European thinker who knew the most about American Indians. For a time he held day jobs as commissioner of the English Board of Trade and secretary to the Proprietors of the Colony of Carolina, and passages in his books justifying punitive wars against the southeastern tribes probably come directly out of his work experience. Locke also learned good things from the Indians. He refers to tribal elections of chiefs in his attacks on the Divine Right of Kings. His lessons in liberty come straight from the "wilds of America."

But when Locke set down his principles of government, he forgot, or deliberately excluded, most of the Indian experience. He made up a State of Nature composed of individuals, not the truly natural state of family and kin that formed tribal nations. These fictional individuals accumulated property through their work and then devised civil society and government to protect the fruit of their labors. This is the economic basis of American civil rights and of the Bush Administration's "Supply-side" tax policy (which is actually a jazzed up version of Adam Smith who spun his 1776 treatise "Wealth of Nations" out of John Locke.)

The critics who have attacked the supply-side policy from the Reagan years on as a product of greed miss the point. Of course it is. So are modern capitalism, liberalism and the American way of life, to the extent they derive from John Locke's basic teaching. In this sense, politics based on greed has worked astoundingly well, producing unprecedented prosperity and political stability, at least for the dominant culture. But it has left a deep sense of dissatisfaction and social decay in everyone it touches. They all seem to be asking, in the words of Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?"

Here is where the American Indian has something to say. No one has suffered more from the social corrosion of Locke's ideology. Leaving aside the generations of land grabs, Locke's idea of economic individualism underlay the infamous General Allotment Act of 1887 by U.S. Sen. Henry Dawes. Its stated purpose, pushed by a group called the Friends of the Indian, was to turn tribal members into economic units, giving them 160 acres of private property and, just incidentally, freeing the "surplus" reservation land for sale to other settlers. The social, economic, cultural and personal devastation caused by this helpful measure immeasurably exceeded that of the worst atrocities committed by the most determined of the Indian's enemies.

Tribes have struggled for generations to recover from this disaster. (It's a delicious irony that many recent dramatic gains have come from the new-found ability to exploit the dominant culture's avarice through casino gaming.) In the course of this recovery, the tribes are learning again the worth of traditional values, of cultural preservation, of community life and of sharing between the haves and have-nots. Increasing numbers of Natives along the way have also learned how to be successful in terms of the dominant economy, but they are showing how much more satisfying personal success can be when shared within the family and tribal community. These are the enduring human ties that Locke left out.

The American Indians once taught Locke and Europe the meaning of liberty. The dominant culture should look again for lessons in the meaning of humanity.