RALEIGH — “May I speak to Mr. Locke, please?”
I can’t tell you how many times someone at the John Locke Foundation has taken a phone call and gotten this question. One would hope that the name of John Locke — the 17th century English philosopher, physician, and statesman — would be familiar enough to avoid such questions. But that’s not the current reality. And if John Locke, that dogged champion of empiricism, were alive today, he would encourage us to accept reality as it is, not as we wish it might be.
When a bipartisan group of North Carolina business leaders and philanthropists gathered in 1989 to found the John Locke Foundation, the state’s first conservative think tank, they decided to name it after a famous philosopher of liberty even though they knew the name might sometimes stump readers or viewers. One of those JLF founders, Wrangler jeans executive Edwin Morris of Greensboro, was a marketing genius. Another, John Pope of Raleigh, had built one of the South’s most successful retail chains.
They made a conscious decision to adopt a name of historical and philosophical significance. They do so for three main reasons that remain relevant nearly a quarter of a century later.
First, they wanted to call attention to the legacy of John Locke, whose writings helped inspire the American Revolution. Although very much a man of his time, Locke helped define and describe timeless principles of individual freedom, constitutional government, and human behavior. When Locke wrote that all human beings “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions,” he was describing the basic principle of liberty to which North Carolina and the nation ought to adhere today.
Ironically, the philosophy John Locke did so much to popularize was originally called liberalism. After the progressive movement redefined the concept of freedom in the early 20th century to include forcible claims on other people’s liberty or possessions, those who advocated classical liberalism began to be called conservatives. We still are.
The second reason for the name John Locke Foundation was to call attention to the role that John Locke himself, and his close friend and political patron Anthony Ashley Cooper, played in the founding and early years of the Carolina colony. Cooper and Locke appear to have written the founding document of the colony, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, in 1669. One Lockean legacy during the colonial era was that North Carolina tended to respect religious liberty more than Virginia or other neighbors did.
At JLF, we have chosen to honor this founding tradition by operating the North Carolina History Project, which uses articles, public presentations, and an online encyclopedia (NorthCarolinaHistory.org) to improve public understanding of the state’s complicated and fascinating history.
Finally, the founders of the John Locke Foundation intended for JLF staffers, fellows, and affiliated scholars to emulate our namesake in a different way: to devote ourselves to applying Locke’s timeless principles to present-day issues, rather than simply to immerse ourselves in abstract theory.
John Locke wrote many influential works of philosophy, but he also lived an active life. He educated students. He performed scientific experiments and practiced medicine. At several different times, he served in government as a diplomat, secretary, and policymaker. As a member of Great Britain’s primary economic-policy agency, the London Board of Trade, Locke argued against excessive government regulation, fought for sound money, favored low and equitable taxation, and proposed a wide-ranging reform of the country’s public-assistance programs that include work requirements, vocational education, and administrative efficiency.
JLF honors this legacy, as well, by producing dozens of reports, studies, and briefing papers every year on specific state and local issues, publishing our newspaper Carolina Journal, and hosting a public-policy event somewhere in North Carolina at least once a week.
Now you know why we proudly call ourselves the John Locke Foundation. Oh, and if you ever call the office, now you’ll know which John to ask for.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of “Our Best Foot Forward,” a book on North Carolina’s economy. It is available at JohnLockeStore.com.