Illusions of Thievery — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5b)

(Part XI of this series)

Returning to Locke’s musings on property in Chapter 5, he goes on to make an uncontroversial refutation of a possible criticism of his theory. The objection maintains that anyone could arbitrarily seize the right to absurdly unnecessary amounts of resources (doesn’t this ring a bell?), if working for the acquisition of something affords a person property rights over it. This, of course, ignores Locke’s important caveat that the needs of the community ought to be considered; he’s not advocating an unrestrained law-of-the-jungle philosophy, but merely suggesting that no claim to resources an individual has taken by his/her own efforts should be denied, if this poses no explicit threat to the basic well-being of others. Abundant as many natural and artificial resources are, moreover, it’s not as if it’s even physically feasible for John Doe to declare a monopoly over all the planet’s water, etc.

Anti-socialist though Locke may have been, it’s worth bearing in mind that even his philosophy seen here leaves room for the appropriation of property to those who desperately need it, but who did not necessarily “work for it.” Not that we should treat him as the end-all-be-all of legal thought — this is simply a matter of engaging potential hypocrites on their own terms (including ourselves). What matters is whether Locke’s ideas stand to reason on their utilitarian merits, and what we can learn from this in attempting to reverse-engineering our modern system, to see where new legal challenges can fit in consistently.

In the same breath, Locke develops a fair idea about the availability of resources, and the vices of those who act as if one person claiming a part of those resources threatens them. In principle — though perhaps not always in practice depending on the nature of the resource — such objectors are, he contends, essentially smuggling in an excuse for their laziness. They could get a slice of the same pie if they so chose and acted, but they would prefer to indirectly steal from the person they denigrate. I have no problems with this so far, yet we’d be wise to remember life always comes with nuances to form exceptions to rules like these.


3 thoughts on “Illusions of Thievery — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5b)

  1. In chapter 5, Locke begins by describing the conditions prior to a constitutional state, which he calls a “state of nature”. Locke’s state of nature begins with God providing a world of resources which all men hold in common. Each may take what he gathers and hunts, so long as he deprives no one else of their opportunity to do the same. Because natural goods tend to spoil, no one would take more than what they could use.

    If nature is given to all men in common, then how does a man make something his own? Locke points out that it would be impossible to check with everyone else before you acquired something. “If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him.” (§ 28)

    Locke suggests a theory of property where what you take from nature ought to become your property by the act of your labor. The labor may be as simple as gathering apples or acorns from the ground, or as complex as converting wheat to bread, or wool to clothing. Locke suggests that “he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (§ 27), which is a bit mystical, but basically if you made it, it’s yours.

    And the same applies to the land itself. In the state of nature, a man may possess the land that he can put to productive use, which will always leave plenty for everyone else (§ 33). Locke even refers to America as evidence of plenty of available land (§ 37).

    Two things change this natural scenario. One is the value assigned to non-perishables, like gold, silver, jewels, etc. which become money, which can be hoarded.

    And the other is the development of communities which “settled the bounds of their distinct territories, and by laws within themselves regulated the properties of the private men of their society, and so, by compact and agreement, settled the property which labour and industry began…”. And by agreement of “states and kingdoms” a respect for legal boundaries was established. (§ 45).

    Keep in mind that Locke was describing the “state of nature” as a precursor to the development of states, and not a criticism of states. For remember in chapter 2 he said, “I easily grant, that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniencies of the state of nature, which must certainly be great, where men may be judges in their own case, since it is easy to be imagined, that he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it…”.

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