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.

Get Your No-Good Keister Off My Property — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5a)

(Part X of this series)

With Chapter 5, Locke seeks to establish a basic theory of property. In this update I’ll address his first major contention, namely that the resources of nature are the common property for all people’s utility, yet by investing his/her labor in acquiring a given resource, an individual may claim rightful ownership of that resource as his/her own property (provided this does not seize away the necessities of the community). He writes:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. … Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. … [For] this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. … He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. … And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common?”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 5 (emphasis mine)

The essential points are bolded, serving as the premises of the summary above. Locke reasons that, provided we can agree that the best feasible societal foundation is something like the constitutional democracy he suggests, there must be some coherent way citizens of this society can manage the resources at their disposal fairly. Though he doesn’t deny that there are some limits to pursuit of property, when this precludes others from their rightful property, it’s clear that Locke’s ideal excludes socialism from the outset. Property is afforded on the basis of merit/work rather than need, at least as far as the law is concerned (that is, Locke would not likely have objections in principle to charity).

While this seems an intuitive philosophy, we’ll have to see how he hashes out the details. After all, where on this basis is there room for, say, taxation and public property? For today, I leave the reader to consider both that question and the further hints of anthropocentrism in Locke’s view.

Notice that in the first emphasized part of this quote, he deems all of the entities of Earth’s ecosystem the rightful property of humans. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an affront to environmental responsibility, as the preservation of non-sentient wildlife and natural resources is not only a worthy goal for its own sake, but also as far as this proves prudent for humanity’s own wishes in the long run. Basically, one saves the trees as much for the trees’ inherent value, as for the worth they have as one’s oxygen source. More troubling is the flippancy with which Locke denies any agency or value-as-an-end to conscious nonhuman creatures. Perhaps he took Descartes’s view of nonhumans as universally unconscious and machine-like, which is at least somewhat sympathetic when the state of seventeenth-century neurology was so undeveloped, but the familiarity of this perspective should give us pause. Who else, again, were denied fundamental liberties and protections because the powers that be saw them as property?

See the title of the preceding chapter for the answer.