The Purpose and “Bound” to Property

In my prior post regarding Locke’s ideas on property, I attempted to establish that property is, by nature, common to all man and that it become personal or private only by labor that separates that property unto the individual. A couple of further quotes will help to drive home Locke’s thoughts and position here:

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. No body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. 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? If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state nature leaves it in, which begins the property; without which the common is of no use.

Thus this law of reason makes the deer that Indian’s who hath killed it; it is allowed to be his goods, who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before it was the common right of every one. And amongst those who are counted the civilized part of mankind, who have made and multiplied positive laws to determine property, this original law of nature, for the beginning of property, in what was before common, still takes place.

Thus we see that according to Locke’s concept of property, something becomes personal, private, or individual because of the labor that one exercises to take things out of the common stock, provided by nature or God, for his use.

The next paragraph of Locke’s treatise injects another “socialistic” sense into his concept of property. Not only can human beings only take from the common stock if “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others”, but also:

It will perhaps be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns, or other fruits of the earth, &c. makes a right to them, then any one may ingross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so. The same law of nature, that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. vi. 12. is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy. And thus, considering the plenty of natural provisions there was a long time in the world, and the few spenders; and to how small a part of that provision the industry of one man could extend itself, and ingross it to the prejudice of others; especially keeping within the bounds, set by reason, of what might serve for his use; there could be then little room for quarrels or contentions about property so established.

Thus, within the philosophy of one of the principle founders of liberal economic thought (at least the one cited and credited therewith), there are present the following un-capitalistic concepts (some might call them socialistic — I prefer the term “natural”). These natural concepts of property are:

  1. Property is given by nature and God in common to all.
  2. Humans can take from the common, via their labor, for their sustenance.
  3. Individuals can morally and naturally (they are the same for Locke and the Idealist) take from the common property only if they leave enough and as good for the rest of humanity.
  4. Property is given us by nature to enjoy (not to hoard or accumulate).
  5. We cannot take from the common more than we have capacity to use.

None of these principles, except perhaps for the idea that one’s labor is what created private property, is consistent with current capitalistic principles. How, then did we get to the point where accumulation of property is considered the natural state of economics as most free marketeers will argue? That’s is for a subsequent post.

7 Replies to “The Purpose and “Bound” to Property”

  1. Interesting insight. I didn’t make that connection, but I think Locke probably did and saw it the same way.

  2. The impracticability lies in points four and five. What is the “Natural” limit to “hoarded wealth”? What or who determines “capacity to use”?

  3. jbthegreat,

    That is my point. Free market proponents use Locke as the foundation for their economic principles, but disregard his assumptions. I agree with Locke (until he gets to land as property). When we violate the principles outlined by Locke, we are violating what nature or God grants us regarding property and we will reap the natural consequences of such. There is no entity that will force humans to abide by these natural laws of property, but violation of such will bring consequences (severe wealth disparity, class warfare, corporatism, state socialism, all the economic issues we are struggling with because of our unwillingness to abide by these natural laws).

    Capitalists want to have it both ways, justifying the accumulation of property as a natural right without abiding by the responsibilities so beautifully described by Locke.

  4. It sounds to me like you’re reading Locke as preferencing the “common” aspect of property over the “private” aspect of property — i.e., private rights to property are subservient to the common rights to that property. The private individual can only take from the commons if the needs and rights of the commons are met — and only if the private individual will use the property for good cause (sustenance, etc.)

    This strikes me as a unique or maybe idiosyncratic reading of Locke. Frankly, if this is the proper way to understand Locke, then I’m all for it. Sign me up! But I think you’re swimming against the current — the reading of Locke that I’m more familiar with is the reading that preferences private property.

    Locke is typically read as the basis for finding “natural” rights to private property (via labor) — as against the prevailing views of the time that property is either (a) in common or, more likely, (b) belonging to the sovereign, such as the king or the local lord. My understanding is that Locke is trying to carve out rights to private property — against these prevailing views — and he’s just being nice about it.

    I do like Locke’s concern for the common good, and his concern for putting property to good use (not merely accumulation). But I agree with jbjthegreat’s sentiment. The capitalist will simply argue that a smart capitalist knows how to put accumulated wealth to good use; that capital (and capitalism) does good work, and in fact contributes to the common good. Capitalists have been making these arguments for centuries. The foundation of the free-marketers’ argument is that capitalism provides the “rising tide” that “lifts all boats.”

    I love your attempt to read Locke as much more collectivist in his views, but I’m not sure I buy it — and more importantly, even if I buy it, the capitalist still can argue (even within your framework) for her accumulation of capital. If we get private property, so long as it’s for “good use” and there is “enough” leftover, then the burden seems to be on others to argue “no good use” or “not enough” — and that’s a hard burden to prove. The result: capitalist keeps his wealth, even in the face of gross inequality.

    If a more collectivist ethos or ethic is what you want, and you want it in a way that has some teeth for cutting off the capitalist’s argument for disproportionate accumulation of wealth, then I think you have to turn more toward the Marxist view — against private property altogether. If there is no private property — only private use for good cause — then the burden shifts to the user. The person who tries to accumulate more than her share is the one who must show “good use” and “enough leftover” — and if they can’t, they can’t accumulate. The result: far more property is left to the commons, or more evenly distributed.

  5. I like what you’ve said at the end, but it’s as much an idealized version of Marx as my argument is of Locke’s. If the individuals in the society don’t control their own usage of the property, someone else does. And that someone else has the power and the control of the economy, making it even more unequal. If the philosopher kings can all be like Plato sees them, great. But it doesn’t happen that way. You have Lenins and Stalins and Maos come along who pervert the purity for selfish reasons and the system fails and the abuses are staggering. Better for me to attempt to point out to believing individuals the inconsistencies between their beliefs and their actions than to resort to an imposed civil structure that allows for rapid and exploitative accumulation of power.

    Again, between us it’s a matter of emphasis.

  6. But neither Marx nor myself is talking about putting “someone else” in charge. Lenin focused on centralization only as a means for accomplishing the revolution — he would’ve moved away from that afterward. But then Stalin took over, and Stalin was a despot who made centralized power a defining characteristic of totalitarian Communism.

    Marx (and I) would have the collective be in charge — real democracy (with some safeguards against too much majoritarian dominance over minorities). No “someone else” in charge, but “everyone else” in charge.

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