Locke Notes for September 4

Main points

Professor Brown began by pointing out some market ideas in Locke. These include:

  1. The linkage between the justification of private property and expansion of available resources, such as happens when private owners make land more productive when they are confident that they will keep the profits from doing so.
  2. In particular, Locke has a reply to the objection that private property involves inequality. The reply is that the institution of private property leads to a greater amount of valuable resources. So everyone is better off with the inequality introduced by private property than they would have been if they had equal rights to use things.** Added Saturday, September 6.
  3. The limits on private property under conditions of scarcity. Individuals can hold things as private property only when doing so leaves enough and as good for others, when those holdings will not spoil, and when others are not in dire need of charity (see handout §4).

I concentrated on the Gibbard article. It is concerned with how people might lose their equal rights to things. Why focus on the loss of rights? Because that’s what happens when you move from a situation in which everyone has equal rights to things to private property. Everyone except the private property owners loses rights in this move.

Gibbard compares two different views on how the equal rights might be lost. Hard libertarians think they can be lost only if those who hold them voluntarily give them up. Private property has to come about through artificial means, like a social contract, on the hard libertarian view.

Locke was not a hard libertarian and he does not have a satisfactory answer to Gibbard’s question about how others’ rights are lost and how (nearly) absolute private property rights might have been established.†† “Nearly” because the rights lapse if others are starving, etc.. He argued persuasively that everyone is better off with some institution of private property than they would be with equal rights to material goods. But that does not settle much. Everyone would be better off with private property and no taxation at all and everyone would be better off with private property and a rate of taxation approaching ninety percent (if you believe §37 … and my shaky math skills haven’t let me down again). So the improvements in productivity that you get through having private property don’t by themselves show that property rights must be absolute, that is, protected from taxes.‡‡ Added Saturday, September 6.

Efficiency and property

I’m going to take the opportunity to try to explain what I was saying in response to Rhett and when I joined the conversation initiated by Bernice. In my opinion, Locke did not hold that property rights go to those who would use the property most efficiently or productively. Being the most efficient or productive owner of a thing is not a sufficient condition for having a property right in that thing.

If I’m right, Locke is closer to commonsense than he might appear. As Bernice pointed out, property rights are not allocated according to productivity in our society. Goods exchanged in free market may tend to move to the most productive users, but that’s not the same thing as assigning property rights in this way or claiming that property rights are only justified if they are held by the most productive owners.

In my opinion, Locke traces ownership back to rights. In the case of original acquisition, the relevant right is to labor power: those who originally acquire some bit of stuff do so by mixing the labor that they own with the external stuff that becomes their property. Afterwards, the rights to stuff would have to be transferred from other right holders, as in exchanges or gifts.

There are some limits on rights. No one can acquire a right to some stuff if doing so would not leave enough and as good for others. Locke did hold that leaving enough and as good is a necessary condition on having a property right in some stuff.

But that is not the same thing as saying that being the most efficient or productive owner of some stuff is a necessary condition of having a property right to that stuff. Nor is it the same thing as saying that being the most efficient or productive owner of some stuff is a sufficient condition of having a property right to that stuff.

Professor Brown asked what would happen if goods were more scarce than Locke assumed they were. That’s a tough question to answer. As she pointed out, Locke didn’t really consider this kind of case. Rather, he seems to have taken abundance for granted.

Proto-utilitarianism§§ I added the next two sections on September 5.

Utilitarians believe that everyone, societies and individuals alike, ought to bring about the best overall outcomes. If Locke were a utilitarian, he would have a reason for allocating goods to the most productive owners. Doing so would bring about more overall good than allocating them to less productive owners.

Locke was not a utilitarian. But you might legitimately read him as a proto-utilitarian. He thought that our rights are given to us by God for our preservation and convenience. Locke tended to emphasize the rights of individuals to preserve and improve their own lives. But God doesn’t care about particular people. He cares about humanity as a whole. So, one might think, the consistent development of Locke’s view would be in the direction of utilitarianism. That is, we should think of our rights as dedicated to the improvement of humanity or what would be pleasing from the God’s eye view of the world rather than just from our own, individual perspectives. That is utilitarianism.

I certainly think there are elements of that in Locke and many other natural law theorists. Perhaps utilitarianism is the most consistent way of developing their account of the basis of natural rights. Locke himself does not strike me as having drawn the conclusion that people are obliged to bring about the best results overall. He did say that we’re required to help others in dire need, but that’s not the same thing as bringing about the best outcome.

Zach’s question

Zach asked something that I’m sure was on your minds: why do we care about these stories about acorns, turfs, and the rest? Natural resources like this are all claimed and we no longer live in natural abundance. It’s a good question.

I think Gibbard helps to see why it’s relevant. Suppose you agree with the hard libertarians: individual rights to use the earth’s resources can only be lost through voluntary consent. If that’s right, then there is a very strong case for the redistribution of wealth. After all, some people have taken and used resources that belong to everyone else without their consent. They owe compensation, just as I would owe you compensation if my horses crossed over into your field and ate your hay. Only this would be much more extensive.

Locke is not a hard libertarian. He thinks that people can lose their rights to the earth’s resources by virtue of what other people do. But the previous discussion of hard libertarianism raises questions about that, such as, “why can one person’s behavior deprive others of their rights?” and “can’t the people who lost their rights take something in compensation?”. The technical term, I believe, is demanding rent, that is, can’t the people who did not appropriate the earth’s resources demand payment from those who did, like the owner of an apartment building demands rent from tenants?

Of course, most of the appropriation of the earth’s resources happened in the past. But that’s no barrier to claims for compensation today. And I don’t need to tell you that there is one big natural resource that is being appropriated like crazy right now without being shared: oil.

Finally, there is what I said at the end of class. Filmer and Hobbes believed in absolute government and the absence of natural property rights; Hobbes, for instance, believed that individual property rights are an artificial creation of the state (Filmer thought they went from God to Adam to monarchs and only then to individuals). Locke believed in nearly absolute property rights. Individuals who acquire property in ways that respect the various limits mentioned earlier have absolute rights to it. The state cannot tax them for various worthy (or arbitrary) projects without their consent.

Many people think that you still have to choose between those two alternatives. Either there are no meaningful limits to what the state can take or there are no significant limits to what individuals can withhold. Each side thinks that it achieves victory by refuting the other. Libertarians point to the horror of absolute government and conclude that property rights are absolute. Welfare state liberals point to Locke’s failure to establish absolute property rights and conclude that property rights are a purely artificial institution.

Most people read Locke as confirming a bit of commonsense: people who produce stuff have a good reason to keep it as their property. That’s not nearly an absolute property right: good reasons can be outweighed by better ones. But it’s a principled argument for natural property rights, that is, property rights established independent of the state and its laws. It’s less than what Locke meant, I hasten to add. But it’s probably what you thought when you read the piece. And it’s certainly a sensible thing to believe.

Kevin’s question about Filmer

Kevin’s question about Filmer turned on some missing information in the handout about the relationship between Filmer and Locke. Here is what you need to know.

Everyone referred to on the handout believed that there is such a thing as legitimate private property. The question at issue is how it comes about.

Grotius and Selden believed that the institution of private property emerged in the past, when everyone agreed to allow commonly owned goods to be privately owned.

Filmer disagreed. He argued that there never was such an agreement. He also argued that if private property depended on such an agreement, anyone could revoke the agreement, bringing down property and the state. Filmer thought that conclusion would be ridiculous. Since property and the state can’t be brought down by one dissenter, he reasoned, Selden and Grotius must be mistaken about the origins of private property. His argument was that Grotius and Selden’s position committed them to this ridiculous conclusion.

Locke agreed with Filmer’s criticisms of Grotius and Selden. But he wanted to avoid Filmer’s own conclusion, that all property rights come from the state. That’s why he tried to show that there can be natural property rights without everyone’s consenting to them.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-Being, PPE 160, Fall 2008. It was posted September 4, 2008 and updated September 5 and 6, 2008.
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