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Locke's derivation of the idea of private property


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's derivation of the idea of private property
Date: 19th November 2008 11:51

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 10 November, with your University of London BA Politics essay, in response to the question, 'Are Locke's appeals to 'labour mixing', 'value adding', and 'the leaving of enough and as good for others' elements of a single, coherent account under which one may come to own property in a state of nature?'

This is a sharply focused question, which tells you exactly what the examiner wants: an exposition of Locke's theory of property, with reference to the three key elements, followed by critique which pays particular attention the the coherence of the three elements with one another. In these terms, you have done very well. You have given a clear exposition of Locke's view, and offered persuasive arguments (with appropriate references) for challenging the internal coherence of each of these elements, as well as their coherence with one another.

I can't help feeling, however, that the upshot of the criticisms is somewhat harsh to Locke, and that his theory has more going for it.

First, we have to deal with the question of the 'state of nature'. It is crucial to Locke's account, as you point out, that he starts from a prior assumption about 'God's purpose for man' analogous to the contemporary view which Locke was challenging, 'the divine right of kings'. We are on earth for a purpose, and God has provided us with the necessities of life, expecting us to behave responsibly and 'reasonably' with this gift.

Here's a homely example to illustrate the point: When a visitor brings a box of chocolates, all the family members take their fair share, because that is what the visitor intended. That was the aim of the gift: that everyone would benefit equally. If one greedy family member takes more than the rest, then the visitor has grounds for complaint.

Here, the idea of 'leaving enough' and not taking 'more than you need' relate to the gift-giver's prior intentions. A mischievous giver might have had the very opposite intention: e.g. someone who causes chaos in a shopping mall by throwing handfuls of money in the air.

However, it is perfectly reasonable -- given our contemporary interest in the question of how private property might be 'defended' -- to ask whether Locke's account survives 'secularization', i.e. the removal of the God hypothesis. In that case, the 'state of nature' is just human beings as they are prior to any social conventions: the question being how conventions allowing for private property might arise. I don't agree with Russell that the hypothetical notion of a 'state of nature' requires God. It does, however, make a difference to how one reads Locke.

Here are two examples from my 'Ethical Dilemmas' program:

I am walking through the woods with a party of hikers and come across a broken bare tree branch which is perfect for a walking stick. After we have stopped a while for a rest, one of the members of the party, too lazy to find a walking stick of his own, cheekily picks up the walking stick intending to use it. When I protest that it's 'mine', the lazy hiker replies that the stick was lying there on the path, anyone could have picked it up. 'But I was the one who picked it up not you!'

What mistake is the lazy hiker making? It seems clear from this example that at least in some cases, finding an object that doesn't belong to anyone is sufficient to make it yours. 'Finders keepers.' I didn't have to 'work' to find the stick or make it usable (as in Locke's paradigm of private property as an object with which I have 'mixed my labour'). It was just lying there, no-one's, ready to be used. Now the stick is mine, to keep or to give away as I see fit.

To nudge one's intuitions the other way, let's say I make a living selling coloured stones and sea shells which I find in a secluded cove. One day, I find another swimmer scuba diving in 'my' cove. Do I have any valid basis for protest? 'Go find your own cove!'? But suppose there was just one, and I was the one lucky to find it. That doesn't make it mine. It ceased to be mine the moment my secret was discovered.

On reflection, I think I was wrong to say that the walking stick example is not one of Lockean 'mixing my labour with an object'. I was rewarded for being sharp eyed and attentive in noticing the stick, for my prudence in realizing that the stick would be useful, even if the 'labour' of stooping down to pick it up was minimal. In any case, as you point out, the legitimacy of helping yourself to the earth's bounty is part of the initial assumption. It follows that luck, or 'finders keepers' has to be part of the equation. I don't have to 'pay' for my ownership by adding labour, if the item is simply there to take. It is only when a question arises of who is prepared to make the greater effort to gain a particular object -- say, a stone that would be ideal for my front lawn, which requires considerable effort to lift and carry away -- that the 'right' of ownership links to Locke's notion of labour mixing.

I do find this very intuitive. Nor does the idea seem to depend essentially on the God assumption.

Nozick's example of pouring tomato juice in the ocean seems trite, deliberately missing the point by taking the 'mixing' idea literally, rather than in the spirit which Locke intended. The same applies to Thomas' absurd idea of 'shedding a tear on the sod'. The reasonable reaction should be to seek to clarify the 'mixing labour' metaphor.

I accept that his is not an easy thing to do. Consulting intuition, it seems that at least part of the idea of being prepared to 'make the effort' is the assumption that the greater effort is proof of greater need or desire. If I am very hungry, and you are not, then I will make the effort to climb the tree to retrieve the coconut while you stand and watch.

This exhibits a clear linkage with the idea of 'taking what you need'. Left to our natural resources, and taking sheer irrational greed out of the equation, human labour, human need, and the distribution of goods should, ideally, all match up.

Or consider the saying, 'Faint heart never won a fair lady.' The would-be suitor should be prepared to make greater efforts than the competition. It doesn't follow from this that wives are 'property'. One is merely pointing out how our intuitions veer towards the idea of a linkage between effort and desert.

You can't hold Locke accountable for all the evils of capitalism, because his theory of property, as an account of how private property could be a coherent, defensible idea, comes before any attempt to defend capitalism as such, or the notion that there are no limits to what you may legitimately do with your property as a saleable item in the market place. That would make a valid essay question, but it is not the one you are answering.

I don't see why according to Locke's account, 'if you always stick to only appropriating enough resources, then the poor will perish.' Sufficiency is relative to availability. If resources are slender, we all have to pull in our belts.

Yes, Locke is assuming 'reasonableness'. I think Hobbes does too, only in his picture self-interest forces us to act in a much more selfish manner than we would were it not for the fear that others will do the same (the prisoners' dilemma problem). What Locke does assume, is a prior interest in ethics. You don't need God for ethics, but you do need that prior interest -- otherwise everything is up for grabs.

All the best,