On Lockean Property

Harrison Ainsworth

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Locke's famous property rule is a fake moral rule – it seems convincing, but is functionless.

1015 words (5 minutes)

First of all, Locke's property idea seems paradoxical.

Property only helps because stuff is limited/scarce. If stuff is abundant, the exclusion of property (its key feature) is redundant. Yet Locke's rule of property, because of its proviso, only applies to stuff that is abundant; so as a whole the prescription becomes functionless.

Rule: “Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

Proviso: “at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

– Locke; ‘Two Treatises Of Government’; Book 2, Chapter 5 ‘Of Property’, Section 27.

If stuff is limited, and therefore property is relevant, Locke's basic rule is disqualified (by its proviso). And if there is plenty of stuff, and so Locke's basic rule applies (the proviso being inactive), property is not needed anyway.

One could reply that the meaning of limited and plenty is not binary, but a matter of degree. Property is redundant if we can magic anything instantly out thin air, but if things are merely rather plentiful it could still make sense. And, the Lockean proviso disallows appropriation of all the supply, but appropriating only very much would be OK.

That remains questionable though. One could see that the criterion is of worsening, by some degree, other people's situation. Totally depriving others of stuff worsens their situation, but so does reducing the supply and making it difficult to get. Less so, but still basically the same.

Maybe the only validity in the rule is to allocate to those who come first – this is rather implicit, but perhaps the important part really. So the labour is a red-herring; but then the rule has lost its prima-facie justification – was not the labour condition the heart of the idea? ...

Perhaps each person is allowed their chunk of an equal division. That seems to solve it – indeed, it seems the realisation of the rule that makes most sense.

Well, that is the conclusion driven by a particular background interpretation of all the above: one that tends toward the proviso's “and as good” rather than the “there is enough”.

If we take the proviso as stipulating that everyone's claim is limited by others being left with just the same, then global equality is the only possible outcome/configuration. However, we could take the other interpretation, resting on “there is enough” instead. Then, everyone's claim is still limited, but much less so: others need only be left with “enough”, which could at minimum be read as for mere subsistence.

With the first, “as good”, view, people could voluntarily take less than an equal share, but not more. With the second, “is enough” view, people can take more than an equal share, all the way – in the extreme – to the point of not quite killing others. That seems very harsh.

Lockean property makes a good first impression, but then seems by turns paradoxical and grossly faulty. It appears succinct and appealing, yet it seems to have a very unsound structure. What makes it like this?

The problem with the Locke doctrine is that there is a big moral lacuna in the middle – the main part lacks any effectively moral mechanism.

The essence of the logical structure of morality is to: 1, constrain people's actions; 2, according to the effects on other people. (One could see this as a discretisation of Kant's non-contradictory requirement, and of universalisation, but it should also seem an intuitive and familiar condition – without which there would be merely a rule of self-interest.) By that, Locke's primary rule – the labour-mixing gesture – has no meaningful substance: it nowhere tells you what you ought not do. The proviso does, but if and where that is active the rule is overridden and redundant.

Consider the popular Lockean exemplar, the notion of ‘homesteading’. The proviso is forgotten, it declares anyone free to make an initial claim on anything as their property, and it explains this in the very lucid and persuasive rule of ‘labour-mixing’: legitimate claims can be made only on things one ‘mixes one's labour with’ – if you put effort into it (before anyone else), you get to own it. It has immediate appeal and seems to make sense.

But when you examine this you see it is morally empty: it contains no meaningful constraint on people's actions according to the effects on others. The ‘labour-mixing’ rule is not a constraint: nothing tells you what you must not do. It merely demarcates a kind of activity, and the only restriction on your action is what happen to be the physical circumstances, what is nearby and such. (You could say it is not a constraint-rule, but just a naming-rule: not ‘you must not do A’, but ‘if you do this, we call it B’.) With no moral mechanism doing anything to shape behaviour, yet dealing with scarce resources that have extended effects, it will inevitably run into deep and inescapable moral troubles.

(The original observation of paradoxicality now begins to be explained: where the rule and the proviso are at odds is that one has moral structure and the other none.)

That does not go so far as to criticise the rest of property – the rules of transfer etc. But there is a general lesson to consider, and it does begin to raise a big question for them.

If you leave things open, where people are free to act as they please with no moral constraint (ignoring instinctual ones), you get morally dismaying results. So if people are left free to transact property as they please, the moral constraints of the system overall had better be somehow still implicit in those rules of transaction. That is, those rules must somehow limit or steer their – what might be called emergent – overall results into a morally acceptable form.

The idea that the transaction rules of property (or anything) are justified merely by being freely consented to is missing almost everything. It is not the freedom that makes the moral structure, but the constraint.



   title:`On Lockean Property`
   creator:`Harrison Ainsworth`


   description:`Locke's famous property rule is a fake moral rule – it seems convincing, but is functionless.`
   subject:`philosophy, ethics, Locke`

   rights:`Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 License`