Locke on Private Property
First, a brief word on property rights. If we say you own some thing, be it your shoes, a car, or even your lunch, then it follows that you should be at liberty to dispose of that item as you see fit and to exclude others from using the item as well – liberty and exclusivity are integral to any decent explanation of property rights. You are free to your eat your hoagie lunch in smoothie blended form, and you have a right to exclude me from consuming any part of your strange gastronomic experiment.
A) John Locke is a prominent figure in moral and political philosophy. Our local hero, Jefferson took most of his political ideas from Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. The idea of the inherent, natural, inalienable rights of man recognized in the Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights are hallmarks of Locke’s political theory. If the arguments we have heard thus far have any weight, then what ethics in business requires is a theory of right action or even a theory of rights. We have concentrated much of our attention to moral philosophy and theory broadly construed and to turn our attention to ethics in business, a good place to start is with the theory of private property. After all, business seems to turn in large part on the idea of some moral notion of property in the sense that business can be defined as the exchange of money, a form of property, for goods and services. If you want to understand ethical issues in business, then you need to understand the way in which property is justly acquired and justly transferred. So we start our discussion of property with the Locke selection from The Second Treatise of Government. As we will see, there are some problems associated with Locke’s view, but I want to address his theistic leanings first. Locke’s writings contain many references to God giving people things and he even goes so far as to quote biblical passages. You need not accept Locke’s avowed theistic stance in order to think he offered a workable theory of what is often called a theory natural of rights. If you substitute nature or natural for God in Locke’s theory then you don’t have to prove the existence of God in order to prove ownership, which should save you some time if nothing else. As a theory of natural rights to private property, you should easily see how this will prove to be problematic for non-natural goods like money, which seems to be an intuitively plausible case of private property. But if Locke makes his case, or we can make one for him, perhaps there is something of use in his theory of natural rights.
B) The Commons
Locke begins with the idea of a world given to humans in common. All people have an equal share in the world and we each have the use of the earth to provide the necessary means of sustaining ourselves. However, before we can actually use the earth to sustain ourselves or support our lives we must actually take some part of the jointly owned commons and make it useful to just us. We must particularize the relationship to things in the world in order to make them useful. For example, we would all own a wild apple tree but in order nourish myself from the tree, I must first pick the apple and eat it. The apple must be made mine in the sense that others do not have a right to it in order for it to be of any use to me or the right of exclusivity
C) Needs and Labor Mixing – towards The Labor Theory of Value
So how do you separate your rights to some particular thing in the world from the world itself which is owned in common, hereafter referred to as the commons? Well, one thing Locke is sure of is that people have a right in property to their own person. Also, it seems we are allowed to separate stuff from the commons to satisfy our needs, but how do we determine what stuff is mine and what remains common? From the fact that I at least own myself, in a manner of speaking, then Locke argues it would follow that what I produce through the labor of my own body must also be mine. This is Locke’s famous labor mixing argument. I mix my labor with something and by this action annex or acquire that thing and extend my rights in property from myself to the thing in question. He also calls this appropriation. I appropriate the acorns, they become mine, when I run around the woods and pick them up. My labor is what distinguishes the acorns from the commons held by all. If I build a house, the house is mine since I cut the wood and hammered the house together. The corn I grew is mine since my labor separated the corn from the commons. Where once there was simply a field and nothing to eat, I cleared the land, planted the corn, tended the crop, and reaped a harvest. Thus the corn is mine. For Locke, labor is essentially an extension of a person’s body and when labor is mixed with some other thing, the second thing becomes a part of your body as well.
D) The Lockean Proviso: The Enough and as Good Clause
Locke anticipates and answers a simple question: “How much can I appropriate” of “What are the limits of rightful ownership through labor mixing?” Locke answers first that we can only appropriate that which we can use. A person can have, meaning here a person has a moral right in property, as much as she can use and not let spoil. This reply is obviously somewhat weak since 1)Locke does not define what he means by “use” and 2)if it is really mine, if I have a right in property to the thing in question, then I should be able to dispose of it as I wish. That is what it means to say it’s mine or the liberty right in property.
Of course, Locke has a stronger reply to the question above: the enough and as good proviso. I can appropriate as much stuff as will leave enough and as good left in the commons. In order to appropriate some part of the commons, there must be enough of the commons left over for someone to be able to pursue their own goals. Sounds vaguely Kantian doesn’t it? Who could rightfully complain that I appropriated ten acres of land if there were hundreds of square miles of land still available? Who could rightfully complain if I took a very long drink from the river so long as the river continued to flow? In fact, Locke goes so far as to say “he that leaves enough as another can make use of , does as good as take nothing at all.”
Notice Locke argues that no one person could labor to subdue or appropriate the whole world nor could someone’s enjoyment consume more than a small part.
Now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for: money. I can negate the charge of wasting otherwise useful parts of the commons by exchanging the goods I appropriate for money. Money itself is not usually considered intrinsically valuable. But by mutual consent, people agree to some money standard. As long as I exchange my appropriated excess goods for money I can avoid the charge of wasting the commons by wrongful appropriation. We can summarize Locke’s conditions for a right in property or private property as follows:
Locke’s necessary and sufficient conditions for property rights
1. Commons – the world is held (owned) by all people to meet their needs.
2. If people own anything other than the commons, then people must own their bodies, so people must also have a right to that which the body needs to continue.
3. Labor Mixing– laboring upon parts of the commons creates property rights by extending your rights to your body to the thing you labored upon.
4. Lockean Proviso –leave enough and as good for others to take what they need.
5. Spoilage clause – do not let what you take go to waste or spoil.
6. OR Trade goods and services for money which we take to have value by actual mutual consent.
III. Criticisms of Locke’s Arguments
A) Commons? – Ownership of the Commons is not consistent with exclusivity and liberty. If all persons own the Commons, then who can possibly be excluded, since there are no people left to be excluded? Neither am I at liberty to take whatever I wish from the Commons, nor may I do with it as I please, since doing so could potentially violate the Lockean Proviso or the prohibition on waste and spoilage. Maybe the best way to read Locke is to say nobody owns the commons before it is labored upon. The problem with this interpretation is that Locke clearly states such actions would be stealing from the Commons and other people – taking the shares of others. You can’t steal something which is not owned by at least one person. This alternate interpretation of the Commons owned by nobody does not make a lot of sense of the text.
B) Labor Mixing- A metaphysical mistake – Labor does not “mix” with raw materials. This is a BIG problem for Locke. Even if we allow him the metaphor of labor mixing or extending your rights to your self to the object upon which you labor, then the Lockean still faces problems with depending on labor for ownership.
What exactly does it mean to mix your labor? We easily understand what it means for somebody to pick apples, build houses, or even write books, but according to Locke’s arguments you are mixing two distinct things: your labor with apples, houses or books. How does that happen? The two things are different metaphysical categories. Apples, houses and even books, in some sense, are tangible or empirical objects. Labor is an action. Two things of different metaphysical kinds cannot be mixed. If you don’t believe that then try mixing singing songs with books or dancing with streets. It seems Locke’s theory relies on a strained metaphor, at best
C) Limitations of Mixing – Where does it end?– Even if you grant Locke his premise or metaphor about mixing, then how would you limit the mixing of actions? Locke does give the Proviso and spoilage clauses, but suppose we are not engaging those limits. Suppose an entrepreneur begins drilling for oil in the North Sea. She strikes oil. By Locke’s arguments, what does she own – the drilling rig she constructed, the oil she pumps out of the rig, the entire reserve of oil she has tapped, or all three of these? Can she enclose all of the reserve? To put more pressure on this point, suppose I grow some oranges and use the juice to fill an oil tanker. I take that tanker of juice into the ocean and open the hold, letting my juice mix with the ocean. How much of the ocean is now mine? Locke’s theory is committed to saying some part, but seems crippled to limit the reach of this mixing without engaging the Proviso or spoilage clauses…UNLESS
D) Recast Condition 3 as Labor as Improvement? – Maybe we should recast simple labor as working to improve something. Perhaps it is laboring to improve something that is necessary for property rights. Will this help Locke’s view? If nothing else, this interpretation makes more sense of the text. He often writes about how labor improves the raw materials in some way and how such improvements are limited by the Proviso. This recasting is also more consistent with the clause prohibiting wasting or spoilage. According to Locke, you are not allowed to set to work chopping down and laying waste to the forest for no good end. To do so would be to rob from the commons. But, you are allowed to improve the land through cultivation. So what if we take him at his word and attribute the view that makes more sense? I improve the land by cultivating it and producing the fruit from my orchard, thus the fruit is my private property. So then, are improvements through labor a necessary condition for ownership?
Unfortunately, this does not give him as much help as he needs, for two important reasons:
1. What would be the theoretic limits to such improvements? Return to our North Sea entrepreneur. What does she own – the millions of barrels of oil she improved by locating them, the amount she improved by tapping the reserve, or merely the amount she pumps out? Suppose I improve the ocean by setting up a giant filtration system to remove pollutants? If anything is still Commons, then the Atlantic Ocean is certainly part of the Commons. After all, it is international waters. At the completion of my project, the entire Atlantic Ocean is now 7 parts per million cleaner than when I began, there are four other oceans, so how much of the Atlantic is mine, according to Locke?
2.Should improvement through labor be even a necessary condition to ownership as weknow it? Locke seems to think so, but should we? The question now is “Why the necessity of value added at all”? Suppose I write a very bad book, one which practically nobody reads and those who do read it find it worth less than the paper it was written on. By Locke’s theory, maybe I don’t even own the things I literally create out of nothing since I may not actually improve anything with my efforts, I may just be wasting paper, my time writing, and your time in reading the terrible book. But we shouldn’t think value is even a necessary condition for ownership since it would still be my book, or my poor car design since I can’t draw, or my bad song I wrote since I was never good with melodies, or my terrible cake I baked since I always burn the stuff I cook. So it doesn’t seem like adding value to something is a necessary condition to ownership either. Even if we stick to simpler examples like clearing a forest to build a house and plant crops, but I build a leaky house that falls down and the crops wither and die from my bad farming techniques, shouldn’t any reasonable view be able to say I owned a worthless farm, not that I stole the raw materials from the Commons?
E) Trade goods for Money – a regression problem.
For Locke, money serves as placeholder for value by actual mutual consent. It is true that we act that way, but notice the problem which arises unless we can locate the actual point of consent. Who owned the trees, eventually paper, and ink until the consent of all was given? The printer obviously can’t make use of all that stuff himself, so isn’t he wasting stuff from the Commons? And unless there is some point of actual agreement about money then the only person who could be said to own the money is the printer and of what use is paper money if nobody agrees it has value. Locke might then be forced to say the printer stole the paper from the Commons since she failed to improve the stuff through her labor. Also, if money only obtains value from some actual agreement then we have moved beyond a merely natural theory of property.
Let’s try this story from the beginning. Suppose I grow ten tons of corn and I sell it on the open market. Locke wants to say I have ownership of the money where I once possessed tons of corn which I could not possibly use before it rotted. I take it we are to suppose also that whoever bought my corn had ownership of their money which they traded to me for corn. But how does the money ever get owned privately in the first place? Remember that Locke’s theory is one of natural rights but it is not clear how it should handle cases of non-natural goods like money. If money only obtains value from some actual agreement then we have moved beyond a merely natural theory of property. And unless there is some point of actual agreement about money then the only person who could be said to own the money is the printer and of what use is paper money if nobody agrees it has value. Locke might then be forced to say the printer stole the paper from the commons since she failed to improve the stuff through her labor.
F) The Lockean Proviso and the Needs of Others – It’s all about Needs
The Proviso seems reasonable, sort of like rules from the sandbox or Kindergarten…don’t take all the stuff because other people might want some as well. Locke writes as though there is so much raw materials and stuff in the commons that no one person can affect the consumption of others, but that can’t be correct – “He who leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all.” In the first place, taking even a glass of water out of a clear stream is not identical to taking nothing. Resources and raw materials are finite, not infinite, and are quite scarce in some cases. There is only so much stuff in the world. So taking even one acre of land is not the same thing as taking nothing since there is at least one acre of land difference. The only sensible way to read the Lockean Proviso is to interpret it as a check on interfering with other people’s ability to meet their own needs. In fact, the best way to make sense of Locke’s entire theory of property is to interpret it as a theory of how to meet needs. In other words, property and rights in property are determined by a system of need. In this sense, property rights can be seen as particularly fluid on Locke’s view. Many people fail to read the First Treatise of Government and miss some key passages where Locke articulates a strong view of charitable duties to others. Taken in conjunction with the above interpretation of the Lockean Proviso, Locke’s view can be seen as much less friendly to the unchecked acquisition of goods through labor than it is generally taken to be.
G) But where’s the PROPERTY? – Cool stuff
What about the really scarce, but tremendously cool and profitable stuff? Does the fact that there are only so many really great new products that cause a stir in the market, such as iPods, Xbox 360s, new laptops or whatever, mean that I can’t justly acquire one? Wouldn’t the proviso even mean that Apple, Microsoft, Porsche et al can’t own their products since this lack of abundance means the Proviso is tripped? A great deal would seem to turn on interpreting the Proviso as limited by either the deep need of others, or merely the desire of others to acquire what they want. Frankly, neither interpretation really sits well with the theory as a justification of the unchecked acquisition of wealth or capital. Who cares if you or somebody else can’t have one of the new Nanos or video Ipods, if I can? We are not left with a good workable theory of property as we recognize the concept.
A) While Marx is not exactly a popular figure around the nation’s business schools, there is a sense in which any thinking person cannot fail to agree with much of what he said. Marx’s theories are merely criticisms about the practice of capitalism and how laboring for another person’s benefit can turn you into a means to that other persons ends. A question would still remain: a means or a means only. Do not confuse Marxism with Leninism. Marx thought history would follow a pattern from capitalism to super-capitalism to communism. After the means of production were perfected, there would be no sense in which property would be private since there would be no scarcity of goods. It took Lenin to argue that revolution could speed the march of history and bring the world communism much sooner than it was taking.
B) Though it may be hard to see in the passage we read, one of the main points of Marx is that private property Alienates people from their labor and its benefits. A person is Alienated from some part of herself by one of her most import capacities, her capacity for labor and production of value, when an employer pays her an hourly wage to work a production line or even flip burgers. In this sense, both Marx and Locke agree that labor is some part or extension of a person. In other words, both Marx and Locke would have to agree that Alienation results from working for another person. Marx points out that working for someone else as a wage-earner is to necessarily separate you from a vital part of yourself, namely that part of yourself that you mixed in with the good you produced by your labor. Working to produce goods for someone else Alienates or separates you from the extension of yourself, the goods which you produced. Marx take things a step further and says Exploitation follows Alienation, or that private property entails the unjust treatment of all workers. Workers are Exploited when they are kept apart from the things they produce and no form of wage compensation can account for this loss. Of course, most Lockeans and Liberals would disagree that all wage earning is Exploitation, though some might be, while the Libertarian holds that no wage earning is Exploitative. Marx thinks the only way we can get around the charge of Alienating labor is to hold all goods as some form of commons. Property would then be communal property, not private property. I can still produce goods, perhaps even be paid to do it, but I am not Alienated from the goods since when they are produced, they are still owned by me as they are owned by all members of the relevant community.
C) But notice how Marx’s argument turns on some notion of private property similar to the one which fuels Locke’s theory of appropriation through labor. Locke started with the idea of self-ownership and transference or extension of that ownership to things in the world through labor. Marx seems to think something similar since you lose some important part of yourself when you sell the products of your labor to an employer, a part that is not entirely compensated for by a mere wage. Now Marx is not an atomist as Locke is, but central to both arguments is the idea that the worker imparts some part of herself, a self which seems to be hers or a self she owns, to the product through her labor. But how can Marx get rid of private property by group ownership if it seems analytic of his theory of labor that you at least own yourself and you by extension own that which you produce? An answer to this question would require going into the difference between Marx and Locke on the question of a metaphysical view of the self. Marx is an Aristotelean in that he thinks it is incoherent to consider people as separable and apart from the groups that define their existence. It would make no sense, for Marx, to talk about holding property apart from the community since it would make no sense to talk about people apart from their communities. Trying to separate people from communities, by private property or other methods, has all sorts of ill affects and alienation and exploitation are just some, though some of the worst ones. By contrast, Locke is an atomist and thinks you can talk about people as separable from their communities because they are separable, though I won’t bore you here with the details of each metaphysical view.
V. More Criticisms and Institutional Analysis
A) What justification can be given to support the intuitively plausible notion that my car is my private property, that your shoes are your private property, or that some computer program you wrote belongs to you? Locke asserts it has something to do with your labor. For the law, there are all sorts of complicated rules about who owns what, but we are interested in the justification of such rules, specifically the moral justification. I take it we all are familiar with the way in which the law codifies and enforces a certain conception of property rights. But that won’t help us when we want to know the moral justification of private property. To defer to the law and legal rights, which may be morally justified or may not be morally justified, is to put the cart before the horse. So we can’t draw from the law to support our moral notions of private property, though we may draw from the law and our intuitions about what we mean when we say private property. We just can’t justify private property by deferring to the legal conception.
B) By the Lockean theory of private property, who owns the blood in the Plasma case and how did they acquire the blood? I take it that Locke and Lockeans would want to say Plasma Inc. gained ownership of the blood by paying for it and maybe by laboring to improve it by locating a supply and willing donors, inserting needles to access and pool the supply, and ensuring the supply is clean. Not by laboring on the commons, since the donors are people, but by laboring on the blood and improving it with consent. Or perhaps more simple, the donors/sellers originally owned the blood by simple extension of their rights to their own bodies and they in turn simply sold it to the Plasma corporation. Locke’s labor-mixing for value argument is the basis of most people’s intuitions on the production of goods, but you can see little relevance that may have with the acquisition of certain vital goods like blood. What is really bad for the common wisdom on Locke is the answer to “who needs the blood?” If we recast Locke’s theory as a disguised theory of needs as property, then we get a result very counter intuitive to Lockean intuitions. It seems this case might be better analyzed as a simple exchange of goods for money, a process which is probably best analyzed as the requiring certain institutions, like a central bank or treasury or something
C) Natural v. Institutional Rights.
Locke’s theory gains support with the intuitively plausible idea that if I make something or labor upon something, then it is mine. He works from the natural right you have to yourself and your body and then by extension, what you use your body to produce must then become yours as well. Locke’s theory is one of natural rights, where your rights in property would exist in the state of nature or whether or not there was a government to support them or grant them. For Locke, the state would just be codifying and recognizing rights we already had. But the more intuitively plausible line about property construes it as an institutional right or a right granted by our institutions like the law, the state, or some would say markets. This is a right which flows from an institution, a right which depends on institutions for not just its defense, but for its definition. In the first place, who even thought about private property before the state, or kings or somebody came along and started enclosing land and such? What would motivate you to think of private property as a natural right possessed by persons apart from the necessary components of their needs? It would be easier to see private property as an institutional right because that would allow you to accommodate money and other artifacts and practices of institutions at the first order level of your theory, something which Locke cannot do so he is forced to use a distorted notion of consent to allow money to have value.
Notice that this does not contradict what I said about the direction of justification at A above. A moral justification still needs to be given to support an institutional right to property. We should be careful to distinguish the justification of a right to private property from something like a metaphysical explanation of the right. Locke wants to explain it as a result of the natural ordering of the world, people, and their labor. A more reasonable view might see private property as an institutional solution to the problem of needs or the result of a political scheme. Private property would then be like the right to a fair trial. You don’t have a right to a fair trial in the state of nature. You only have that right after somebody put together the institution of arrests, trials, et al. Of course, the justification would have to be based on something prior to or independent of the institution or else you have the institution also dictating the justification of moral rights as well and that seems false.
D) What would be the justification of an institutional right to property? Well, the answer is complicated as we will see in the debate between Nozick and Rawls. Some think the right is particularly fluid and is the result of a morally necessary coordination scheme for meeting people’s needs. Under this conception, the justification for the right starts to look pretty utilitarian: you have a right to X because we got together and decided it would be best to behave as though you had a right to X. But do not be deceived. The right is supported by a very complicated argument about the nature of moral and political justification and your duty to provide for the needs of others. Hence Rawls’ theory of justice. Others think the right is more simple and rigid and is the result of consensual agreements in markets, though this is sometimes called libertarianism without foundations.
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