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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Spencer versus Locke & Henry George

What we find are many folks in our history who paid lip service to John Locke's thinking but actually tried to subvert it. I wrote about Burke's subversion of Locke in "Burke Versus John Locke" a while ago. But I have Henry George to thank for attacking Spencer's attack on the notion of property as an equal right.

Herbert Spencer like many Cons before and after him, subverts the basic conception of human rights in property by first doing a linguistic shift that appears to affirm that right and then using sleight of hand to subvert it. In "A Perplexed Philosopher" by Henry George, in "Part I, Chapter IV: Mr. Spencer's Confusion as to Right" in Property ownership:

"in Section 5, he proposes to Proudhon; for if, as in this chapter he asserts [the strawman that] no one can equitably become the exclusive possessor of any natural substance or product until the joint rights of all the rest of mankind have been made over to him by some species of quit-claim" [Chapter 4]

Henry George then notes that Spencer uses this strawman to advance a reductio ad absurdum argument that because such clear title, or complete "quit claim" is an absurdity that can never be achieved so he finishes:

..."—has no more claim to his own limbs than he has to the limbs of another—and has as good a right to his neighbor's body as to his own!" [Ch 4 continued]

Spencer, Henry Notes is advancing a "joint property claim" in chapter 5. But his real purpose is to sabotage Locke's concept. Locke (and Henry George) advanced that people have an equal right to property but Spencer is taking aim at that because as he notes:

"That there is a difference may be seen at once. For joint rights may be and often are unequal rights." [Ch 4 continued]

George explains the distinction between Joint Rights and Equal Rights as follows:

"When men have equal rights to a thing, as for instance, to the rooms and appurtenances of a club of which they are members, each has a right to use all or any part of the thing that no other one of them is using. It is only where there is use or some indication of use by one of the others that even politeness dictates such a phrase as "Allow me!" or "If you please!"[Ch 4 continued]

Then in Chapter IX, section 1 George quotes Spencer directly contradicting Locke trying to nullify equal rights using his absolutist "joint right" argument:

"No amount of labor, bestowed by an individual upon a part of the earth's surface, can nullify the title of society to that part"..."whether by labor ... made his right to the thing ...greater than the preexisting rights of all other men" [Ch 4 continued]

Thus shifting the standard of right from an equal right to one requiring a burden of proof that few people can prove:

"unless he can prove that he has done this his title to possession cannot be admitted...but [only] conceded ground of convenience." [Ch 4 continued]

Henry George then cuts into this argument:

"Here the primary right—the right by which "each of them is free to use the earth for the satisfaction of his wants "—has been dropped out of sight, and the mere proviso has been swelled into the importance of the primary right, and has taken its place." [Ch 4 continued]

Henry George notes that Spencer was actually attacking John Locke's ideas:

"And, from this [] shifting of ground, he is led, not only into hypercritical questioning of Locke's derivation of the right of property, but into the assumption that a man can have no right to the wild berries he has gathered on an untrodden prairie, unless he can prove the consent of all other men to his taking them."

Reckless, Feckless but on purpose, I would say. But Henry George was politer and doesn't have my hindsight. And Henry George was making a larger point too. He restates the essential point of Locke's Two Treatises in [George's] own words:

"Locke was not in error. The right of property in things produced by labor—and this is the only true right of property—springs directly from the right of the individual to himself, or as Locke expresses it, from his "property in his own person." It is as clear and has as fully the sanction of equity in any savage state as in the most elaborate civilization. Labor can, of course, produce nothing without land; but the right to the use of land is a primary individual right, not springing from society, or depending on the consent of society, either expressed or implied, but inhering in the individual, and resulting from his presence in the world. Men must have rights before they can have equal rights. Each man has a right to use the world because he is here and wants to use the world. The equality of this right is merely a limitation arising from the presence of others with like rights. Society, in other words, does not grant, and cannot equitably withhold from any individual, the right to the use of land. That right exists before society and independently of society, belonging at birth to each individual, and ceasing only with his death." [Ch 4 continued]

Henry George also explains the role of Governments in all this:

"Society itself has no original right to the use of land. What right it has with regard to the use of land is simply that which is derived from and is necessary to the determination of the rights of the individuals who compose it. That is to say, the function of society with regard to the use of land only begins where individual rights clash, and is to secure equality between these clashing right of individuals." [Ch 4 continued]

He concludes:

"Thus, instead of there being no right of property until society has so far developed that all land has been properly appraised and rented for terms of years, an absolute right of property in the things produced by labor exists from the beginning—is coeval with the existence of man."

For more suggest you read his series. I just wanted to note that Right Wing folks only quote John Locke in order to subvert his writings. Even now Libertarians take the above quotes about individual rights to assert similar arguments to Herbert Spencer.

Subject continued:

The Target of progressive taxation and LVT is unearned land rents/income []
Further reading
Common Property and the Commons []
Related Articles Locke (and some Henry George References"
Commonwealth according to Locke []
Locke on the importance of the Collective []
Progressive Taxation principles and Picketty []
Postal Banking, Stamp Scripts and fixing our economic system []

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