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Sunday, June 8, 2014

The real right to property is contingent on "reason" -- Locke


I was astounded when I read numerous articles that claimed to found their arguments on John Locke, and then compared them to what he actually said. The difference was astounding and the deception goes back centuries, definitely to Edmund Burke [See the article: "Edmund Burke Versus John Locke"], but probably further back as well. So far reading him carefully I've found that he basically makes a very modern case that:

Related articles:

Rights come from below: John Locke's exegesis and what it tells us.
Folks don't realize that it was John Locke who first translated the concept of "civitis" as "commonwealth."
The Concept of Commonwealth as antidote to Tyranny (and essentially introduced a new refinement to the concept).

John Locke Exegesis on Reason

Many modern folks don't understand exegesis, mostly because they divide between folks who think that all fictional literature is somehow lies and myths, and those who understand what exegesis is and how folks used to use the bible to reason reasonably, and then proceed to bamboozle congregants with faulty interpretation and sophism. But believe it or not, thinking for oneself doesn't preclude understanding and reasoning. Locke used exegesis to justify his arguments because he lived in a time when religious legalism dominated society. However, he was revolutionary because he, like many protestants of his time, freed it of the chains of authoritarianism and self serving arguments and was able to reveal the legitimate truths contained. In that sense he redeemed protestantism from it's usurpation by generations of unreasoning authority.

The key to the enlightenment is that this use of "reason" moderates the violence and self serving greed and destructiveness of fanaticism and authoritarianism.

Taking property out of the Commons

So indeed Locke's Chapter 5 of book 2 is part of an exegesis taken from Biblical arguments and intended to argue against Aristocratic ownership of land and "Divine Right of Kings"(See above). The word "fence" is less important than the concept of mixing labor with property, and he's originally referring to general property including things like acorns. His core argument about "fencing" the commons actually is about property in general and not only land property:

"25. God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience. The earth and all that is therein is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And though all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of Nature, and nobody has originally a private dominion exclusive of the rest of mankind in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state, yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial, to any particular men."

State of Nature

Like previous passages this is informed by Genesis but not as explicitly. Here he's appealing to reason and saying that people own what they eat, in this case literally:

"The fruit or venison which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his— i.e., a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it before it can do him any good for the support of his life."

Reference to Leviticus

The next paragraph is nearly directly from the bible. As it is a reference to Leviticus:

"{19:9} And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. {19:10} And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather [every] grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I [am] the LORD your God."

Originally people (Christians and Jews at least) were supposed to leave something for the poor and strangers. Greedy farming violates Leviticus and is highly unKosher. Locke knew this and is referring to both this and new Testament teachings that are even more adamant about not starving and dispossessing people.

"26. Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property....."

Beginning a Property

"It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this “labour” being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others."

Locke is asserting a natural (inalienable/unalienable) right to property in labor here. Righties like to blame Marx for this but it came from Locke, as well as an assertion that people have a right to eat apples from trees in the woods or find something to eat. We have a right to "mix property with labor:"

"27. He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask, then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he ate? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? And it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than Nature, the common mother of all, had done, and so they became his private right. And will any one say he had no right to those acorns or apples he thus appropriated because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common? If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state Nature leaves it in, which begins the property, without which the common is of no use. And the taking of this or that part does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners. Thus, the grass my horse has bit, the turfs my servant has cut, and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property without the assignation or consent of anybody. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them."

This is a famous quote, much abused. He's not talking about the aristocrats right to enclose property, take farms for non-payment from broken farmers, and treat people like dirt. But the right of commoners to own their labor, to eat, to sleep, to acquire food and eat it.

"28. By making an explicit consent of every commoner necessary to any one’s appropriating to himself any part of what is given in common. Children or servants could not cut the meat which their father or master had provided for them in common without assigning to every one his peculiar part. Though the water running in the fountain be every one’s, yet who can doubt but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour hath taken it out of the hands of Nature where it was common, and belonged equally to all her children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself."

And of course modern cons would end this idea and oppressors have enforced just this assertion again and again from enslaving prisoners to making orphans beg for a second helping of gruel (Dickens). But this is an appeal to reason and common sense, as well as an explicit reading out from biblical teachings.

"29. Thus this law of reason makes the deer that Indian’s who hath killed it; it is allowed to be his goods who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though, before, it was the common right of every one. And amongst those who are counted the civilised part of mankind, who have made and multiplied positive laws to determine property, this original law of Nature for the beginning of property, in what was before common, still takes place, and by virtue thereof, what fish any one catches in the ocean, that great and still remaining common of mankind; or what amber- gris any one takes up here is by the labour that removes it out of that common state Nature left it in, made his property who takes that pains about it. And even amongst us, the hare that any one is hunting is thought his who pursues her during the chase. For being a beast that is still looked upon as common, and no man’s private possession, whoever has employed so much labour about any of that kind as to find and pursue her has thereby removed her from the state of Nature wherein she was common, and hath begun a property."

And such is how one has "begun a property"

Within Reason

But he notes that property ownership has to be within reason:

"30. It will, perhaps, be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns or other fruits of the earth, etc., makes a right to them, then any one may engross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so. The same law of Nature that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. “God has given us all things richly.” Is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration? But how far has He given it us—“to enjoy”? As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others."

Thus the right to property is always both an inalienable right, and one conditioned on "reason". If folks would read Locke more carefully they'd see he anticipates the arguments of progressives, FDR's "Second Bill of Rights", and efforts to reign in greed and oppression. But of course his writings have been misused by people who are schooled in sophistry and it's sophisticated justifications for authoritarianism and tyranny.

All sources are from my personal copy of John Lockes. In this case all the pages 115 to 117 (read:

Two Treatises of Government,
"In the Former, The False Principles and Foundation of Sir Robert Filmer, and His Followers, Are Detected and Overthrown: The Latter, Is an Essay Concerning the Original, Extent, and End, of Civil Government" by John Locke
from The Works of John Locke.
A New Edition, Corrected.
.In Ten Volumes. Vol. V.
London: Printed for Thomas Tegg; W. Sharpe and Son; G. Offor; G. and J. Robinson; J. Evans and Co.: Also R. Griffin and Co. Glasgow; and J. Gumming, Dublin. 1823.
Prepared by Rod Hay for the McMaster University Archive of the History of EconomicThought

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