Locke's Radical Limits On Individual Rights

            Libertarianism and individualism generally run hand-in-hand with a robust view of property rights. If the state is an artifice, then aren’t limitations on how much property individuals can acquire arbitrary and therefore suspect? Individualism and limited government are fast friends, at least in the United States.

           John Locke’s views on property show that the linkage of individualism and robust property rights is not necessarily strong. Indeed, Locke looks more like a Social Democrat than a member of the GOP. Chapter five of the Second Treatise of Government could well have been penned by Bernie Sanders.

           As regular readers of this series on Locke’s Second Treatise know, I have my doubts about social contract theory. It begs the chicken and egg problem in problematic ways: What came first, the individual who choses or the community it took to bring the individual to a point of being capable of making choices? Construed in terms of strict chronology, you can’t have it both ways. Do we rely on social contract theory, natural rights, the notion of a state of nature in ways that undermine the actual conditions required for human flourishing? I don’t know the answers to these questions: I am working through them in these periodic essays as I reread the Second Treatise.

           What about the right to property? From whence does this come?

           There is a view, famously asserted by the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 work, What is Property?, that “property is theft.” Presumably, on this view, tangible items are common goods; vesting title in individuals deprives the public, or commons, of a right to the use and enjoyment of the property.

           Locke doesn’t go that far, but he is a close cousin to Karl Marx, a fact that will surprise many.

           Recall that Marx posited a labor theory of value, a humanistic view that held that an item was valuable insofar as it reflected human labor, or a “use value.” Capitalists imposed a surcharge in the form of surplus value. The gap between use value and surplus value was an index of alienation. Communism would eliminate capitalism and collapse the value of items in an economy back to their humanistic level. (Readers of Marx’s three volume Das Kapital will recognize this to be a gross, but I hope serviceable, simplification.)

           Locke, like Marx, subscribed to a labor theory of value. Items become the property of an individual when the individual “mixes” his labor with items to improve them. Thus, a farmer yields produce from raw land, thereby increasing the value of the land, and acquiring title to that which he produced.

           But here is where Locke is truly interesting and, even, revolutionary.

           He inserts a spoilage principle as a limit on the extent of title. In other words, when we add our labor to items we find in nature, we acquire title in what we have produced to the degree to which we can make good and productive use of what we’ve made. Our claim to title ends where spoilage begins. The spoilage principle is a limit on title.

           The world, as Locke sees it, is the common property of all mankind. As individuals, we have a natural right to what we produce and use for our own maintenance. When we claim property rights, or title, to more than we can use, and our produce spoils, we violate natural law. This is something like primitive communism.

           I suspect most readers of Locke will find the spoilage principle shocking. Locke stands as an exemplar of the natural rights tradition, which has proven to be a safe haven for contemporary conceptions of individualism. However, that is not the Locke of Chapter Five of the Second Treatise. Locke writes: “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. Whatsoever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy.”

           Unlike Royalists, who, in Locke’s time, asserted an absolute royal prerogative to the realm and made fanciful theological argument to trace the king’s title back to God’s grant of the world to Adam, a notion Locke argued against in the First Treatise on Government, his work attacking Robert Filmer, Locke regards the Earth as granted in common at creation to all.

           Okay, Okay. I know. We don’t live in the seventeenth century and notions of title to the Earth conveyed either to king or commons by God at the time of creation seem unsatisfying. Even so, founding principles matter. Locke’s assertion, within his heavily individualistic political philosophy, of a common interest of all in the Earth is a powerful limiting principle, and, implicitly, a concession that despite the claims of individualism, there is a certain primacy to the rights of members of the community. Locke’s claim is the same natural law that creates sovereign individuals limits the claims those individuals can make.

           At the very least, this casts a communitarian light on Locke’s individualism.

           As, indeed, it must.

           No man springs from birth to adulthood capable of self-mastery. Before we could walk, we crawled, and before crawling we were swaddled at someone’s breast. Even Romulus and Remus were suckled, albeit by wolves. The architecture of Locke’s natural rights theory and social contract theory does not house an absolute form of individualism. It misreads Locke to read him as a mere libertarian.


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