Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Locke's Caveats To His Labor Theory Of Property

1.0 Introduction

A couple of months ago, I read John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. He has a caveat on his theory of property I did not expect, as well as one I did. The caveat I did not expect involves the unjustness of acquiring more than you can use and wasting it. But Locke thought it allowable to have more than you can use, as long as you did not waste it. Ultimately, he justifies such superfluous property by claiming it will lead to economic development and benefit the community as a whole.

I suppose one can read Locke as a defense of British and American conquest of the autochthonous peoples in the Americas. They held the land in common, but were not using it well, as least from a bourgeois perspective.

I prefer to draw an analogy to socialism. Property in possessions more than used in everyday living is justified by thinking of that property as held for the benefit of the commonwealth, so to speak. (For the purpose of this post, I put aside any qualms I have about Robinsonades.)

2.0 The Labor Theory of Property

I suppose this is the most famous statement of justification of ownership on the basis of a right to the fruits of one's labor:

Sect 27. Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body 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, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Locke begins talking about the ownership of food gained through hunting and gathering. Land is held in common. "Thus in the beginning all the world was America" (Sect. 49). Locke then transitions to ownership of land. He argues that in such a more complex society, one can trace back commodities to dated labor embodied over many activities in the past. The labor embodied in bread includes the labor of the baker, the miller, the farmer, the manufacturer of tools for the use of the farmer, etc. This view of embodied labor (in Sections 42 and 43) was later echoed in the labor theory of value.

3.0 First Caveat: "Enough, and as Good Left"

From secondary literature, I knew that Locke justified the enclosure of common lands into private property only if what was left still was as good as before:

Sect. 33. Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself.

He writes about, for example, the unjustness of denying somebody a drink from a river when the river would still flow on undiminished.

4.0 Second Caveat: No Waste of Superfluity

I was not previously aware that, in justifying private property, Locke condemned wasting more than your share:

Sect. 31. It will perhaps be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns, or other fruits of the earth, &tc. makes a right to them, then any one may ingross 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 all things richly, 1 Tim. vi. 12. 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. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.

And again:

Sect. 37. ...Before the appropriation of land, he who gathered as much as the wild fruit, killed, caught, or tamed, as many of the beasts, as he could; he that so imployed his pains about any of the spontaneous products of nature, as any way to alter them from the state which nature put them in, by placing any of his labour on them, did thereby acquire a property in them: but if they perished, in his possession, without their due use; if the fruits rotted, or the venison putrified, before he could spend it, he offend against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished; he invaded his neighbor's share, for he had no right, farther than his use called for any of them, and they might serve to afford him conveniences of life.

This is obviously not a position to end at if you are justifying property rights in the rising bourgeois society. Locke caveats his caveat by arguing that you are not wasting more than your share if you hold the extra in goods that do not waste away quickly, whether they be useful or pretty baubles:

Sect. 46. ...He was only to look, that he used them before they spoiled, else he took more than his share, and robbed others. And indeed it was a foolish thing, as well as dishonest, to hoard up more than he could make use of. If he gave away a part to any body else, so that it perished not uselessly in his possession, these also he made use of. And if he also bartered away plums, that would have rotted in a week, for nuts that would last good for his eating a whole year, he did not injury; he wasted not the common stock; destroyed no part of the portion of goods that belonged to others, so long as nothing perished uselessly in his hands. Again, if he would give his nuts for a piece of metal, pleased with its colour; or exchange his sheep for shells, or wool for a sparkling pebble or a diamond, and keep those by him all his life he invaded not the right of others, he might heap up as much of these durable things as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in at it.

Locke argues that the ability to accumulate money through commerce leads to owners developing their property:

Sect. 48. And as different degrees of industry were apt to give men possessions in different proportions, so this invention of money gave them the opportunity to continue and enlarge them: for supposing an island, separate from all possible commerce with the rest of the world, wherein there were but an hundred families, but there were sheep, horses and cows, with other useful animals, wholesome fruits, and land enough for corn for a hundred thousand times as many, but nothing in the island, either because of its commonness or perishableness, fit to supply the place of money; what reason could any one there to enlarge his possessions beyond the use of his family, and a plentiful supply to its consumption, either in what their own industry produced, or they could barter for the perishable, useful commodities, with others? Where there is not some thing, both lasting and scarce, and so valuable to be hoarded up, there men will not be apt to enlarge their possessions of land, were it never so rich, never so free for them to take: for I ask, what would a man value ten thousand, or an hundred thousand acres of excellent land, ready cultivated, and well stocked too with cattle, in the middle of the inland parts of America, where he had no hopes of commerce with other parts of the world, to draw money to him by the sale of the product?

Locke's defense of private property reminds me of Jesus's parable of the talents (Matthew 25). You should use your property for the benefit of humankind:

Sect. 37. ...To which let me add, that he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of increased and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniences of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common...
5.0 Other Subjects in Locke's Tract

All of the above quotes are from Chapter 5 of Locke's Second Treatise. This book contains nineteen chapters, and treats many other topics. These include a recap of the first treatise, which presumably refutes the claims of Sir Robert Filmer that:

  • God gave Adam property in all the earth.
  • And current monarchs own their countries through their descent from Adam.

Locke praises William III, the victor of the Glorious Revolution. He also treats of the state of nature, in which humans are free. And they give up that freedom in a social contract so as to end the war of all against all. But, if rulers:

become destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [the government], and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. (America's Declaration of Independence)

I find the start of Chapter 13, as well as other passages (e.g., Sect. 225) echoed in the declaration. Other topics include natural rights, war, slavery, and parental rights.

  • John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690).


Anonymous said...

3.0 First Caveat: "Enough, and as Good Left"

If I remember correctly, Locke later argued that this c caveat is made null and void with the invention of money. I think this is discussed by C. B. Macpherson in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism or by Carole Pateman (The Sexual Contract and The problem of political obligation)

As with labour being the property of the worker, Locke's argument is to seek to undercut criticism of bourgeois rule before it is raised. In terms of labour being the property of the worker, this is to ensure that the worker does NOT receive the full product of their labour (i.e., the worker has sold their labour to the boss and so the boss gets to keep the product of that labour).

An Anarchist FAQ

Robert Vienneau said...

I think the two caveats are related. Money allows one to develop one's property so as to acquire more than one needs in the form of something that will last. And such development means one not owning property might be better off working for one that does, rather than gathering on the remaining commons.