Since childhood we are told by our parents and learn by ourselves that we have some kind of natural right that enables us to own objects.
The pencil that I bring to school is mine, no one else could use it. If my classmate wants to make use of my pencil he needs to ask for my permission. Then, depending on my will, I will agree to let him use the pencil or I might reject his petition. I own the pencil. It belongs to me. I decide what to do with it. I have total power over it.
Like the pencil example we own a lot of different objects. From food to ideas, it seems that life wouldn’t make sense if we didn´t had some kind of individual power over things that enables us to claim ownership. But, why do we think we have the right to own things?
It is because we paid money for it? Because someone else give it to us? Or because we create the things we own?
PRIVATE PROPERTY IN LOCKE´S SECOND TREATISE
Taking the context in which Locke lived, the Glorious Revolution, it seems clear that one of the objectives of the Second Treatise was to justify the overthrow of King James II.
In order to do that, it was necessary to build a theoretical body that reproves the absolute power of the king and supports the limitations of it. Thus many of the ideas written in Locke´s book aim to fulfill that objective.
Nonetheless, setting boundaries on the king’s power was not the only reason why Locke wrote the Second Treatise. Locke gave us a new conception and definition about modern concepts such as freedom, government and political society.
He redefined the role of the state, changed the predominant Hobbesian point of view by providing us an alternative theory of the origin of government and authority and, more important, created a new paradigm by setting a solid foundation for liberalism and private property.
Now, If we wan´t to understand the concept of private property according to this english guy, first we need to take a look if his concept of the ´state o nature´.
THE STATE OF NATURE
For Locke the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (sect. 4).
When Locke says law of nature he´s referring to the reason. Reason tells men to preserve his own life. Thus he can´t destroy himself or destroy others (anyways the others are not going to allow to be destroyed. It´s more likely that they try to defend themselves, so is better for own preservation no to disturb them).
Locke also called the state of nature the state of equality, because every man is equally free. This means that every individual is the judge. Everyone has the right to execute the law and punish those who violated it. Hence, in the state of nature, there is no common judge.
Finally, by saying that no man depends upon the will of another, Locke is referring to negative freedom, a type of liberty where there is no interference from others, where there is no external constraint. Locke uses the self-preservation concept in order to justify private property as a natural condition.
As we said before, in the state of nature, reason tell us to live, to preserve ourselves. But, how can we do that?
Of course by satisfying our basic needs. We need to breathe, sleep, drink, eat and so on if we want to stay alive. Thus, if we want to eat, necessarily we need to take food from the outside, from nature. We can´t create food from nothing and we die if we don´t eat. So it seems there is no other choice but to use what nature produces. But, do we have the right to do that?
According to Locke we do: “The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.” (sect 26)
However, if the earth was given to man to make use of it, every person has an equal right to use nature. So the question arises: An individual has the right to make use of one nature product without the consent of the others?
Locke give us the green light again. In fact, to answer of that question is the main point of the chapter V of his Second Treatise: “But I shall endeavour to shew, how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners.” (sect 25)
Let´s just say It´s impossible having the consent and approval of every human being every time I want to take something from nature. However in civil society, where positive laws regulate property, no one can appropriate things without the consent of the rest of the citizens.
THE ROLE OF LABOR
How we appropriate the things that nature has given us?
By using our labor. According to Locke we own the labor, it´s a product of our hands, of our body. No one else but us owns our body. Thus, “whatsoever then he (the man) removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” (sect 27)
This rule applies the same way if I take a pear out of the tree or if I get some seeds and cultivate tomatoes on a piece of land. Every time I “transfer” my human energy into reality and modify it I’m mixing a part of myself with another object, so I can say it´s mine.
Now, although we can appropriate things by only using our labor there are two limits that constraint this huaman power.
THE LIMITS OF PRIVATE PROPERTY
First, a man can enjoy the nature products only if there is enough good left for the others.
If I take a pear from the tree I’m not harming anyone because I know there are more trees with quality pears. Now, if we are facing a drought and there is only one pear tree left for the whole community I might think twice before making use of my labor.
Second, a man can have the nature products only if he uses them.
If I take pears from a lot of trees and stock them in my house without making use of it until they rot, I’m hurting the others. I´m taking products of the common for no reason, I’m not using them for my self-preservation, I’m ignoring the law of nature.
Now in the state of nature there was no problem with these two limits. “No man’s labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man, this way, to intrench upon the right of another” (sect 36).
However, the introduction of money changed that.
THE ROLE OF MONEY
Locke argue that gold and silver can be stored and accumulated without harming others. This minerals don´t perish. Consequently, now that we are able to store valuable things, the desire of having more than one needs is created. And so the inequality.
“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.” (sect 49)
Thanks to the tacit concern over the use and value of money, humans can trade it for lands, foods, animals. So one person can have more lands than another, even if it is more than he could make use for, because he buy them with money.
“…it is plain, that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out, a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus gold and silver” (Sect 50)
The ideas of Locke were and are relevant. They influenced the history of political thinking. The implications of his theoretical work are a fact. But, these were all good implications?
There are a few negative consequences if we consider private property like a permanent and natural condition in human existence.
Wait a second bro, did Locke say that private property is a permanent and natural condition in human existence?
Not directly, but if we follow his logic we may reach that conclusion. If we assume that labor it´s a necessary condition to appropriate things from nature for our self-preservation then private property it´s also a requirement to stay alive.
If we don´t execute our right to appropriate things from nature we cannot preserve ourselves. In this way private property turns in a natural and permanent condition in humans.
And? What´s wrong about it?
I will anwser that question with another question. What about the people than don´t have private property? By not having property they are lacking of some natural human condition. Thus, they are less humans for not having any possessions?
Second, Locke seems to encourage the homoeconomicus model of human nature. According to the english philosopher, lands that are laying in waste are useless, we are supposed to cultivate them, to take the best advantage of them.
Maximizing the utility and the economic profit it´s not a wrong thing, it´s a natural human condition. Self-preservation, which is the natural reason, reflects self-interest. There is nothing wrong with accumulating gold and silver.
Locke may imply, by saying that uncultivated lands are a waste and that by cultivating them we aggregate nourishment to the human stock, that is good for everyone that the English cultive he ´wasted´ lands in America.
What do you think about it?
Did Locke elaborated a trycky theory of private property?
Let us me know it in the commets 🙂