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Locke 2

Of Property

"Of Property" is one of the most famous, influential and important chapters in the Second Treatise. While in some ways it is tangential to the question of what distinguishes a legitimate from an illegitimate civil government, some of the most controversial issues about the Second Treatise come from varying interpretations of this chapter. It is worth making a digression to explore these issues. And there are important points which are quite relevant to the question of how to distin guish legitimate from illegitimate civil government contained in the chapter as well. In this chapter Locke, in effect, describes the evolution of the state of nature to the point where it becomes expedient for those in it to found a civil government. S o, it is not only an account of the nature and origin of private property, but leads up to the explanation of why civil government replaces the state of nature.

In discussing the origin of private property Locke begins by noting that God gave the earth to all men in common. Thus there is a question about how private property comes to be. Locke finds it a serious difficulty. He points out, however, that we are supposed to make use of the earth "for the best advantage of life and convenience." (II. 5, 25) What then is the means to appropriate property from the common store? Locke argues that private property does not come about by consent. If one had to go about and ask everyone if one could eat these berries, one would starve to death before getting everyone's agreement. Locke holds that we have a property in our own person. And the labor of his body and the work of his hands are properly his. So, when one picks up acorns or berries, they thereby belong to the person who picked them up.

One might think that one could then acquire as much as one wished, but this is not the case. Locke introduces at least two important qualifications on how much property can be acquired. The first qualification has to do with waste. Locke writes: "As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much by his labor he may fix a property in; whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others." (II. v. 31) Since originally, populations were small and resources great, living within the bounds set by reason, there would be little quarrel or contention over property, for a single man could make use of only a very small part of what was available.

Note that Locke has, thus far, been talking about hunting and gathering, and the kinds of limitations which reason imposes on the kind of property that hunters and gatherers hold. In the next section he turns to agriculture and the ownership of land and the kinds of limitations there are on that kind of property. In effect, we see the evolution of the state of nature from a hunter/gatherer kind of society to that of a farming and agricultural society. Once again it is labor which imposes limitations upon how much land can be inclosed. It is only as much as one can work. But there is an additional qualification. Locke says:

Nor was the 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 as yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. No body could consider himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough, is perfectly the same.

The next stage in the evolution of the state of nature involves the introduction of money. Locke remarks that before the introduction of money,

...before the desire of having more than one needed had altered the intrinsic value of things, which depends only on their usefulness to the life of man; or had agreed, that a little piece of yellow metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of flesh, or a whole heap of corn; though men had a right to appropriate by their labor, each one of himself, as much of the things of nature, as he could use; yet this could not be much, nor to the prejudice of others, where the same plenty was left to those who would use the same industry. (II. 5. 37.)
So, before the introduction of money, there was a degree of economic equality imposed on mankind both by reason and the barter system. And men were largely confined to the satisfaction of their needs and conveniences.

Most of the necessities of life are relatively short lived -- berries, plums, venison and so forth. One could reasonably barter one's berries for nuts which would last not weeks but perhaps a whole year. And says Locke

...if he would give his nuts for a piece of metal, pleased with its color, or exchange his sheep for shells, or wool for a sparkling pebble or diamond, and keep those by him all his life, he invaded not the right of others, he might heap up as much of the durable things as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his property not lying in the largeness of his possessions, but the perishing of anything uselessly in it. (II. 5. 46.)
The introduction of money is necessary for the differential increase in property, with resulting economic inequality. Without money there would be no point in going beyond the economic equality of the earlier stage. Different degrees of industry would give men different proportions. "This partage of things in an inequality of private possessions, men have made practicable out of the bounds of society, and without compact, only by putting a value on gold and silver, and tacitly agreeing to the use of money: for in governments, the laws regulate the rights of property, and the possession of land is determined by positive constitutions." (II. 5. 50) The implication is that it is the introduction of money, which causes inequality, which in turn causes quarrels and contentions and increased numbers of violations of the law of nature. This leads to the decision to create a civil government.

Before turning to the institution of civil government, however, we should ask what happens to the qualifications on the acquisition of property after the advent of money? One answer proposed by C.B. Macpherson is that the qualifications are completely set aside, and we now have a system for the unlimited acquisition of private property. This does not seem to be correct. It seems plain, rather, that at least the non-spoilage qualification is satisfied, because money does not spoil. The other qualifications may be rendered somewhat irrelevant by the advent of the conventions about property adopted in civil society. This leaves open the question of whether Locke approved of these changes. Macpherson, who sees Locke, as a spokesman for a proto-capitalist system, sees Locke as advocating the unlimited acquisition of wealth. According to James Tully, on the other side, Locke sees the new conditions, the change in values and the economic inequality which arise as a result of the advent of money, as the fall of man. This is a rather spectacular difference in interpretation. Let us then, turn to the institution of civil government. This has been a significant topic for debates among scholars over the last twenty years.

The institution of civil government comes about because of the difficulties in the state of nature. Rather clearly, on Locke's view, these difficulties increase with the increase in population, the decrease in available resources, and the advent of economic inequality which results from the introduction of money. These conditions lead to an increase in the number of violations of the natural law. Thus, the inconvenience of having to redress such grievances on one's one behalf become much more acute, since there are significantly more of them. These lead to the introduction of civil government.

 

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