Saturday, August 29, 2015

In defense of John Locke: The need for private property



Karl Marx once wrote that "the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." (Source: The Communist Manifesto, Chapter II) Much has been said for and against this theory, some of it interesting and some of it rather dull. But one of the most interesting things - for me, at least - was written by the English philosopher John Locke, over a century and a half before.



He wrote a classic political work which had a strong influence on America's Founding Fathers, which was the "Second Treatise on Government" (written in 1689). This book contains a powerful defense of private property, which is best summed up in the following quote:


John Locke

"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. No body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? 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. The labour put a distinction between them and common ... 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." (Source: Second Treatise on Government, Chapter V, Section 28)


Title page from original version of the "Two Treatises on Government"

Modern translation: Whenever we eat food of any kind, we have claimed it as our own. Once the food has been chewed or swallowed, it cannot be used by anyone else, and is good only for our use, and not for theirs. Can it truly be said, then, that the food is anything other than a private property of our own?

Whether you put the property claim at the moment of its being eaten, or earlier when we acquire it into our hands; the very act of our eating the food is dependent upon our first having claimed it as property. If we were truly to put an end to all private property, humanity would starve to death, because they could never claim any food for themselves.


Karl Marx

I'm sure Mr. Marx's disciples would deny that this logically follows from his theories, but it clearly does; or he would have qualified his advocacy for "abolition of private property" with exceptions, for food and other necessities - something that seems to have slipped his mind when he wrote this. His statements are instead blanket and all-inclusive, and thus could never truly be implemented without the people starving to death as a necessary consequence.

This argument might well be the most masterful defense of private property ever given; for with its elegant simplicity, it is both easily accessible and (inescapably) self-evident. But this does not mean that Locke is against allowing there to be the public kind of property as well: John Locke recognized that money is the lifeblood of government, and that no government can long subsist without getting revenue through taxation.


Boston Tea Party, 1773 (influenced by John Locke)

But when does government have the power to tax you, and when it is obliged to respect your property rights instead? Clearly some boundary must be drawn, or there can never be any taxation at all while private property exists - government would not be able to take anyone's property away at any time for any reason, and it would thus go bankrupt.


John Locke

Thus, Locke's answer is that you cannot take away someone's property without their consent, for to do so would be stealing. In his own words, "the supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent," for "without this they have no property at all; for I have truly no property in that, which another can by right take from me, when he pleases, against my consent" (Source: Second Treatise on Government, Chapter XI, Section 138)


Parliament of England

But will anyone part with their property by means other than force?: Doesn't all real taxing power, it might be asked, have to be compulsory? It is true that few people would ever hand their property over to the tax collectors without some threat of force behind it, but Locke has an answer for this as well: it can still be a voluntary act, Locke says, if they have consented through political representatives to pay it. And even if they voted against this particular tax, their living in the society means [at least some degree of] submission to majority rule. Thus, their living in the society means that they have (generally, at least) consented to obey the laws and pay the taxes.

Thus, no one with the power to vote can proclaim themselves an exception to the tax rules, unless their fellow-citizens support it - and this is usually (if not always) a hard sell to make.


Redcoat soldiers, 1687

In the words of John Locke himself:

"It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them." (Source: "Second Treatise on Government," Chapter XI, Section 140)


King George III

This argument influenced the United States Declaration of Independence, which includes a grievance against King George III about his "imposing taxes on us without our consent." Or in the simple and concise words of a famous slogan that it influenced: "No taxation without representation" - a slogan popular in the thirteen colonies during the American Revolution, when they complained about being taxed by a Parliament in Britain, in which they were not represented. An important phrase for modern Americans to remember, when they argue that Thomas Jefferson didn't support private property rights (as modern Marxists have occasionally argued).


Thomas Jefferson

And for the Marxist school of interpretation for this document, I should acknowledge that yes, it is true that Jefferson changed Locke's list of rights of "life, liberty, and estate" - i.e. physical property - to unalienable rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - thus breaking with Locke's famous phrase, by declining to mention physical property in his (now famous) examples of rights. But this is because he decided to focus on unalienable rights, and he recognized that physical property is largely a right that is alienable - in other words, which can be transferred or sold as the owner pleases. (A car, for example, is an alienable right, which you can sell if you need some cash.) Thus, it is not "unalienable" in the way that our rights to life and liberty are, and so does not belong on Jefferson's more specific list of "unalienable" rights. But this doesn't mean that it can be legitimately taken away by the common criminal - it can only be alienated when the owner consents to it, and so the degree of "alienability" is not unlimited, as there can be no stealing.


Thomas Jefferson

It is still a right, even if alienable; and it's quite clear that Thomas Jefferson recognized this - otherwise, he would not have complained about the king's "imposing taxes on us without our consent," as he did later in the document. This requires a belief that the colonists had a right to refuse consent to have their property removed by taxation; and this requires at least some right of private property on the colonists' part, since this property can only be alienated voluntarily - or in other words, with their consent. What is this, but a right to private property, recognized and endorsed by the Declaration of Independence?


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the co-founders of Marxism

Marxists have said any number of things about private property, offering a long and rather detailed list of their objections to it. But their very existence - and that of everyone else, for that matter - is dependent upon the property claims inherent in the very act of eating food, and the complaint by Marxists themselves that capitalists "steal" from the workers presupposes that the workers have some property to be stolen - showing that even they recognize private property rights, if they think about their assumptions long enough to realize this.


Declaration of Independence, 1776

Furthermore, the American Declaration of Independence enshrines this right, in a complaint about "imposing taxes on us without our consent." This presupposes some amount of private property that can be taxed.


John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

Thus, "no taxation without representation" is a good slogan in the Founding Fathers' time and ours; and that ancient and time-honored commandment that says "Thou shalt not steal" is as relevant to our time as it is to theirs; recognizing that property rights need to be both acknowledged ... and defended.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Problems with Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto"

Evidence that communism causes poverty

Why equalizing income is a bad goal

Part of a series about
Communism

Communism in theory: Why Marxism can never work

The "Communist Manifesto" (and how Marxism got started)
Marx's "labor theory of value" (and why it doesn't work)
Problems with equalizing income (even in theory)
Problems with rewarding good behavior (under communism)
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property

Communism in practice: The results of the experiments

Revolution in Russia: How the madness got started
History's horror stories: The "grand experiments" with communism
Germany and Korea: The experiments that neither side wanted
Civil war in China: How China was divided
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)


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