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Thomas Hodgskin argues for a Lockean notion of the right to property (“natural”) and against the Benthamite notion that property rights are created by the state (“artificial”) (1832)

Thomas Hodgskin sends a series of letters to one of the most influential Benthamite reformers of the period informing him that his theory of property is incorrect and dangerous to liberty and that he should adopt a more Lockean notion of property rights

I look on a right of property—on the right of individuals, to have and to own, for their own separate and selfish use and enjoyment, the produce of their own industry, with power freely to dispose of the whole of that in the manner most agreeable to themselves, as essential to the welfare and even to the continued existence of society. If, therefore, I did not suppose, with Mr. Locke, that nature establishes such a right—if I were not prepared to shew that she not merely establishes, but also protects and preserves it, so far as never to suffer it to be violated with impunity—I should at once take refuge in Mr. Bentham’s impious theory, and admit that the legislator who established and preserved a right of property, deserved little less adoration than the Divinity himself. Believing, however, that nature establishes such a right, I can neither join those who vituperate it as the source of all our social misery, nor those who claim for the legislator the high honour of being “the author of the finest triumph of humanity over itself.”

As the right of property includes many other rights, being connected with some of our strongest emotions, and the source of some most inveterate prejudices, it requires to be handled with great discretion. If it were not the very foundation of systems of government, and of theories of political philosophy—and if there were any rational hope, that the former could be amended, and the latter constructed on correct principles, without digging down to the very bottom—I, for one, should carefully avoid meddling with so great and, perhaps, dangerous a work. But after much and anxious deliberation, I am satisfied that it is not possible to meliorate our political condition, or even to save society from convulsions, more terrible perhaps than have ever been known, unless all classes attain correct notions of the natural right of property, and endeavour gradually to adapt their conduct and social institutions to what nature decrees. Allow me, however, at once to declare (as there have been in almost every age individuals, such as Beccaria and Rousseau—and sects, some existing at present, such as Mr. Owen’s cooperative societies, the Saint Simonians in France, and the Moravians, who have asserted that all the evils of society arise from a right of property, the utility of which they have accordingly and utterly denied) allow me to separate myself entirely from them, by declaring that I look on a right of property—on the right of individuals, to have and to own, for their own separate and selfish use and enjoyment, the produce of their own industry, with power freely to dispose of the whole of that in the manner most agreeable to themselves, as essential to the welfare and even to the continued existence of society. If, therefore, I did not suppose, with Mr. Locke, that nature establishes such a right—if I were not prepared to shew that she not merely establishes, but also protects and preserves it, so far as never to suffer it to be violated with impunity—I should at once take refuge in Mr. Bentham’s impious theory, and admit that the legislator who established and preserved a right of property, deserved little less adoration than the Divinity himself. Believing, however, that nature establishes such a right, I can neither join those who vituperate it as the source of all our social misery, nor those who claim for the legislator the high honour of being “the author of the finest triumph of humanity over itself.”

I heartily and cordially concur with Mr. Locke, in his view of the origin and foundation of a right of property. “Every man,” he says, “has a property in his own person that nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hand are his property. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it and joined to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For the labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is joined to—at least, where there is enough and as good left in common for others.”

About this Quotation:

Thomas Hodgskin is hard to categorize. The socialists like to claim his as one of their own because he was sympathetic to the workers and worked hard lecturing to them on economic issues at the Mechanics Institutes. Yet he cannot be classified as a “socialist” because of his firm and explicit support for free trade (he worked for The Economist in its most radical free trade phase) and bravely defended Lockean notions of property rights when the utilitarian Bethamites were sweeping all before them. This 1832 book is one of the most explicit defences of what he called “the natural right to property” in direct opposition to the government defined and enforced “artificial right to property” which he believed began the slippery slope to statism.

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