Liberty Matters

Eric Mack’s Comment on Michael Zuckert

I have already thanked Jan Narveson and Peter Vallentyne for their gracious and thought-provoking comments. I now thank Michael Zuckert, who, as is always the case, reveals to me interesting ways to look at philosophical texts and issues that would otherwise be beyond my ken. It is very gratifying to have such distinguished thinkers as commentators and friends.
Zuckert zooms in on what seems to be a curious feature of Locke’s Second Treatise. Locke’s treatise is very reasonably viewed as (among other things) a defense of an economic order in which owners of extra-personal productive resources employ individuals who possess little in the way of productive resources beyond themselves. Such an economic order will be shot through with employer-employee relationships – or, in Locke’s language, with master-servant relationships. Moreover, Locke mentions master-servant relationships as one of the several types of relationship that are to be distinguished from the political ruler-political subject relationship. Nevertheless, while Locke devotes good segments of chapters to the owner-slave, the parent-child, and the husband-wife relationships before going on to ruler-subject relationship, he does not seem to offer a comparable discussion of the master-servant relationship. Zuckert’s resolution of this curiosity is that the chapter “Of Property” – which is located between chapters that focus on these other relationships – is in reality about the master-servant relationship. It is an elaborate justifying explanation of the emergence of an economic order that is shot through with employer-employee relationships.
I think that this is a very illuminating point even though (or especially because) the only explicit reference to servants that I recall in “Of Property” is Locke’s assertion that,
Thus the Grass my Horse has bit; the Turfs my Servant has cut; and the Ore I have digg’d in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, become my Property, without the assignment or consent of any body. The labour that was mine [including my horse’s labor and my servant’s labor], removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my Property in them.[1]
Still, I think that there is another respect in which “Of Property” is strangely silent given Locke’s place as a crucial defender of a private property commercial order. Locke never takes up the question of why freely contracted exchanges give both parties rights against the world at large to what those parties receive through such exchanges.
Consider a situation in which A has a property right to a particular silver coin and B has a property right to a particular wool coat and they voluntarily agree to an exchange of the coin for the coat. It is pretty clear why, in virtue of their agreement, after the exchange A has a right against B that B not grab the wool coat and that B has a right against A that A not grab the coin. Each has the specified right against the other in virtue of the binding moral force of contracts. As Locke says, agreements are binding in the state of nature because “truth and keeping of faith belongs to men, as men….”[2]
But why does A now have a right against everyone that they keep their hands off the wool coat and why does B now have a right against everyone that they keep their hands off the silver coin? One might say – albeit Locke does not try this – that A and B don’t merely exchange the coin and the coat; they also exchange their rights. A transfers to B his right against the world to the coin and B transfers to A her right against the world to the wool coat. But I think saying this at best amounts to saying that somehow the agreement between A and B results in A having a right against the world to the coat and B having a right against the world to the coin. Yet what is needed is some explanation of how the voluntary exchange has this effect. I think that there are two factors that explain Locke’s failure to note the need to provide an explanation for how voluntary transfers of just holdings bring it about that the recipients now have rights against the world to what they have received in trade.
First, I think that Locke is quite appropriately impressed with the moral power of agreement. For this reason he does not notice that, while it is clear that if I agree to transfer my coin to you, I am bound not to grab it back, it is not so clear why everyone else becomes obligated to you not to take the coin. Second, along with all other 17th-century theorists, Locke is focused on how property rights initially arise – on how portions of the natural world are justly removed from the commons and converted into property. The task that he sets for himself in “Of Property” is to explain how just initial acquisition is possible (in the absence of the world at large agreeing to such acquisition). Locke simply takes it for granted that justice in transfer is possible.
There is another significant silence in and around Locke’s chapter “Of Property.” I’ve argued that Locke provides a forceful explanation for why the appearance and increasing articulation of a system of private property and trade will benefit all (or nearly all) persons. But this is, as Zuckert points out, a bit of “ideal theory” that may not fully address the world as it actually is. One way that Locke’s theorizing about how the rise of property could be just and mutually beneficial does not connect to the actual non-ideal world is that Locke remains silent about the extent to which the actual holdings – especially the land holdings -- of the world in which he lived were just or unjust and to what extent individuals were worse off than they would be because unjust holdings were in fact upheld. My presumption is that it simply does not occur to Locke to investigate the gap between his philosophical account of just holdings and those actually existing holdings. Perhaps – I think this is a Zuckert-like thought -- he saw the gap but judged that the most he could do was to leave it to others to see the gap as well.
Zuckert is impressed by the extent to which the gains to participants in Lockean commercial society are unequal – more specifically, by the extent to which the gains to those who are propertied are greater than the gains to those who are property-less. As I understand Zuckert, he is saying that, although justice may not condemn this unequal gain, we have to recognize the sense in which Lockean commercial society is a class society. Here I would just want to put forward an alternative picture for consideration. On that picture (i) many of the gains and the losses in Locke’s actual world and in ours derived or now derive from the sorts of economic predation that good Lockeans condemn; (ii) many of those illicit gains accrued and now accrue to those who are already powerful and hooked up to concentrated political interests, and many of those unjust losses fell and now fall on those who are already weak and unrepresented in coalitions of concentrated interests; and (iii) the important class division is the too-often unrecognized division between those who gain from predatory measures that Lockeans should condemn and those from whom those gains are extracted.
[1] Second Treatise, §28. </title/222/16269/704360>. [2] Second Treatise, §14.</title/222/16245/704328>.