Liberty Matters

Jan Narveson’s Response to “Mack on Locke on Property”

Eric Mack sets forth with his characteristic elegance the essentials of Locke’s philosophical outlook on political morality. He points out what is not always clearly appreciated, namely, that if each is to be free – and not just some few – then we need somehow to demarcate a domain, a sphere, within which the individual has complete authority: Others must apply for permission to enter that domain.  So “regime of compatible freedom depends on the identification of the fences that mark off mine from thine. Thus for Locke, rights characteristically take the form of property. Property in its broad sense, that is, rights to life, liberty, and estate, provide each individual with moral protection against subordination to other individuals and to the state.”
Accurately enough, he goes on to say that people have, in the view of Locke (and Nozick and others), “morally significant features” such that “individuals are not to be treated as objects or resources or means at the disposal of others.” If an agent abides by that constraint in relation to others, they are required to “allow him to pursue his own ends in his own chosen way.” The question is, though: Why are those features “morally significant”? What is it about those features that ground the principle in question? Bad accounts, or non-accounts (such as that these are “natural rights” ) abound.
"it is a precept, or general rule of reason, that every man, ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war."
We have a minor more-or-less scholarly difference regarding Hobbes, whom Mack classifies as an “authoritarian.” That’s certainly right on the strictly political level, but in Hobbes there is beneath this a moral level, set forth in (a) a depiction of the state of mankind without rules and (b) a list of fundamental moral rules beginning with one master rule, the First Law of Nature, calling upon all to refrain from violence against others. This, he thinks, is a “rule of reason” – a pregnant phrase in context. Locke too thinks that his Law of Nature, which I would argue has precisely the same content as Hobbes’s First Law, is a pronouncement of reason, saying, “Reason, which is that law, teaches that no one….” How Hobbes becomes a sort of political authoritarian despite this total agreement in basic premises is a fascinating question. Hobbes’s idea is that anybody contemplating the natural condition of mankind would see that what we need is a general rule, and specifically that one. Locke, on the other hand, seems to leave matters at a purely intuitive level or even, worse yet, a religious one.
Mack suggests that the salient passage in paragraph 26, which starts out with the communist-sounding proclamation that “the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men” has the effect – as I think most of us would say – of really denying this: “In effect,” Mack writes, “the earth is originally unowned.” Now I agree that this is what Locke should have said, and I agree too that his slightly tortuous argument in that paragraph tries to works around to that conclusion. Still, what we should realize is that Locke isn’t entitled to lean on any theological premises in the Treatise, and absent those, there is absolutely no reason to declare the earth to be primordially communist. The earth is just a bunch of stuff, and people are in fact able to put bits of it to their use. Since it is just a bunch of stuff, there is no natural reason why they should not go ahead and use it – and plenty of reason, “natural” enough, why they should, in the process, grant each other the moral status of rights to what they have thus selected and put to use. These reasons need to be spelled out, and Locke gets a very good start on this by arguing (as Mack says) that if we didn’t, in effect, have this institution of property rights, relying instead on full-blown communism, mankind would have starved – a claim confirmed by the world’s celebrated communist basket-cases, such as the vast starvation of early Maoist China in recent times.
But as Mack perceptively asks – well, why aren’t we obligated to just go ahead and starve? He proposes a de-theologized answer: “all persons rationally seek ‘the comfortable preservation of their Beings’ (FT 87).…  [S]ince the use or appropriation of portions of nature is necessary for the pursuit of comfortable preservation, all persons have rights to engage in such use or appropriation.”
Now if  we look at it in this de-theologized way – as we of course should – then a question arises: If particular person Jones can, in some circumstances, appropriate bits of nature at the expense of his fellow man and thereby “preserve himself” – well, why shouldn’t he do that – contrary to the requirements of the Law of Nature?
What this all hinges on is a recognition of a natural right, namely, a right of acquisition, “a right to make things one’s own.” There are two aspects of this needing discussion. The one that gets almost all the attention among recent scholars, in the wake of Nozick and others, is how we get from our natural right to general liberty to this right to acquire and then become the owner, in the appropriately normative sense, of what one acquires. Locke’s famous derivation via our original right to ourselves, through our labor, to rights in things is the focus of this discussion, with many authors denying that the argument goes through, while others (including Mack and myself) think it does. But even if we are right, that leaves us with the more fundamental question: Why should we think each other to be “owners” of ourselves in the first place? (Hobbes’s answer is clear: because if we don’t, we’ll be facing an awful state-of-nature situation.)
We get some light on this by following Mack’s further discussion. Not all rights of individual acquisition need depend on “labor-mixing.” “Various conventions develop” that, he holds, “define [my emphasis] what counts as an entitlement-generating initial acquisition.” In ensuing discussion, considerable weight is put on this device. But doesn’t this tread on thin ice? If ownership is a function literally of conventions, in at least some cases, doesn’t that imply that the conventions could be other than they are, thus changing our rights – contrary to the original assertion of natural rights in this area?
Mack’s next discussions concern the famous spoilage proviso and still more famous “enough and as good proviso” on acquisition. His discussion of the latter is elegant. We are not to acquire something if that would leave others in a worse condition than they would have been in a propertyless state of nature, of course -- but there is no restriction such that “each individual be left ‘as good’ a portion as has already been acquired by other individuals” (again, my emphasis). The more familiar egalitarian interpretation involves an illegitimate shift of baseline. That is a signal contribution, indeed, to the discussion of this much-vexed question. (In my own writing on this, I have arrived at a similar conclusion by a slightly different route.[1])
Mack notes that Nozick tends to put this in utility terms: No one to be left worse off than he or she would have been in the unmodified commons – but Mack proposes that Locke instead is concentrating on freedom, with the striking summary that “it is not too far off the mark to say that Locke is concerned with no one being worse off with respect to economic opportunity rather than with respect to utility per se.” This is interesting and plausible; my question would only be whether there is really any difference for such creatures as we are. If there is – if we suppose that being fed intravenously forever without doing an ounce of effort represents a “level of utility” different from whatever might ensue from our own efforts -- then perhaps we should agree with Mack here.
Next he goes on to discuss the effects of the introduction of money as it bears on the proviso. Extensive commercial activity will, Mack agrees, really disenable some people from initial acquisition of, say,  natural resources and land. How can this be all right? His answer is that, nevertheless, the new opportunities created by all this, as we might call it, “unnatural” activity more than compensates for any losses at the primitive level. Locke himself, as Mack notes, has already pointed out that a king in a country without exchange and property will be worse off than a day-laborer in the England of his day (not to mention the contemporary poor, with their TVs, cell phones, indoor plumbing, and more).
Now he is careful to qualify this: “Almost” everyone, not absolutely everyone will thus benefit. That raises two questions. One has to do with interpersonal comparisons of benefit: Are we sure that people will be better off poor now than in a genuine “state of nature”? There’s hope for a decent answer to that one. But another is more fundamental: What about those who exploit the compliance of most of us with Locke’s natural law – the thieves and cutthroats (including the political ones) or those who have a natural preference for violence. It would be nice if we could show that such persons are irrational – but it’s not obvious.
"Thirdly, The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent..."
With respect to one sizable subset of that class of persons, Mack discusses Locke on the Poor Law. Those who fall into such poverty that they might really have been better off in a commons may, Locke thinks, actually be forced to work for their upkeep. (That is, if they can. We should note that it is totally implausible to think that the ones who can’t would have done better in a common.) Mack observes that “it is hard to avoid the conclusion that when Locke shifts from high philosophy to public policy – especially public policy concerning the less reputable members of society – liberty and property tend to get lost in the shuffle.” Yes, indeed. Just as he seems to underappreciate the contribution that his proposed restrictions on the scope of political authority would have (#38): “Thirdly, The Supreme Power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent.” It’s pretty hard to square that with any government, let alone the limited one that Locke wants. Well, nobody’s perfect! Endnotes 
[1] Narveson, “Property Rights: Original Acquisition and Lockean Provisos” in Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 111-129.