Liberty Matters

Michael Zuckert’s Response to “Mack on Locke on Property”


It is difficult to disagree with Eric Mack’s splendid little essay on Locke’s property doctrine, so instead of taking issue with him I will attempt to supplement his essay by attempting to place the chapter on property more firmly within its context in the Second Treatise. Placing it so will allow me to confirm, reinforce, and perhaps extend some of Mack’s most important conclusions.
"To this purpose, I think it may not be amiss, to set down what I take to be political power; that the power of a magistrate over a subject may be distinguished from that of a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, and a lord over his slave."
Readers are sometimes puzzled by the placement of the chapter on property within the Treatises. It occurs in a series of chapters quite obviously devoted to fulfilling Locke’s promise in 2 Tr2 to explain political power in such a way as to distinguish it clearly from “that of a Father over his Children, a Master over his Servant, a Husband over his Wife, and a Lord over his Slave.” The task of distinguishing these various powers was necessitated most obviously by Robert Filmer’s doctrine, which identified all these powers with the power of fathers. After presenting what one might call the baseline situation, the state of nature where there is no political power of any sort, Locke proceeds in a series of chapters to discourse briefly on the various powers he identified in 2 Tr2. Thus in chapter 4, “Of Slavery,” he explains how the power of a “Lord over his Slave” can legitimately arise, despite the natural freedom and equality of human beings. Chapter 6, “Of Paternal Power,” clearly carries forward Locke’s agenda by explaining the nature and limits of the power of fathers over children. Chapter 7, “Of Political or Civil Society,” presents Locke’s account of “conjugal society,” that is, of the “power of a Husband over his Wife.”
In the midst of these chapters elucidating the various relations or sorts of power that Locke means to distinguish from the “power of a Magistrate over a Subject,” or political power, comes the seemingly irrelevant and digressive chapter “Of Property.” What is this chapter doing in this place? The key to answering that question lies in noticing that Locke has not in direct terms explained one of the sorts of power he had promised to explain in 2 Tr2: that of “a Master over his Servant.” Locke has in mind something much broader than his words convey to a modern ear, for the master-servant relation, as he understands it, translates into what we would call the employer-employee relation. To explain that relation is to explain how some come to work for others in exchange for wages.
In chapter 7 Locke mentions in passing the master-servant relation in tracing out the chronological emergence of the different relations: “The first society was between Man and Wife, which gave beginning to that between Parents and Children; to which, in time, that between Master and Servant came to be added.” In this chapter Locke proceeds to explain the conjugal relation, the first in time, but the penultimate relation discussed before Locke gets to his ultimate destination, the political relation of magistrate and subject. In the preceding chapter Locke had explained the paternal (or better put) parental relation. He will go on in chapter 7 to again touch very briefly on the master-servant relation, but only in the context of distinguishing it from the master-slave relation (2 T85):
Master and servant are Names as old as History, but given to those of far different condition; for a Free-man makes himself a Servant to another, by selling him for a certain time, the Service he undertakes to do, in exchange for Wages he is to receive: … gives the Master but a Temporary Power over him, and no greater than what is contained in the Contract between men. But there is another sort of Servants, which by a peculiar Name we call Slaves, who being Captives taken in a just War, are, by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters.
Servants are free-men who exchange their labor for wages via contract; slaves are not free and do not relate to their masters via contract, as Locke explained in chapter 4. How men come to be slaves Locke explained clearly in that chapter. But how do men come be servants, i.e., beings who sell their labor to others? That is precisely the task of chapter 5 to explain. It is not at all out of place, but it is the place where Locke presents the ground for this all-important economic relation.
"From all which it is evident, that though the things of nature are given in common, yet man, by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it, had still in himself the great foundation of property; "
This insight into the organizational placement of the discussion of property is not only helpful for confirming our general impression that Locke knew how to present his thought in an orderly and logically structured manner, but it also gives us a crucial insight into what the dominant point of chapter 5 is. To repeat, that point is to explain the genesis and nature of the employer-employee relation. Or perhaps better put, to show the legitimacy of that relation. This insight helps make clear that the point of the chapter “Of Propriety” is to show how, beginning from the claim that the earth “belongs to mankind in common” (which, as Mack rightly shows, means that the earth is originally unowned rather than jointly owned), we can arrive at a situation in which the whole earth is owned, and owned quite unequally, with some possessing a great deal more than they strictly need and others owning none of it. This does not mean these dispossessed men are entirely without property, however. As self-owners, they are “Proprietor(s) of [their] own Person(s), and the actions or labour of it” and thus have within themselves “the great Foundation of Property.” (2 T44)
The history of property relations would seem to be a history of injustice or at least unfairness, for mankind moves from a situation where all have a right of preservation and an equal right to appropriate the goods needed for preservation from an unowned world to a situation where most have no right to appropriate anything directly from a world no longer “owned in common.” But the point of Locke’s chapter is to establish that this apparently unfair development is perfectly legitimate and to the benefit of everybody, i.e., genuinely a common good. I need not repeat the arguments by which Locke tries to show this, for Mack has laid them out exceedingly well in his essay.
One benefit of seeing the point of chapter 5 in this way is that it refutes C.B. Macpherson’s claim that Locke is a mere unconscious mouthpiece for developing market relations in 17th-century England, unwittingly taking for granted the master-servant relation and merely importing it, untheorized, into his property doctrine. Locke was so far from unconscious of the master-servant relation that explaining it was his chief goal in the chapter on property.
This insight into the aim of chapter 5 confirms Mack’s basic conclusions about the consequences of the introduction of money. The complete ownership of the world, which in a sense is equivalent to the expropriation of some from their primitive rights, is neither a denial of the rights of the expropriated (if we may even speak of them in that way) nor a disaster for them. As Mack rightly brings out, the landless retain their rights (as the right to sell their labor for wages) and their benefit (as the increased productivity that the unleashing of labor power made possible by the introduction of money). The landless retain “the great foundation of Property” in their labor power and do accrue property in the form of the wages they gain with their labor.
"As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want,"
The assumption behind Locke’s presentation of the mature post-money world is something like a full-employment economy. This is “ideal theory.” Mack brings out very well Locke’s implicit point that if this assumption of ideal theory is not met, there is a just basis for complaint by those both dispossessed and unemployed. As he says in 1 Tr42: “As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, and the fair Acquisition’s of his Ancestors descended to him; so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty, as well keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.”
Locke is using somewhat traditional language but his meaning is quite untraditional, for he speaks here of granting a man a “title,” i.e., bestowing on him a right, via charity. In speaking in that way Locke is in effect saying that “charity” is not something different from justice (as it traditionally was thought to be) but under the situation specified is a matter of justice or right. That is to say, what he is speaking about is not charity at all, but an en-titlement. This “right” to support for the otherwise resourceless connects to Mack’s discussion of Locke’s essay on the Poor Law. I believe that Locke’s point is that the propertied should honor the right of the resourceless via a public policy rather than as helter-skelter individuals. As Mack makes clear, Locke outlines a kind of welfare policy that meets the obligations of providing support for those unable to support themselves in the wage economy without providing incentives for dependence or shirking. It is of some interest, I think, that Thomas Paine, a few generations later, picked up on Locke’s basic argument and developed from it a more full-blown plan for something like a welfare state.
[For further discussion, interested readers might consult my forthcoming essay, “Two Paths from Revolution: Jefferson, Paine and the Radicalization of Enlightenment Thought” to appear in Simon Newman and Peter Ounf, eds., Paine and Jefferson in the Age of Revolutions (University Press of Virginia, forthcoming, 2013.)]
Placing chapter 5 in the context of the line of argument of this part of the Second Treatise has the further consequence of highlighting a feature of Locke’s doctrine that does not always stand out, and which does not receive much notice in Mack’s essay. As Locke emphasizes and Mack reports, Locke partly justifies the movement from the universal common to total but unequal ownership of the earth by claiming that all are better off than they would be in a pre-private property world: the famous day-laborer versus the Indian chief. Mack points out that it is not universally true that all are better off—the point Locke concedes in his proposal for a poor law. Mack, however, does not emphasize the other important aspect of Locke’s thesis: Although all or almost all are indeed “better off” in the sense of materially better off, the members of society are far from equally better off, as Locke’s emphasis on explaining the existence of a class of men who have no property but their persons and nothing to sell or barter but their labor. Civil society, commerce, and money raise all the boats, but some are way at the top of the wave and others in the trough. Locke does not take this as a justification for redistribution, in part for reasons not too far from Rawls’s theory of justice—this is the arrangement from which all do benefit and therefore the inequality is justifiable and just.
Nonetheless, Locke’s account brings out the nature of society and politics in a propertied society: It is a class society, and it is a politics of actual or potential class conflict. Locke may be correct that as a matter of political morality the property-less would be doubly wrong to attempt to expropriate the propertied, just as it would be wrong for the propertied to govern in such a way that the property in their persons of the otherwise property-less was endangered. That, precisely, is the political problem that comes to sight when focusing on the chapter on property as aiming to explain the existence and legitimacy of a free class of self-owning but otherwise property-less men.