Liberty Matters

Eric Mack’s Response to Peter Vallentyne


I now thank Peter Vallentyne for his very gracious and challenging comments. I want to address several of the issues that Vallentyne raises. Most of these issues arise within the context of the debate – or, let us say, conversation – between theorists (like myself) who are labeled “right-libertarians” and theorists (like Vallentyne) who are labeled “left-libertarians.”[1] Moreover, since most, if not all, members of each of these philosophical sub-camps see themselves as endorsing “a Locke-inspired version of libertarianism,” one can also describe the philosophical conversation as being between “right-Lockeans” and “left-Lockeans.” This is not a conversation about exactly what John Locke actually believed but rather one about what is the best philosophical elaboration of the basic elements of Lockean political theory as those elements themselves are best understood.
"Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself."
Both “right-Lockeans” and “left-Lockeans” recognize in Locke and themselves affirm that “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body as any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” [ST §27] This is a statement about each person’s natural (or original) moral condition. Each is “Master of himself, and Proprietor of his own Person” [ST §44] in the sense that each is morally at liberty to dispose as he sees fit of the elements that compose his person and each has rights against all others not to be prevented from disposing of his person as he sees fit.
For our current purposes, it is important to note that this affirmation of “self-ownership” is anti-egalitarian in the sense that individuals are ascribed rights over very unequal “shares” of personal resources. Some individuals will have rights over considerably more in the way of mental or physical capacities and levels of energy and get-going-ness than others. In addition, it looks as though the affirmed and rightful inequality in personal resources will in all likelihood generate inequalities in extra-personal holdings – in the number of acorns that people will gather, the extent of the fields that they will cultivate and the crops that they will harvest, and the minerals they will mine and refine. As Locke says, “Different degrees of Industry were apt to give Men Possessions in different Proportions….” [ST §48]. And when the invention of money engenders more elaborate forms of labor and commerce, this inequality in extra-personal holdings will be enlarged. When individuals with rights over their talents, energy, and labor bring these factors to bear on the natural materials that surround them, we seem to get rightful inequalities of extra-personal holdings. Left-Lockeans, however, want to push back against these apparently anti-egalitarian implications. They want to find bases within a fundamentally Lockean approach for something like equality in the distribution of the blessings of nature – or even (in some left-Lockeans) something like equality in the distribution of all extra-personal holdings.
The Lockean text suggests four ways in which a Lockean might launch an argument for some degree – perhaps a very considerable degree – of mandated equality in extra-personal holdings. The least promising of these is Locke’s advocacy of a spoilage proviso according to which, even if I have mixed my labor with some natural material – e.g., even if I have gathered all three of these bushels of berries – if some of the labor-invested material will spoil in my possession, others are morally at liberty to take that material. But, as Locke points out, the spoilage proviso provides little room for inequality reducing transfers of extra-personal holdings, for only the most irrational people will invest their labor in gathering more berries than they can consume without spoilage or can barter away for other consumption goods. And once money comes along, all those extra berries can readily be converted in to silver and gold coins that never spoil.
Locke tells us that the earth has been given to all mankind in common. There are two very strong interpretations of this claim, each of which seems to require something like an equal distribution of the blessings of nature. One interpretation is that we are all by nature joint-owners of the earth and hence any private appropriation requires everyone’s agreement. The other interpretation is that each of such is naturally the owner of a discrete equal share of the earth. (Locke himself rejects both of these interpretations.) As I see it, the history of left-Lockeanism (or left-libertarianism) has largely been the history of people trying to defend one or another of these strong propositions and then trying to show the coherence of a system that includes one of these propositions and self-ownership. One of the striking things about Vallentyne’s left-Lockeanism is that Vallentyne disavows both of these strong claims about original equal rights to nature and accepts the position of Locke (and of right-Lockeans) that nature is originally unowned.
"… which Question will at first seem strange, since the Establishment of Property seems to have extinguished all the Right that arose from the State of Community. But it is not so; for we are to consider the Intention of those who first introduced the Property of Goods. There is all the Reason in the World to suppose that they designed to deviate as little as possible from the Rules of natural Equity;"
Another opening for the insertion of equality into a Lockean system is Locke’s claim that an individual who is in extreme want is morally at liberty to take the loaf of bread that she needs to avoid starvation from the otherwise rightful owner of that loaf. Vallentyne agrees, and so do I. Locke in fact seems to make a much stronger claim on behalf of the party in dire circumstances. In his First Treatise he declares that “charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise….” [FT §42]. Notice that this moral-liberty argument goes beyond the spoilage proviso because the party who needs to take the loaf to avoid starvation may take the loaf even if it will not otherwise spoil.[2] On the other hand, the doctrine that people are not obligated to sit and starve or even that there is a duty of charity to prevent starvation hardly gets one to anything like an egalitarianism of extra-personal shares of nature.
Notice that in this First Treatise passage Locke says that the person in extreme want has a “Title” to what she needs to survive – albeit it is a title bestowed by charity and not by justice. This raises some of the same philosophical issues considered by Vallentyne toward the end of his remarks. Does the loaf-holder have a duty to hand the bread over to the starving individual? Does he at least have a duty to allow her to exercise her liberty to take the bread? If the loaf-holder has duties with respect to the person in extreme want does that mean that she has claim-rights against the loaf-holder? In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke holds that although uncharitableness is a sin, it is not subject to punishment by the magistrate because uncharitable conduct is “not prejudicial to other mens Rights….”[3]
The fourth opening for something like the equal blessings of nature into a Lockean system is Locke’s advocacy of the “enough and as good” proviso. The core idea of such a proviso is that people’s acquisition of property and/or their decisions about how they will employ their property may not worsen the condition of others in some way. But in what way may people’s condition not be worsened? And what is the baseline for determining whether a person’s condition is worsened in the specified way? And what justifies any such proviso and how does the affirmed proviso fit into an overall Lockean political theory? All these are matters of complex debate. What is salient here is that Vallentyne’s left-Lockean position turns on the inclusion of a bold “enough and as good” proviso. Vallentyne’s proposed proviso requires that an equally valuable share of natural resources be left for each individual or that each individual receive due compensation for anything less than an equally valuable share being left for her. [FN4: Vallentyne might go further. He might require that each be left with a large enough share to provide her with an equal opportunity for wellbeing or receive due compensation for not being left with such a share.]
Vallentyne quite rightly notes that he cannot be expected to defend this claim in a short commentary on a short essay about Locke. So it would be unjust for me to launch a full-scale critique here. I will merely highlight three difficulties that I expect readers of this conversation to have. The first is the difficulty of determining what an equally valuable share of natural resources would be. The second is the difficulty of seeing why the benefits provided by natural resources should be shared equally. The third is the difficulty of thinking that raw nature, to any significant degree, provides us with benefits. An important Lockean doctrine is that what provides us with benefits is people doing things with raw stuff that would otherwise be worthless. Endnotes 
[1]For a variety of reasons, I dislike these “right”–“left” labels.
[2] A really interesting discussion of this issue of which Locke must have been aware appears in Hugo Grotius’s great 1625 treatise, The Rights of War and Peace, (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2005), Bk.II, Ch.II, VI-IX. Editor’s Note: Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, edited and with an Introduction by Richard Tuck, from the Edition by Jean Barbeyrac (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 2. Bk. II CHAPTER II: VI: Of Things which belong in common to all Men. < /title/1947/121278/2448195>]
[3] A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. J. Tully (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1983), 44. Editor’s Note: Or see Liberty Fund’s edition, John Locke, A Letter concerning Toleration and Other Writings, edited and with an Introduction by Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). <>.]