Liberty Matters

Response to Bas van der Vossen

I’m very grateful for the opportunity to participate in this forum, and especially to Bas van der Vossen for his thought-provoking essay. 
Those interested in Locke’s work on property have long focused on the passages about labour-mixing. These sections have drawn commentators’ attention in part because they are implausible. As van der Vossen points out, it is unclear why mixing one’s labour with an unowned resource gives one a right to that resource (we might just be throwing away our labour by mixing it with something we do not already own). Rather than offer another literal interpretation of the labour-mixing passages, van der Vossen instead offers a different approach to understanding Locke’s views on property. If we want to understand the content of Lockean property rights, we should try to understand what Locke thinks is the purpose of private property—that is, why he believes it is important to own the fruits of our labour—in the first place.
To my mind, this is a far superior approach to Lockean property rights than one which offers a literal interpretation of the labour-mixing passages. Throughout the Second Treatise, virtually all of Locke’s arguments about one’s rights and obligations take the same form. For Locke, the content of one’s rights, or obligations, are determined by their purposes. The purpose of parental rule determines the rights of parents (and the corresponding obligations of children); the purpose of marriage determines the rights and obligations of spouses; and the purpose of political society determines the rights, and importantly the limits, of political power. Given that this is the typical structure of Locke’s arguments, it is surprising that more commentators do not apply this logic to Locke’s arguments about property rights. This is partly what I take van der Vossen to be doing. We should pay attention to what Locke says is the purpose of owning private property, the fruit of our labour, because this purpose determines the content and limits of those property rights.
Van der Vossen argues that Locke believes property has two purposes. The first purpose of private property is that it protects us from undue interference in our personal lives. This is intuitive enough. If someone else owns the fruits of our labour, they can then control how we are employed, or who we hire, and what products we buy or sell. Van der Vossen also considers a second purpose of private property. Namely, we have a right to property because it encourages people to labour. By allowing people to own the fruits of their labour, industrious behavior is incentivized.
There is, however, some tension between these two potential purposes of private property—protecting people’s personal choices about their labour sits somewhat uneasily with the idea of promoting particular types of productive behavior. Thus, we might expect the content of property rights to look somewhat different depending on which purpose we prioritize. If the purpose of private property is to protect personal choices, then we can expect property rights to be fairly absolute and government interference to be minimal, whereas one’s rights might be more limited if the purpose of property is to promote industry. If the purpose of private property is to incentivize labour, then some uses of property might be justifiably restricted. Giving substantial gifts or inheritances, for instance, might dampen one’s interest in work and therefore the government might be justified in interfering with these uses of property.
Van der Vossen seems to recognize this tension, and argues that Locke ‘strikes a balance’ between protecting our personal lives and promoting industry. This is where I disagree. It seems to me that Locke is not really interested in striking a balance at all. Locke’s true concerns lie, not with protecting people’s personal choices about their labour, but with creating a particular kind of industrious citizen. That is, he seems content to sacrifice the ‘personal’ if it in any way encourages the citizens to be more industrious.
I think Locke’s Essay on the Poor Law provides a clear example. In this essay, Locke offers a set of policy proposals that were meant to overhaul England’s highly localized and parochial system of poverty relief.[i] In the 1690s, poor relief was largely orchestrated by individual parishes who at once were responsible for tax collection, and served as the first point of contact for alms seekers. Since parishes had significantly different resources, many people traveled from parish to parish in search of aid. The problem, according to Locke, was not that this haphazard system might lead to some poor people falling through the cracks. Rather, Locke was disturbed by the possibility that this haphazard system might be too generous. The undeserving poor—those who are capable of work, but who choose not to—could falsely claim that they couldn’t find employment, while idly traveling from parish to parish to obtain charity. Locke’s aim was to create a more centralized, rigorous system that could prevent this from happening, and set the poor to work.
Locke recommends a variety of policies that he believes will restrain the debauchery of the poor, control their movements, and compel them to work. First, he recommends the “superfluous brandy shops and unnecessary alehouses, especially in country parishes” be shuttered, lest the poor while away their hours there.[ii] He also recommends that the poor register at their parish and only be permitted to leave with a special exemption or pass. Any man “found begging … out of their own parish without a pass shall be seized” and forced to do three years hard labour on a naval ship.[iii] Elderly and disabled men caught without a pass receive a somewhat milder sentence—they should be forced to work several years in a correction house.[iv] Once the movements of the poor are controlled, the able-bodied can be more easily put to work. Anyone seeking parish relief because he claims to lack employment would be given an offer from the parish minister to work “at a lower rate than is usually given.” If no parishioner agrees to hire him, then the well-off should be forced to take turns supplying him with work, or paying his wages.[v] If anyone should refuse an offer of employment, he can be forced to do several years of hard labour on a naval vessel.
Van der Vossen suggests that Locke’s harsh measures in this essay are punitive. The undeserving poor may justly be punished because they threaten the security of our property by taking the charity that rightfully belongs to others. Thus, the government is justified in interfering with their lives in order to protect people’s property. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it cannot account for all the policies Locke defends. His recommendations go well beyond punishing fraudulent behavior. Locke’s policies also monitor and coerce the ‘worthy’ poor, and even the wealthy in the parish. His policies would dictate where people live, their occupations, and who they can hire, as well as what they can buy and sell. The coercion these people face is not about protecting their property, rather it is clearly about encouraging citizens to develop hard-working characters.
In this response, I have agreed with van der Vossen’s suggestion that we should understand Lockean property rights by considering their purpose. However, if the purpose of private property is to encourage a hard-working personal ethos, then Locke might be less of a champion of free markets than he first appears. In his Essay on the Poor Law, Locke expresses his anxiety that a free market may actually corrupt the poor. If people are allowed to choose for themselves those whom they give charity to, employ, or trade with—actions that are typically deemed characteristic of a free market—then people might actually be discouraged from following their divine injunction to labour. At least in his Essay on the Poor Law, Locke does not seem to believe that people have a right to use property in these corrupting ways.
[i] For a good historical overview, see Brundage, Anthony (2002) The English Poor Laws, 1700-1930, New York: Palgrave, 2002, pp. 6-8.[ii] Locke, John (1997) “An Essay on the Poor Law.” In: Political Essays, Mark Goldie (ed.) Cambridge University Press, pp. 184.
[iii] Locke, “An Essay on the Poor Law”, 185-186.
[iv]  Locke, “An Essay on the Poor Law”, 186.
[v]  Locke, “An Essay on the Poor Law”, 188.