Liberty Matters

Response to the Responses

Mary Jo MacDonald, Brian Kogelmann, and Billy Christmas have written three really interesting and pressing response essays. These responses contain more that merits reply than I can offer. Here, I will address three important points, one by each of the respondents.
Locke’s theory of property, I wrote, strikes a balance between the freedoms of individuals and the interests of communities. People get to own the fruits of their labor because (a) labor is something deeply personal and (b) rewarding labor tends to benefit society. By striking this balance, people can protect their persons in ways that help (instead of coming at the expense of) others around them. And societies can expect contributions from their members without having to assault them.
Mary Jo MacDonald and Brian Kogelman disagree with this reading, albeit from different ends. MacDonald thinks Locke’s view is much more tilted toward the goal of increasing productivity. Kogelmann thinks Locke’s view is not tilted enough toward that goal.
Let’s start with MacDonald’s claim that Locke “seems content to sacrifice the ‘personal’ if it in any way encourages the citizens to be more industrious.” It’s certainly true that Locke repeatedly emphasizes the injunction to be productive. He even goes so far, in a letter to Molyneux, as to say that those who do not work for the public good have “no right to eat.” The question is whether this means that Locke would favor an untrammeled policy of increasing productivity? 
If he did, Locke might end up with the position Brian Kogelmann seems to think he should have defended. As Kogelmann points out:
Though laboring often does produce value, it would be best—by Van der Vossen’s own reasoning—to develop a system of property acquisition that encourages persons to always labor in a productive manner.
Both arguments should be rejected, and for the same reason. Consider first Kogelmann’s position that property rights should encourage people to labor in the most productive ways, judged by the long-term effects of different modes of acquisition. There are two problems here. First, a pragmatic problem: this is simply impossible to assess ahead of time. At the time of acquisition, we typically just don’t know what activities will end up having been the most productive. This depends on facts we don’t know, innovations and inventions, and things that happen in the future.
Does this mean we should judge the legitimacy of property rights not before but after the acquisition took place? This is no better. Suppose we say, looking back, that homesteaders should lose their possessions because they weren’t productive enough. This would be a disastrous suggestion of course, including for reasons of productivity. Such a policy would create enormous uncertainty about our rights, and it would discourage investment, labor, risk-taking, and more.
The best we can do, then, is adopt a rule that is reliably productivity-enhancing. The Lockean point is about labor being just that.
Or better, part of the Lockean point is about labor being just that. The other part is the personal element in Locke’s view of labor. And this element seems to be entirely missing from Kogelmann and MacDonald’s views. A rule judging property rights ex post would not just be disastrous for productivity. It would also be disastrous judged from a personal standpoint. The rule that our rights get undercut if we are not productive enough will end up severing people from the fruits of their (very personal) labor. And that constitutes an assault on the personal that Locke’s theory is designed to prevent.
Here is one point where we can see this element missing from Kogelmann’s argument. Property acquisition, Locke stresses, can happen unilaterally. That is, we can acquire property without asking anyone’s permission. This is important because acquiring property is what we do when we make a living in this world. And we need no one’s permission to be free to make a living. 
So, even if we can achieve higher long-term productivity gains overall by having the government auction off plots of land, such a system would still be unacceptable to the Lockean. It would make our ability to own things contingent on getting the approval of bureaucrats, politicians, or our neighbors. To Locke, that is unacceptable. No one has such power over us. 
Lockean property, therefore, cannot depend on welfare only. Similarly, whatever Locke might have in mind with his (startling) policies proposed in the Essay on the Poor Law, he cannot be thought to say that innocent persons should be forced to greater industriousness. That would be a nonstarter.
This prohibition of violating individuals also answers a question Billy Christmas raises. Christmas wonders how the values of freedom and equality support commercial society, once we move beyond the initial stages of property acquisition. He asks:
If every person were denied 25% of the value of their labour (for example, by a tax collector), in what way would their right to control their labour be undermined or violated? They still get to work how they want and with whom they want – how do freedom and equality relate to the number that shows up on one’s pay-cheque?
Note that the exchange Christmas describes does not establish but presupposes property rights. We can only (justly) exchange what we own in the first place. Only against such a background of ownership does exchange come into the picture. (If my paycheck was lying on the sidewalk, not owned by anyone, I wouldn’t need to work for it.)
Against that background, the 25% tax is an intrusion on something I own. And, by extension, that’s an intrusion on something personal. Just as our labor is personal, so too are our possessions. (Hence the connection between labor and property.) When others take our possessions against our will, they are violating us as free and equal beings. By taking, they show they don’t need our consent – that our rights don’t mean anything for them. That is not something that happens among equals.
In the end, then, Locke’s theory still looks attractive. It’s important that property rights serve the community. But it’s also important that they protect us as individuals. Even if non-Lockean systems increase our welfare even more, that doesn’t show they are better. The test remains the Lockean one: what system benefits us all without sacrificing any?