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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

January 27 – Locke’s Contradictions and His Theory of Property

Up until now I’ve been reporting the most common version, the orthodox version, of Locke’s political theory. But most such interpretations ignore a set of internal inconsistencies in Locke’s argument. There are three major inconsistencies or ambiguities or contradictions in Locke’s theory; and, just as important as their existence, is the fact that these ambiguities/contradictions can be linked logically (or by the same illogic). That they are there and that they reinforce each other makes sense when some of Locke’s other political purposes come to be noticed and taken into account.

In looking at his very sketchy theory of human nature, we’ve already seen that there was at least uncertainty about the status of natural law. Natural laws seemed to be binding even though they were held to be self-imposed maxims, much like Hobbes’s maxims of prudence. This uncertainty comes out right at the beginning of the Second Treatise, in Locke’s picture of the state of nature. The first time through Locke, I ignored this. But in fact, Locke has two different versions of the state of nature, or two opposed pictures of it. The first version is the one you’ve already become familiar with. It is very much unlike Hobbes; an almost nice state of nature. In this version it is almost possible to envision getting by without any government at all. In the nice state of nature it is only necessary to restrain the actions of a few. And in order to do that, it is not necessary to have unlimited natural right.

But Locke also introduces some very contradictory statements about  this same state of nature. He says, for example, in Section 21 that men must quit nature to avoid the state of war. Here, it appears that nature after all does always approach a state of war. As another example, look at Section 123, in which there is a strong picture of a very nasty state of nature where the enjoyment of property is very unsafe. Here the state of nature is almost, if not identical to Hobbes’s.  There is constant exposure to  invasion by others. The majority, according to this picture, are not very great respecters of law. In this nasty condition, the state definitely would be necessary to the preservation of society. Locke seems to be trying to have it both ways. He therefore sometimes says that civil society is needed in order to avoid invasion by other individuals, and other times says that civil society follows from the mere inconvenience of having to be one’s own policeman and judge in the state of nature.

Now note very well that insofar as Locke’s state of nature is the same as Hobbes’s, the quality or property of moral obligation disappears, effectively speaking, and becomes an unlimited right to invade others, because the first law, the most fundamental law of nature is to preserve oneself.

This first ambiguity, about whether the state of nature is “nice” or “nasty”, has profound implications for Locke’s theory of sovereignty, for his theory of the relation between the individual and the state (although it does not have important implications for the relation between the sovereign majority and government). The first ambiguity or contradiction is mirrored in a second one concerning the limitations of the sovereign. On the one hand, as we’ve seen, Locke says that the sovereign merely enforces the law of nature and that sovereignty is itself limited by natural law. Thus many times over Locke says that the sovereign has only the powers necessary to achieve the ends for which civil society is instituted. Locke’s whole argument, referred to earlier, for limited government as a trust depending on the consent of the people was based on the assumption that in nature the individual did not have certain rights and could therefore not hand them over to the sovereign majority to be entrusted to a government.  The individual had neither the right to take his/her own life, nor the right to interfere arbitrarily with property (life, liberty and estate). Because of this possession of only limited right in nature, the individual could not hand over arbitrary power (because arbitrary power implies unlimited rights).

But on the other hand, Locke many times says that the individual hands over not only the powers necessary to attain the ends of government, but all of his powers in nature. And that implies a much stronger sovereign. Moreover, Locke makes other statements that imply a virtually absolute sovereign power. In Section 171, Locke redefines political power as the power to make laws for the preservation of the whole by cutting off parts that threaten it. In Sections 37, 88 and especially 57 Locke implies that the will of the state is automatically that of the individual. But most important, in Sections 97 and 99, the sovereign does really appear to be as powerful as Hobbes’s because civil society must be the judge of what powers are necessary to accomplish its ends.

 Remember that Locke makes a sharp distinction between civil society or the sovereign and the government of the day. His two major conclusions about government are that it is, first, a trust revocable by the majority; and second, that it has specific limits on its powers. Both of these conclusions depend on the nice state of nature. The limits and revocability of government depend on the individual not having arbitrary power in the state of nature. That is, limited government and revocability governmental power depend on the premise that men are naturally sufficiently sociable and reasonable to obey natural law (as self-imposed).

So – the sovereign may or may not be, is and is not absolute. But Locke’s whole proof of limited and conditional government throws us back on an ambiguous nature.

So far, Locke’s contradictions/ambiguities look like this:

1. nice state of nature nasty state of nature
allows requires
2. a limited sovereign  an Hobbesian sovereign
(except that this is the majority)

If the state of nature is nice, this implies a limited sovereign, because free and equal individuals would not rationally move to unlimited sovereign in those conditions. If nature is nasty, there would be good reason for setting up an absolute sovereign.

Is Locke merely sloppy? Or is there some rhyme and reason to the existence of these contradictions? One can, in fact, explain their existence, by showing how and why Locke needs these contradictory positions. But in order to see the why of it, we must examine Locke’s theory of property, which we have so far been overlooking.

In his theory of property (Section 5), Locke begins with the assumption,  which was commonplace then and for a long time before, that the earth was given to mankind in common. If it was held in common, then how did private property come about, and how is it justified? What makes it legitimate? Now Locke will try to establish the legitimacy of private property without any contract or consent. And this he does by beginning with two postulates: first, each has a right to life and therefore to what is needed to stay alive; and second that each has a property in his person or labour and that therefore, whatever each person mixes his labour with becomes his property.

Locke also accepts that there are, to begin with at least, necessary limitations on property accumulation. The first of these limitations (which derives from the first postulate, immediately above) is that each must leave over enough as good property for others. The second is that by appropriating something as property, nothing should spoil (this implies that using for oneself may include barter). The third limitation (which follows from the second postulate) is that one may accumulate only what you have mixed your own labour with. There is nothing terribly new in all of this, except that now, as opposed to what was traditionally believed, private property in limited amounts involves no obligation to society.

But then, Locke immediately removes all these limits by assuming the invention of and consent to the use of money in the state of nature. The spoilage limitation is transcended, because currency does not spoil. As for the second limitation, that of sufficiency, Locke reasons that with the private appropriation of land it becomes necessarily more efficient and productive and there will be more of the product to go around (Locke, however, does not argue that it will necessarily get distributed well). But how can you get around the third limitation, that of mixing one’s labour with what is to become your property? Well, in fact, it appears that Locke never really saw it as a limit based upon one’s own physical labour; as long as you could buy someone else’s labour, the mixing would be going on through this “proxy”, as it were (my term, not Locke’s). This means that there never was a limitation based upon personal labour. It also implies the existence of the wage-relation and of alienated labour before civil society.

Locke is also quite clear that the consent to the use of money, which he imagines takes place before the existence of civil society in the state of nature, is also consent to all of its consequences. There are two important sets of consequences for our purposes here. The first set of consequences involves the appearance of markets and commerce. When all the land is settled and owned and, since we know that labour is a commodity to be bought and sold, it means that some will, over time, be able to pile up large amounts of productive resources, of capital. A few will own all the productive resources and many more will be compelled to sell their labour power (there being no other way to obey the first law of nature). Consent to money is therefore consent to a class-divided society characterized by great inequalities of wealth (not just income). Locke thus takes for granted that a class-divided market society exists by natural right. It’s there in the state of nature, in human nature, before society and before government.

The second set of consequences to consenting to the use of money in the state of nature is what it reveals about some of the assumptions Locke was making about human nature. Locke was assuming not simply that some people might want more wealth than is needed for comfortable living, but that men are by nature desirous of accumulating unlimited amounts of wealth. It also means that there would be nothing morally wrong with this desire for unlimited wealth. There is no inherent limit, as there was for Aristotle or for Christianity, on wealth as a condition of the good life. This whole argument on property was the cleverest (if you can call it that) rationale to date in liberal political theory that the free pursuit of private vice (in this case greed, because it is hard to think of the desire for unlimited accumulation of wealth as anything but) leads to public welfare.

For Locke the use of money did or does not change human nature. This limitless desire is there at the beginning. The agreement to the use of money did not create a new moral right. It only removed a technical obstacle. So the presumption is that the moral right to unlimited appropriation exists in nature. In fact, though, Locke reads the economic, social and moral characteristics of capitalist society back into nature even more obviously than Hobbes did. Locke reads into nature not only 1. unequal property that amounts to a class differential in wealth. He also, 2. reads into nature, as Hobbes did not do and as we’ll see shortly, a class differential in rationality. Those who are without property are considered to be by nature less rational than those with property.  This means that 3. he will also be able to read into nature a class differential in rights, including political rights, in spite of his his first principles about rights, rationality and equality in the state of nature.

We’ve been looking at Locke’s theory of property in order to try to explain the existence of ambiguities or contradictions in his ideas about the state of nature and the extent of sovereign power. Locke’s theory of property asserts that a class-divided society of economic unequals is natural and right. Civil society or political society exists, we already know, to protect the rights of individuals in the state of nature to their property. Thus the whole point of civil society and of government turns out to be the protection of the unequal properties of individuals. Looking at the theory of property allows us to therefore discern a third ambiguity in Locke’s political theory, beyond the ambiguity about the state of nature and the extent of the sovereign power, but intimately and logically related to them. What this third set of ambiguities is and what its consequences are will have to wait for the last installment on Locke, next time.

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