Victor Nuovo: Private property and civil society
Editor’s Note: This is the 23rd essay by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.
By VICTOR NUOVO
Philosopher John Locke believed that the paramount duty of civil government is to safeguard the life, liberty and property of all the people. He believed that a person’s right to these things are rights of nature: they become civil rights whenever a person consents to enter a civil state; there they may be limited, but they are never lost.
The rights to life and liberty begin and end with existence. We are all born free. But, in a state of nature, we enter the world without any property at all, except our bodies and our selves. Moreover, in a state of nature the earth belongs to everyone in common. But since all persons have a right to preserve themselves in being, that right extends to the use of everything at hand that they can use for their subsistence, safety, and comfort. But if the earth belongs to all in common, how does a part of it become mine?
This is Locke’s answer. The labor involved in appropriating some part of the earth for our use makes that part our own. If, in a state of nature, I pick an apple from a tree, or, like a squirrel, gather acorns that have fallen to the ground, or scoop a pot of water from a running stream, all these are mine, for all these involve my physical labor.
This method of accumulation applies to the earth itself. If I till the soil and plant a garden, that portion of earth becomes my own because I have mixed my labor with it. Scholars credit Locke with having invented or discovered the labor theory of property. Whatever persons acquire by their own labor becomes theirs, they own it, it is their property, but with this proviso: only so long as they leave enough for others, and that what is left is as good as what they have taken. “He that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all.”
There is a second proviso: In my little plot of soil, I may grow only so much as I can use; I must not be wasteful, or produce so much that a large portion will spoil. Nature prohibits wastefulness of a common resource, no matter how abundant it is. And as sign of this, God made it happen that the excess of any harvest would soon spoil, and so could not be kept.
Locke imagined that this is what it was like before the earth was as populated as it is now. This is how he imagined the so-called “New World.” “In the beginning all the World was America, and more so than it is now; for no such thing as Money was any where known.”
What changes did the invention of money bring? Suppose that Methuselah and his wife were tillers of the soil (Genesis 25–7). All things were in common, and there was plenty for all, but under Locke’s proviso, they could grow no more than they could use.
Yet, Methusaleh lived so long (969 years) that we may imagine he became a very skillful tiller of the soil, and so could not avoid harvests greater than he could use. What to do with the excess? He could give some away, or he could barter for products he did not grow, trade Brussels sprouts for plumbs, and so forth. Then suppose that he was offered in trade pieces of shiny gold metal, which were not edible, but which had the advantage of being imperishable, not to mention shiny and pleasing to the eye; they could be accumulated without fear of corruption and decay.
Somehow the idea popped into someone’s head that these pieces of metal could be used as standard instruments of trade, which allowed Methuselah to acquire more wealth and more land, to produce more, and trade it for more shining metal. This is a plausible account of the origin of money.
Locke imagines that this is how industry and commerce began. He does not seem to have been bothered by the rise of great estates and fortunes, by boundless acquisitiveness and the exploitation of the landless, which even though they happened naturally, resulted in the limitation of the natural rights of a good portion of humanity, who could only make their living by serving others.
Locke also invented the labor theory of value: it was through the industry of those who tilled the land that its value increased, and he compared developed Europe with undeveloped America, which, he supposed, was a mere wilderness, and where the land was free for the taking, but only by lawful monarchs.
He observed that value of this freely acquired land was increased by those who worked the land. Although, in such cases, ownership did not accrue to these tillers of the land, for one could sell one’s labor to another, and with it the right of ownership of what they produced and its value, which is what happened.
Thus, those who owned the land and other resources and the money to finance their use and development could become enormously rich, whereas those whose labor produced things, who tilled the soil and endowed it with value were relegated to the status of day laborers who received in wages only a minuscule portion of the value that their labor produced.
Now all of this leads to still another way to acquire property, which involves no labor at all. Any wilderness was considered free for the taking, and explorers and their clients, European monarchs, having helped themselves to this supposedly free land, could give portions of it away to their favored subjects, as grants. Locke makes no mention of this practice in his political writings, but he was a beneficiary of it.
Among Locke’s unpublished manuscripts is a document titled “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.” It is a draft constitution for the Carolina Colony, consisting of a vast territory including what are now the states of North and South Carolina and much of Georgia. This territory was a grant to eight nobles in the English court. Chief among them was Locke’s patron and employer, the Earl of Shaftesbury. As Shaftesbury’s private secretary, Locke became the principal drafter of the “Constitutions.”
The document is dated July 21, 1669, and begins with the declaration of Charles II, King of England, granting the territory to the “Lords Proprietors” as their hereditary possession or fiefdom. The territory could be further subdivided, and additional grants made. Locke was a recipient of one of them. These were ennobling grants, so that Locke also acquired the title of Landgrave, a title he never used, preferring to be called “Gentleman.” Later he sold the property, and perhaps with it went the title.
What is noteworthy of this constitution is that it is more feudal than modern. The colony has a government, a council and courts of justice, but these are established from above. There is no mention of a social contract. I will not describe it further; anyone interested may use the following link: archive.org/stream/collectionofseve00lock#page/16/mode/2up.
Locke is generally regarded as the founder of modern liberalism. But his idea of property, and his role in European colonial expansion suggest otherwise. So we must ask: Was Locke liberal? It is imperative that we ask it, because given our indebtedness to him, the answer has bearing on our own claim to be liberals.
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