Widely known as the Father of Liberalism, John Locke’s work in epistemology and political philosophy has influenced countless nations. Born in 1632 in England, Locke attended Westminster School in London earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Having fled to the Netherlands to escape suspicion of an assassination plot, Locke began publishing his writing upon his return to England. With his writing gaining widespread influence, Locke died in 1704. He never married nor fathered children.
C.B. Macpherson was born in Toronto, Canada in 1911. From 1935 to his death in 1987, he taught primarily at the University of Toronto on political economy and political science. The author of numerous books, Macpherson received the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award of the American Political Science Association in 1979.
It begins early with a child yelling, “Mine!” We have all heard him/her bursting into tears and the quick crawl/run/waddle to a parent claiming the injustice of lost property. From an early age, we feel the seemingly self-evident truth of private property. We were given an object; we collected items; we connected those items in ways that made a new and much better object.
In all of these scenarios, we learned the idea of “mine.” In John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, the author presents a theological case for government authority through the principle of property.
The Premise of Property
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Locke’s justification for private property begins with the assumption that God the Creator fashioned a world for humanity to subdue and manage. Locke writes,
“God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being” (18).
The earth, then, exists in a supporting role to humankind; it carries no first order intrinsic value. Instead, it functions instrumentally for the good of humanity.
From this position, Locke believes that private property arises from mixing personal labor with land from the God-given commons of the earth. Locke argues,
“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. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” (19).
Thus, while God provides commons for the good of all humanity, the ability for any human to conduct work allows him or her to transfer land held in common into private property.
To illustrate, under Locke’s philosophy of property, I cannot travel to a pristine wilderness and, upon discovering it, proclaim the land my property. Instead, I must cultivate this discovered land. By building on it and utilizing its soil for food, I then possess the right to proclaim the land my private property.
In short then, Locke suggests that God, who created humanity through labor, considers humans God’s property. God provides the earth as a common for which humans can use their God-given gifts of manual labor to cultivate and transfer the earth into private hands.
The need for political government arises from this principle of private property. When a society expands beyond the simplicity of cultivating open commons into private property, the need to protect and govern property becomes an important issue. Locke reasons,
“Political power is that power, which every man having in the state of nature, has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors, whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation of their property” (89).
Even though the Second Treatise of Government explores many specific matters in the execution of governmental affairs in a united society, the core principles behind these discussions surround Locke’s theological notion of property and the need for governing those God-given rights.
Locke: An American Ideal
Interestingly, I find that Locke’s arguments sound natural as if they are ingrained in the psyche of American society and capitalism as a whole. John Dunn, in an essay titled “Measuring Locke’s Shadow” confirms this idea when he writes,
“Locke is still intractably America’s philosopher, and still very much America’s philosopher for what still seems ever more peremptorily America’s globe. He is the sign on the banner of America’s imperious external reach, her cultural, imaginative, ideological, economic, and even political Griff nach der Weltmacht [bid for world power].”
Put differently, Locke’s ideas on property and the need for government to authorize and protect it are the modus operandi for American business and politics.
Property as Dominance
By assuming “domination” of God’s creation in Genesis 1:28, I find tension in Locke’s arguments. Given Locke’s premises, God owns humanity because God created us through work. Under the same assumption, God possesses all of creation. Therefore, humans cannot possess an absolute right over a portion of creation because they were not the first to labor on it.
It then follows that the God-given commons for which humans carry the right to fill and subdue is not a space which humans carry the right to section off into private property but an area owned by God given to humans in common to share and steward for the good of the whole.
Locke centers his political philosophy on a theological case for private property. By mixing labor with the God-given commons, private property arises. As an extension, political governance exists to protect that property. Nevertheless, the notion that God created and thus possesses the created world forces us to consider the earth in stewardship instead of domination. Even though we feel the pull of private property from an early age, our connection to an item through work does not require it to become our private possession.
With dense philosophical writing, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government is a difficult but rewarding read. Despite my reservations regarding Locke’s premises, this book is a must read for anyone interested in politics.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards