Posts Tagged ‘Property rights’

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

November 30, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.


—–John Locke



Without a doubt, John Locke had more influence on the American Revolution than any other political thinker. If Plato represents the beginning of Western political philosophy, John Locke represents the cutting edge of political thought in the early Enlightenment. And like Plato, Locke was a product of his time and schooled by the tumultuous events of his day. To understand Locke, it is helpful to first understand his background.

John Locke’s father was a captain in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War. For my American readers who didn’t know England HAD a civil war, here’s the short version: After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the throne of England passed to her nearest relative, King James of Scotland, who thus became James I of England (and sponsored the King James translation of the Bible, which you may have heard about). As king of two separate but related kingdoms, he had a divided constituency to balance: Anglicans in England with their bishops and cardinals, Presbyterians in Scotland with elected church leaders, the two nations with a long history of warfare between them and religious minorities among them. King James managed to balance the two thrones pretty well, although not completely without dissent. It was during his reign that the first British colony in North America was founded in Virginia, primarily by economic adventurers; later, conservative Christians who objected to England’s overly lax religious climate founded the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. James I thus oversaw not only the union of England and Scotland, but also the beginnings of the transoceanic British Empire. His son, King Charles I, did not fare as well. Charles attempted to enforce religious conformity, and attempted to rule as an absolute monarch without the advise and consent of the elected Parliament. The English people revolted, with armies loyal to the king fighting against troops loyal to Parliament. The Parliamentarians included religious minorities such as the Presbyterians and Puritans, and even smaller factions such as the Levelers and other religious and political radicals. John Locke’s father fought for Parliament in the early part of this war, which eventually led to the capture and execution of the king, eleven years of control by the Puritans, the return of the dead king’s son as Charles II, his overthrow in another revolution and finally a new royal family, led by King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). John Locke’s most important political essay, his Second Treatise of Government, was written to justify and support William’s claim to the throne of England. Thus John Locke is very much a child of the English Civil War; his father fought at its start, and he wrote its declaration of victory for liberty over the forces of absolute monarchy.

Locke’s First Treatise of Civil Government was written to refute the theory of the divine right kings. Since God commands everything, the argument went, God also commands who should be king; therefore, the king is God’s agent and to oppose the king in any way is to oppose God. Locke refutes this argument and insists that there be another, less mysterious foundation for political authority. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government he seems to focus on the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famously argued that in the “state of Nature,” outside of all government, human life would be intolerable, since human nature is greedy, selfish and utterly irrational; therefore, each person tacitly agrees to give up some of his natural rights in exchange for each other person in the community doing the same, and all agree to live under the rule of a king or other sovereign.[1] This sovereign has nearly absolute power to act as he (possibly she or they) sees fit, so long as he enforces order, protects the lives of his subjects, and does not arbitrarily kill or imprison them. Anyone who finds the sovereign unsuitable may leave the country; but having renounced the sovereign’s rule, one has also renounced his protection, and may be killed or enslaved by anyone who is able (until the refugee finds the protection of a new sovereign). Likewise, a sovereign which is unable or unwilling to establish a safe and orderly society has failed the citizens, placing them back into a state of anarchy where life is a war of every one against every one, and life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”

It is in his second treatise that Locke lays out more of his own theories, rather than simply refuting the arguments of others, and for this reason his second treatise is more widely read and influential than the first. Still, it shows some influences from both the theories he is transcending. While Locke does not accept the absolute divine right of kings, he does continue to use religious language, referring to the laws of Nature as being given by God and so on. But Locke’s vision of God, and of God’s creation, is first of all rational. Thus, in the Second Treatise chapter II, section 8, Locke equates the law of Nature and reason with the will of God; to him there is no further knowledge of God than what is discoverable through God’s creation properly understood. Understanding the rational basis of government as also being God’s will may give it extra authority and motivational force, but for Locke it does not add any content; what we need to know of government must be learned through sound reasoning. This puts his theory closer to that of Hobbes. However, Locke’s view of human nature is considerably more optimistic than Hobbes’, and thus his view of how much force is required or justified to control human behavior is also very different.

In Locke’s view, outside of all government, in the hypothetical “state of Nature,” human life would still be governed by rules of reason. Human beings are emotional, but are also rational beings, and their behavior ought to be directed by their reason. We know that no one has the right to injure another, either by assault or by gathering up so much of the resources of nature that there is nothing left for anyone else. I may have a right to all the apples I find growing on a wild tree in the forest, but I don’t have a right to more than I can eat or use before they spoil; the rest must be left for others. And if there are disputes, or someone violates these rational laws of nature, then anyone and everyone has a right to step in and punish the malefactor.

Thus, our need for government is actually rather limited. Fundamentally, we need a neutral arbiter when someone violates our natural inalienable rights. Left to ourselves to punish the wrongs done us, we would be likely to go too far; so we designate a magistrate to create laws and judge violations. All other government basically flows from that beginning.

But what are those “inalienable” rights? This phrase, which appears earlier in Hobbes, is expanded and clarified in Locke. First and most fundamentally is the right to life. I have a right to live and to protect my life. I join a society largely to protect my life; therefore, I can never be understood as having renounced my right to life by becoming or remaining a citizen.[2] Second, I join a society to preserve my basic liberty. In nature each individual is completely free from all outside control, subject only to the laws of nature revealed through reason. As a citizen in a society, I may give up some of my freedoms, but I do so only to preserve my basic liberty against the threat of enslavement or oppression. Finally, I join a society to protect my property, and to adjudicate when there is a legitimate dispute as to what my property is.

How is property a natural (or what for Locke is the same thing, a divine) right? The basic property of each person is his or her own body. That, clearly, Nature gave you. Even in a state of nature, I may find all sorts of resources that would make my life better, including food and materials for making tools. Nuts lying on the forest floor belong to no one. However, when I start picking them up, I am adding something: my own effort. This effort is a part of my own body, which works on these natural products and changes them, by gathering or shaping them in some way. Thus, the nuts I gathered from the untamed forest are now nuts plus a little of me, and therefore become my property.

I always tell my students that this is intuitively true, or at least psychologically true. Legally, the goods in the shopping cart still belong to the store; but if you doubt that the person who gathered them considers them his or hers, try going through someone’s grocery cart to help yourself to a can of soup. You will hear something like, “Go get your own! I found that, now it’s mine.”

Thus, we don’t depend on the State to tell us what we can or can’t own, according to Locke. God’s own will, as revealed in the laws of nature, designates that whatever you shape or gather or improve by your own work is your natural property. The State may create laws to control or define this property-making, allowing a person to stake a claim to a particular piece of farmland or mining rights or whatever; and it may create currency and other economic structures to allow us to trade and transfer the fruits of our labors. We may even agree to be taxed, each of us contributing some portion of the fruits of our labors to accomplish some task for the good of us all. But in the final analysis, the government is there to ensure that we preserve our lives, our basic freedom and our own property. These are our inalienable rights, and the basis of the social contract. Society agrees to protect these rights, and we as citizens agree to support the society as necessary by obeying its laws and reasonable demands.

To be continued…..

[1] I say “he” deliberately; Hobbes generally treats women as one of those goods that men would fight and murder each other over, rather than as independent persons themselves.

[2] This is a rejection of the view laid out in Plato’s Crito, for example.