John Locke and the Supposedly Metaphysical Reality of Property Rights

Even though manifold characterisations of labour have been put forward, be it Adam Smith who regards it as a source of wealth, or Karl Marx’s claim that labour constitutes humanity, it is John Locke who uniquely among them regards labour as the source of legitimate property claims. Modern libertarians often refer to Lockean conceptions of property which regard the mixing of one’s labour as the source of original, natural (as opposed to political) appropriation. If this appropriated material then is traded against what others have originally appropriated, this makes up another source of legitimate appropriation: trade. Under this framework, mixing one’s labour with a natural source creates a bond between this source and its subsequent owner, and this is how property originally enters the realm of actuality. Implicit to this conception is, however, viewing the connection that exists between an object and its owner as all too actual, as all too “real.” I doubt that property is as “real” as it is often regarded to be and, interestingly enough, this conception of property as discourse-independent reality keeps people associated with or within the right-libertarian spectrum. So, subsequently, I want to challenge this supposedly metaphysical reality of property.

It may seem very individualist and romantic to imagine one’s bond to one’s favourite object existing in spite of what others may think of it, and maybe this is why we are inclined to think of property as being a reality detached from any debatable contingencies. It’s just me, my lawn, and my rifle — in case anyone would dare to challenge. But does this idea hold?

Imagine you partake in an experiment. You enter a room in which there is a person among several inanimate objects and you are told that some of these objects belong to this person. Are you able to correctly assign the owned objects to their owner? If not, why is that? Consider this: Would it sound reasonable to think property has any meaning absent any competition for objects, in a world without other thinking agents who also favour owning something, and a place in which scarcity exists? If not, could it be because property is something that doesn’t exist outside of ongoings between thinking agents but only precisely as such?

Beyond merely political incentives to write the Second Treatise, incentives largely sponsored by Locke’s patron Lord Shaftesbury, obviously one question Locke feels the need to address is how property can be justified — meaning there had already been an explicit, ongoing discourse about what makes a person justified in claiming an object. What Locke does is provide an argument as to why someone could reasonably claim to be entitled to the privileged access to resources, which is the definition of property in the individual relational sense; his is certainly an argument that Locke himself finds sufficiently convincing so he expects others to acknowledge it too. It seems that this is the only context in which justifications for property are useful at all, as all justifications are only useful when there’s a discourse in which somebody justifies something, and we have already sufficiently doubted a reality of property independent of thinking agents. Thus, we are left with normative evaluations that we would want to keep ready in case we find ourselves in an exchange of arguments with ourselves or with others. So, it appears to be useful to view property as something that arises in discourse, to regard it as a product of social discourse and thus as a social construct.

We can now ask for what reason this discourse is to be had in society in the first place. Our understanding may lend itself to explain one often cited social function as to why property is a thing: the evasion of conflict before it even arises, a function that can be attributed to “social expediency.” However naturally historical developments may have led to markets and industrial social paradigms as such, we will find ourselves in a world with conflicting preferences and we can reasonably wish to see them weighed peacefully. Thus, it seems socially expedient for the discursive construct of property to exist in order to carry out this function. It does seem beneficial for a society to adopt a discourse around privileged access so we can all go about our own doings without constantly engaging in (potentially violent) conflict. The medium we’ve chosen translates conflicting interests inside of mostly peaceful, non-intrusive, discursive exchange.

In such a discourse, Locke’s justification may or may not be one that another may be inclined to acknowledge. The important lesson to be learned, though, is that this particular justification has no claim to supremacy. I may be inclined to acknowledge a Lockean argument among several possible others, but ultimately my contribution in discourse depends on my individual evaluation as in discourse acceptance of an argument ultimately depends on the engaged individuals. Someone may disagree with another’s judgement and, as justification doesn’t equal an acknowledgement of the same, may even be justified in threatening or using defensive force in case they find their supposedly legitimate claims forcefully violated. Yet, ultimately, keeping one’s property either depends on that force or on mutual acknowledgement. And as it seems mutual acknowledgement is a more elegant (as in more peaceful and risk-free) solution to keep that which one claims as their property, we produce justifications for our claims so that others are hopefully inclined to acknowledge them. That’s what Locke did.

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