How Unexamined Premises Lead to World Oppression: John Locke, The Theory of Private Property and Money by Professor John McMurtry

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How Unexamined Premises Lead to World Oppression:

John Locke, The Theory of Private Property and Money

John McMurtry

College of Arts

Department of Philosophy

University of Guelph

The most fundamental principle of the market doctrine is the grounding of human right and freedom in private property. This principle is foundational because one cannot have a market at all unless individual agents first privately own what they buy and sell. Moreover, one cannot securely hold what one buys or sells unless it is protected as private property from others’ transgression of it. The right and protection of private property are for these reasons the ground and basis of market theory and practise, of all of the market’s transactions, and of all of its laws of operation.

John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, published in 1690, is the founding statement and justification of the right to private property, and to its protection by public law and force. Locke argues that the right to private property and to its secure protection is, in fact, the foundation of all government legislation and duty, of all individual rights, and – if violated – of the right to rebel against the state or sovereign. Market doctrine since Locke has presupposed his position as canonical.

Locke’s central argument for the right of private property is given in Chapter V of his Treatise (section numbers follow cited excerpts below). It is based on a number of unquestioned premises, all of which deserve careful reflection (we set aside here Locke’s presupposition of God). Locke’s first premise is that God has “given the earth to mankind in common”.(25) This is, interestingly, a communist premise, which has strangely eluded free market theorists since. It is also a premise which implies that no other species except the human has any rights at all to the earth, an idea which the doctrine has since presupposed without question, whatever&127; its anthropocentric bias.

What alters humanity’s initial “common ownership” of the planet for Locke is that God has also “given mankind reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience” (26). This appropriation, Locke assumes without reason, is “private and individual”. This second premise, that humanity’s original appropriation of the earth was “private and individual” is against all anthropological evidence which we possess, but this false basis of private property doctrine has never troubled its believers.

Since “every man has a property in his own person,” Locke continues, “the labour of his body and the work of his hands are properly his” (27). Given that the product of labour is the private property of its producer, Locke concludes that whatever the individual “removes out of nature — and has mixed his labour with — is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” “No man but he,” Locke adds, “can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and good left in common for others” (27).

Locke declares another limiting condition to the right to private property based on what one has “mixed his labour with.” The first requirement is that there must be “enough and as good left over” for others. The second is that nothing to which a private property claim has been fixed “can be allowed to spoil.” “Nothing,” says Locke “was made by God for man to spoil and destroy” (31). Both these limiting conditions on private property seem ethically sound, but, as we will see, neither survives in the doctrine. Only Locke’s most dubious premises survive.

With his underlying framework established, Locke summarizes:

He that in obedience to this command of God subdued, tilled, and sowed any part of the earth, thereby annexed to something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him. —He [God] gave it [the earth] to the use of the industrious and rational – and labour was to be his title to it. (32, 34).

Locke’s argument, so far granting all rights of private property to labour, then moves to the historical introduction of money, which negates this original foundation of right. Men can now buy others’ labour, and&127; the products of their labour, without having to “mix their own labour” with what they “rightfully” own. Locke’s original labour basis of private property right is thereby rejected. Property can now be held by inviolable entitlement with no work to produce it at all. Thus the first contradiction of Locke’s private property doctrine is instituted.

“The invention of money,” Locke also says, “and tacit agreement of men to put a value on it introduced – by consent – larger possessions and a right to them” (36). Locke nowhere proposes a limit to how much larger these possessions can become, or to how much smaller others can become. Locke’s position thus also permits a rightful inequality of private property without limit.

Locke gives three arguments for his new position. First, men have given their “consent” by “tacit agreement” to the value and use of money, and renew this consent every time they use it. Before accepting this point, let us consider Locke’s use of the terms “agreement” and “consent.” To consent or to agree to something implies that one can refuse to consent or agree to it. But how can one refuse to agree or consent to the value of money if acceptance of its value is required to buy and sell the means to stay alive? In this situation, it seems more accurate to say that after money was historically instituted as the general currency of value, people were compelled to accept its value to exchange for what they needed. But Locke’s inversion of the meanings of words here does not detain him, nor the subsequent followers of his doctrine. Agreeing to money’s transactions, Locke concludes, men agree to the results of these transactions – however little labour now counts for property title, and however unequal private property holdings become.

Secondly, money’s accumulation can continue and enlarge without limit in the hands of its private possessor because the largeness of its possession “never occasions” the perishing of anything uselessly in it. “Money [is] some lasting thing that men may keep without spoiling” (47).

Thirdly, Locke suggests that the earlier condition specified for the limit of private property, that “there is as good and enough left over for others,” is cancelled by the introduction of money as a common currency of private property’s purchase:

But since gold and silver, being little useful to the life of man in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage, has its value only from the consent of men — it is plain that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out a way how a man may fairly possess more than he himself can use the product of — [50].

As the added emphases to the above passage show, Locke’s argument approves of inequality with no limit on the grounds of the tacit agreement to use money. He does not explicitly state the implication that this inequality can be unlimited. Nor does he recognize the further implication that this unlimited inequality is in conflict with the earlier condition of good and sufficient amounts of the earth’s resources being left over for others. For without a limit to the accumulation of money, nor a limit to the land and resources that money can buy, it follows that the earth’s land and resources can become the private property of those who have money with no limit to their “unequal possession.” Since Locke never poses or suggests afterward any bound to the unequal psssession of the globe by the device of money, and since Locke never alludes again to his earlier limit of leaving “as good and enough left over for others,” it seems evident that he accepts this earlier requirement as overridden by the “tacit consent of men to use money.” Thus the second contradiction of Locke’s private property doctrine is instituted.

In this way, the market theory’s basic principles of private property, of money transactions to purchase it, and of inequality of possession with no limit are justified in the doctrine’s philosophical foundation. Once thus justified, they are thereafter presupposed. From Smith on, no classical or neo-classical economist or other proponent ever supposes these principles to be controvertible except by the unenlightened. They are taken for granted as self-evident, socially necessary, and beneficent – the foundations of “a free enterprise economy.” Any further justification is left to ethicists, philosophers and churchmen. They, in turn, normally presuppose or justify private property in the abstract, and remain generally silent on the discussion of money. In the main, labour right is forgotten, and those left with no property by the operations of the market are dismissed from view, or assumed to deserve their condition.

If any of the foundational principles is not accepted, for whatever reason, or in any way limited in its permission of right, then the position falls outside what is designated here by the term “market doctrine.” If, in particular, the principle of the right to private property with no limit of inequality is hemmed in by other rights, such as public interest, or others’ poverty, or human needs, this limited position is beyond the pale of the doctrine, and is opposed by it.

If, moreover, any limit in principle is set to what money can rightfully buy, then here too the position is ruled out by the doctrine’s most basic tenets. Believers in the doctrine may accept such limits so far as they are imposed by law – for example, laws against street prostitution or non-prescription drugs – but they neither specify nor accept any limit in principle. “In a competitive society, almost everything can be had at a price,” says Friedrich Hayek in his famous market monograph, The Road to Serfdom. He regards this freedom of exchange as of an “importance which can hardly be overrated,” and he attacks critics of the “cash nexus” as demanding to impose their choices on “the freedom of the individual.” In principle, then, the position is that nothing should be ruled out from money purchase and sale. Exceptions can only be particular, contingent, and relative. Marx’s position that people’s working lives should in principle not be bought and sold, for example, is in absolute contradiction with the free market doctrine.

The unstated implications of the market’s theory of property from Locke on are, in summary:

(1) Private property right need not be deserved by one’s own work or production;

(2) Private property in all of the earth, its resources and its products is an overriding and inviolable right;

(3) Private property can always and in all things rightfully be bought and sold by the medium of money exchanges between property-owners (with non-defined exceptions permitted, but never the exception of human labour or any commodity not prohibited by law).

(4) Private property can be accumulated by the medium of money exchanges with no limit to its rightful hoarding and global extent, its rightful inequality, or its rightful dispossession of others by exchanges between lawful owners.

From the implications of accepted arguments follow consequences of accepted practice. We will see that with the global market value system, these implications of undeserved inequality of possession with no limit of riches and deprivation is now implemented across the world.

Submitted, with permission, by

W. Robert Needham

Director, Canadian Studies

St. Paul’s United College

University of Waterloo

Waterloo, Ontario

N2L 3G5

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