Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Lockean Argument for the Welfare State

So, then, what is wrong with Locke’s argument for property?

Actually, to be honest, the problem may not be with Locke’s argument for property as it is with the use which some people make of it. There are people who want to believe that they have a natural moral right to own a substantial portion of everything that exists, and for the rest of us to work as their servants so long as we are useful, and to go away and die if we are not. These people (and others) have found a particular interpretation of Locke’s argument for property useful. Following this interpretation of Locke’s rules, anybody who stands in the way of their ownership of the whole of the Earth and all of the people on it may be condemned as being immoral.

What we get from Locke is an argument that, for everything in nature, for you to make use of it, you must acquire ownership of it. The point at which you become owner of something is the point at which you mix your labor with it. That labor, being yours – being your time and your energy – is your property. When that portion of your life becomes mixed in with something that exists in nature, then that thing that once existed in nature is yours in virtue of the portion of your life that you invested in it was yours. To take that property from you is, in effect, to take a portion of your life from you – to make you a slave to others during that time that you worked to produce or harvest something that was ultimately taken. Anybody who would make you slave by taking from you that with which you have mixed your labor is creating a state of war between you. Acting in a state of war, you have a right to protect your life – you have a right to stop people from taking a portion of your life from you by going even so far as to kill the that person.

This, according to Locke, is a natural moral law dictated by reason.

Locke is not a divine prophet and did not have these ideas dictated to him by a divine authority. These are Locke’s ideas and, at this point, it is up to us to determine if we have reason to accept these claims and their implications – or to reject them.

Even though Locke is not a divine prophet, he did add some additional claims that are relevant to the discussion. Specifically, Locke added that whenever a person takes something from nature, that person must leave as much and as good for others.

Effectively, it would be wrong for me to take some apples from you so long as I can go into the state of nature and harvest a bunch of apples that nobody owns for myself. It would be wrong for me to take your flask of water if I can fill my own flask from a nearby stream.

At the time he was writing, Locke explicitly defended his right to property by arguing that there were fish in the sea that were free for the taking, and land in the Americas that a person could put under plow. He even spoke of places in Spain where a person could go and begin to till the land without taking anything from others – without leaving as much and as good for others.

Locke also states that we cannot take people’s property without their consent. “Consent”, in a state of civil society, means the consent of the majority. This means that if a majority of people vote to take the extra apples that a person has stored in his root cellar and distribute them among those who are starving, that the person who owned the apples has given his consent. He has consented in virtue of the fact that he has consented to live in a civil society, and this means consenting to abide by the will of the majority.

It is interesting to note that the reason why Locke says that we must abide by the will of the majority – as opposed to the unanimous consent of all of the individuals – is because the latter is impractical. Given the different interests of individuals, and given the fact that many people are simply too busy to participate in making such a decision, we simply cannot expect to get unanimous consent to our laws. These practical concerns dictate that we adopt a rule that would actually make it possible to have a civil society – and that requires that the majority rule (or some number beyond a majority that the people mutually agree to).

If we can appeal to practical considerations in rejecting the rule of unanimous consent, we should also be able to appeal to practical considerations when we examine rules regarding what to do when it is no longer the case that there is not “as much and as good” left in common for others – when people can no longer simply reach into nature and pull from it what he needs to survive.

When people pull things from the state of nature and take ownership of them, now that they are no longer leaving as much and as good in common for others, there is reason to demand that they compensate others for the loss.

We still live in a society where unanimous consent to the laws is impractical. Consequently, we live in a society where it does not make sense to demand that those who pull resources from nature strike a bargain with every other person and work out a deal with them for giving up their claim to “as much and as good” left in common for others. However, this does not prohibit us from adopting a more practical set of rules for providing compensation to those others – those who are not left with “as much and as good”. This would mean that those who take must provide some means for the rest of humanity to acquire the means of survival that they would otherwise have gotten from nature. It means providing them with at least the basics of nourishing food, shelter, and clean water.

This is what those who are creating the large corporate-feudal estates have a duty to provide to those who are not left with “as good and as much in common” and it is that which those others have a right to demand. It is as good as saying, “You know, I would love to go out into nature and simply pick up the food, water, and other essentials to survival that I need. But, since you have taken it all, and failed to leave as much and as good in common for others, I have a right to take it from you instead, so long as you have enough to spare.”

And, indeed, these corporate-feudal fiefdoms do have enough to spare.

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