Monday, 10 August 2009

How Locke uses Money to Solve the Land Problem

In chapter 5 of his Essay on Civil Government, ‘Of Property’ Locke famously refers to property as emerging from the land mingled with labour. Presumably he would have been rather startled to find that one line of interpretation of that remark leads to Marx’s labour theory of value. What he says about property is certainly very influential. In one aspect, it is an early sketch for political economy, some of what he says anticipates Adam Smith, particularly with regard to currency and trade, and that would be because Smith had read Locke, though he had other sources for those ideas as well.

A major issue is the way land is turned into property, beyond that moment of labouring on the land. At first Locke seems to be relying on the idea that land is infinitely available, and there’s no need to worry about someone having a lot because there’s always more land somewhere. In the end, that somewhere is America, Locke being sadly careless about the rights of existing inhabitants, but he was far from the only one. America made a deep impression on Locke, he did remember Native Americans when claiming that their political structures confirmed his idea of a compact (i.e. contract) at the foundation of political society. The emptiness comes back when he refers to the right to withdraw from a political society and to go elsewhere to help form a new political society with better rules, he is certainly thinking of the New World as the place for that.

Land clearly has some limits. How have those who claim to be heirs of Locke reacted to that in recent years? The most famous ‘libertarian’ would be heir to Locke was Robert Nozick, in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia. As far as Nozick is concerned, land running out is not a problem. The only issues are to do with freedom of contract and markets. Nozick refers to a ‘Lockean proviso’ that taking land should not harm anyone and comes to the conclusion that no harm is done by accumulating land of everyone is still free to buy and sell in an open market, and presuming we are not in some highly unusual situation like a small desert island where one person controls the only fresh water supply. The Lockean proviso is therefore irrelevant outside such peculiar circumstances.

There is a ‘left-libertarian’ response from Michael Sandel in Libertarianism without Inequality, which is that Nozick’s ‘Lockean proviso’ is to weak to capture what is in Locke’s original intuition. This leads Sandel to argue that property should be distributed, and redistributed, so that everyone starts with an equal amount at birth, and that would largely eliminate the need for a complex tax and benefit system administered by a large state apparatus to achieve egalitarian goals. A variation on that is the argument stemming from Henry George for a land value tax, which would be a rent on the collective good of land, and which would pay for basic public goods (things everyone benefits from like freely provided police services). These are attempts to have libertarianism, a minimal state, combined with economic equality.

Strangely both sides of the argument have overlooked the way Locke develops the argument from paragraph 37 onwards in Chapter V. Locke refers to the emergence of money as a way in which everyone can benefit from everyone’s production by having a convenient instrument for swapping the product of my labour with the product of anyone else’s labour. What Locke gets out of this, in relation to the land problem, is that money means that unequal land appropriation is not a problem. So long as the proprietor sells the products of the land, then everyone benefits because the range of things that can be bought has increased and everyone has gained.

What Nozick is essentially doing is appealing to the idea that in Essay on Civil Government, the right to have and increase property is such an over-riding idea that it must override the problem of land running out. There is a more immediate argument to hand which suggests that the land problem is only a problem in a non-money economy. Just the willingness of the proprietor to barter the products of the land is enough for Locke.

That looks like victory for Nozick over Otsuka, though we really should not use exegetical arguments as a substitute for arguments of principle. In these exegetical terms, I think Otsuka does have an advantage overNozick, which is that Nozick underestimates the degree to which there is ‘public good’ in Locke, which is decided by a representative assembly. How far public good can override property rights in Locke is a tricky question from an internal point of view. So let’s introduce an external point of view. Where is Locke coming from politically? Support for the Whigs who where dominant at the time that the Essay on Civil Government was published (1689). Was there a system of the kind proposed by Nozick where the state is purely an agency for enforcing contracts and punishing violence? No, in many ways, and accordingly taxes were much higher than would be acceptable from the perspective of a Nozickian absoluteness about property rights. I would say, we need to interpret Locke as allowing a lot of latitude to ‘public good’, certainly enough to impinge on property rights though not enough to undermine the right to have property and keep it. Locke, and Nozick, are right to believe that in a free trading economy with money everyone benefits from the use landowners make of land.

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with visual content!

I said that we should not confuse exegetical arguments with arguments from principle. I will nevertheless say that Locke’s text, with the hermeneutic aid of the political settlement he supported, is against both

restricting the right to acquire property

the notion that property is outside regulation and taxes which benefit the public good.

I presume that from a Lockean perspective that the amount of regulation and taxation should be very modest, and that those proposing such measures need to demonstrate their benefits very clearly. This all seems correct to me, something I would take up in my political perspective, and that this is the right way of taking most taxes in Classical Liberalism, despite what endless numbers of (mostly American) ‘libertarian’ keep claiming about Classical Liberalism leading to almost no state and little idea, or culture, of a public good. I don’t think their readings are worse than Rawls, but I have already addressed that a few times.

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