We Hold These Rights Part II: What Rights Do We Hold?

Preface: In four weeks, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

In my last post, I discussed my lack of surprise at encountering the general tenor of John Locke’s work. But I was surprised to encounter many of Locke’s thoughts on what constituted what might be called The Big Three Rights. The Big Three are: Life, Liberty, and Property.

For John Locke, these three rights are all very much of a piece, for as he says:

And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life: for I have reason to conclude, that he who would get me into his power without my consent, would use me as he pleased when he got me there, and destroy me too when he had a fancy to it; for nobody can desire to have me in his absolute power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom, i. e. make me a slave. To be free from such force is the only security of my preservation; and reason bids me look on him, as an enemy to my preservation, who would take away that freedom which is the fence to it; so that he who makes an attempt to enslave me, thereby puts himself into a state of war with me.

In a later passage, Locke extends this statement to include even those who take property by force. Such men “justly expose (themselves)” to the hazard of death. Locke thus establishes the three ideas as something very close to a continuum: Property, being the means whereby people sustain liberty and life, is thought of as being not very far removed in importance from it. And while I and I hope most of my readers are somewhat horrified at the idea of taking a man’s life over a theft, I find it difficult to argue with Locke’s main thesis, here: The man who holds me in such contempt that he would take away my means to live is surely not very far from holding me in the contempt necessary to deprive me of life itself.

Locke even defines property, and the definition is elegantly simple: Property = a resource taken from the common (in this case, the earth) by the expenditure of one’s own labor. The expense of the labor produced, for Locke, effects the transfer of property from the collective of the species as a whole to the individual. And yet Locke then goes on to make a statement that sounds almost Marxist: “As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labor fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” And so for Locke, there are strict limits to what a person may lay hold of as property for consumption. However, this leaves us with two problems:

1) Locke does not extend the limit on wastage to include any limitation on hoarding durable goods. It seems that it either did not occur to him that this could cause much human misery or he did not care: 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, whereof labor yet makes, in great part, the measure; 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 land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus, gold and silver,
which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor.” Therefore, strictly speaking, I am doing more harm to the collective good of humanity when I throw away a pizza crust than, say, the Fisk and Gould brothers did when they tried to corner the gold market, a conclusion that seems rather absurd.

2) Locke seems not to have considered how the taking of one good from the common might, in a sense, waste or destroy another. Locke avoids the necessity of a collectivist economy by arguing that a person has the right to life, and implies that no collective can or should be consulted to decide whether a person may eat from a common store, thus fixing the moment of possession at the moment of harvest. In fact Locke goes further and points out that some private uses, such as the cultivation of land, actually produce wealth, in the sense of productive capacity, and therefore cultivating common land may be more in the nature of giving to the common than taking from it. Yet Locke does not consider that the harvesting of wood from an apple tree prevents any further harvest of apples from it, or that mining a hillside for coal prevents further use of it as, say, a vineyard. How may we decide ethically then, what mode of use to make of natural resources when they are mutually exclusive?

And yet the collectivist model does not offer much of a solution, because inasmuch as the implication of Lockean economics seems to be that people are ethically entitled to hoard as much as they please, regardless of the consequences to others, the collectivist model implies that all use of common resources be left, at best, to the tyranny of the majority, who might fairly decide to starve nonconformists to death rather than allow them property from the common. On the level of common sense, property is inevitable, but the implications of that seem to defy common sense all around.

So I conclude this examination with many more questions than answers, but one thing appears certain. Even from this very earliest stage, the concept of ownership and property was never conceived as the absolute right to do any and allthings with whatever property a person might have in his or her power. And that is something we might do well to reflect upon.

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