One of the revolutionary features of capitalism is individual ownership: the concentration of rights over things including land and labour, and the creation of a new right to sell, in one legal individual. This creates the distinctive capitalist form of inequality: some own much and others own only the labour of their own bodies, which they must sell to survive.
This chapter describes and criticises a rights-based justification for individual ownership. The defence is that unequal ownership is the result of legitimate acquisitions and transfers of property in the past. To change it, we would therefore need to violate the rights of owners. In later chapters, we will pursue the alternative defence that unequal ownership is justified by its results, rather than by its history.
3.1From the State of Nature to Individual Ownership
The social contract tradition offers a way of thinking critically about our form of life by asking, If this didn’t exist, what reason would there be to create it? We discover or imagine a ‘state of nature’ which lacks some interesting feature of our form of life; we consider what reasons there would be to move out of the state of nature by creating it; and if they’re good reasons, we take that as a justification for it. Reasons to start are taken as reasons to continue. Hobbes, for example, thinks about the justification of State power by thinking about our reasons to create the State out of anarchy.
The seventeenth-century philosopher, doctor, and political organizer John Locke offered a social contract justification of individual ownership, and we’ll follow him in our investigation of our current regime of property. There are three stages to his argument: the state of nature without individual ownership; legitimate acquisition of property by individuals; and the development of material inequality.
3.1.1 The State of Nature
Locke’s state of nature is a state of political equality, natural law, and common ownership of the Earth. First, no-one has any natural authority, and so kings and other authorities must be made rather than found. Second, the natural law tradition is the long-standing idea that there are some things that humans can know we should do, without their being asserted by State or divine authority, just by reasoning from our natural situation. Locke’s version of natural law is a duty to preserve human life in oneself and in others, from which he derives universal rights to resist threats like tyrants and thieves, to punish wrongdoers, and to make a living. Third, the land and its fruits begin as everyone’s property.
These are position statements in the political conflicts of Locke’s time and place: James II is not the latest inheritor of the one branch of humanity with natural authority and ownership of the Earth, he’s just a human being with no more natural rights than anyone else. But they are also fundamental claims about what would be needed to justify political authority, the State’s monopoly on violence, and individual ownership.
That third problem is, How can we legitimately get from commons to our regime of unequal individual ownership? Locke’s answer is in two stages.
3.1.2 Working Land
Humans acquire property in land by working on it to make a living. After walking for days, I come to a piece of fertile land. I cut down trees to make a cabin. I dig out stumps and rocks. I plough and sow seed. I keep the birds off. By the time I’m ready to cut the corn, we might think, the corn is mine. And, Locke claims, so is the land improved by my work on it. By acting on the land to fulfil my duty and right to get the food and shelter I need to live, I’ve taken that land out of common ownership and made it my property. Before I came, you would have had just as much right to settle here as I did, but now I have a right to keep you out, and you have a duty to keep walking.
But acquisition by work is only legitimate within limits. I have a duty to preserve human life, not just my own life, and so my work for my own survival may not compromise others’. Locke states two constraints on acquisition. First, I must leave ‘as much and as good’ available for others to work. There needs to be more fertile land over the next hill for you who are walking into the wilderness behind me. Second, I may not take more than I can use. There’s to be no waste, nothing left to rot uneaten. If I put up a fence round ten thousand acres, anyone may legitimately tear it down and start to plough and sow for their own livelihood. However, others’ consent is not a constraint on acquisition: I don’t need to ask the permission of any or all of the other commoners before I start to farm.
This is an attractive idea, but also a difficult one to defend. Why should working create ownership? What is the route by which my effort turns into particular rights to keep others off a piece of land and to keep its fruits for myself?
The work is mine—it’s my effort, my planning and sweat—and that self-ownership spreads into what I mix it with.
That’s what Locke says, and it’s proved a powerful idea for thinkers from Marxists to right-wing libertarians. For many Marxists [need a particular example name here], what’s wrong with work under capitalism is that workers own their labour, and therefore own what they make with it, but the capitalist takes some of it as profit. Exploitation is theft. For Robert Nozick, what’s wrong with redistribution of wealth is that citizens own their labour, and therefore own what they makes with it, but the State takes some of it as tax. Taxation is theft. For both, the root of ownership is self-ownership.
Self-ownership is having over myself, my body and action, the rights that a master legally has over a chattel slave. But even if everyone does or should own herself in this sense, it’s not clear why that ownership extends to what she acts on. Mixing owned things with unowned or commonly-owned things doesn’t normally extend ownership. If I mix my rice into the village cooking-pot, I haven’t taken our stew out of common ownership, I’ve given the rice into it. Why not think the same way about the land I improve, that I’ve made the commons better for all?
Perhaps working extends the self into the world? What I labour on becomes me, and moves into the protection of my self-ownership.
That’s appealing, but no easier to understand. As a maker myself—not a farmer but a writer—I certainly identify with and want to claim rights over what I make. I can know and care about it as much as I know and care about my own self. But it isn’t me in the literal sense: I can abandon it, and it will continue to exist when I’m dead. The land outlasts any farmer, and authors hope that our books will outlive us. ‘Hear what the Earth says: —
Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.’
Perhaps ownership is a matter of what people deserve: the worker deserves ownership rights as a reward for effort; the lazy who don’t work don’t deserve to eat what others grew or enjoy what others sweated over. The state of nature is a meritocracy of effort, where work gets its just reward.
Locke hints at this when he says that God made the Earth for ‘the use of the Industrious and Rational’, and when he repeatedly insists that almost all of the value of cultivated land comes from the work invested in it not from unimproved nature.
Any of these justifications, and others, might be refined and defended further. At minimum, the idea that work creates ownership draws on some powerful stories and moral emotions: the covered wagon heading out into the wilderness stuffed with seeds and tools, the Mayflower pilgrims, the spacecraft bound for Mars. The sense of meritocratic justice, that we should get the results of our efforts. It’s an attractive idea even if an unclear one.
3.1.3 Markets & Merit
Suppose that we can eventually make sense of acquisition by work. Even then, we haven’t got to our own regime of individual ownership. If I own the land and its fruits because I work on it for my living, then I own it only as long as I continue to work and live there. This gets us usufruct property but not permanent property: rights to use and to exclude others so long as I am actually using and occupying, but no rights to transfer to others. No inheritance, no landlords, no shareholders. When I die, the land is back in the commons. If I leave, whoever takes over the work now owns the land, so I can’t lease it out and live somewhere else on rent payments. There are no rights to a share of production or control for other people who live somewhere else, either. Those who don’t work here don’t own here.
Locke’s problem is, How can we legitimately get from commons to our unequal individual ownership? So far, we’ve got only to usufruct. The second stage of his two-stage answer aims to make the final move, but is fragmentary and flawed. Rather than pursue it in detail, I’ll suggest what we we need to add to acquisition by work to get there, and what it costs.
To get from usufruct to our individual ownership, we need to add markets and their supporting rights and technologies. The right to produce surplus goods—that is, goods beyond what I can use and enjoy. The right to exchange those goods for others’ surplus, made easier by money as a medium of exchange—that is, the right to sell. The right to own things on which I have not worked—or, equivalently, the liability to be sold to. The right to sell rights themselves, by taking money for the use of my property, for example by tenants who farm my land and give me some of their produce in return. What we need to add to our rights of acquisition through work is rights of transfer, and adding these rights has large consequences.
Markets create inequalities. Usufruct property-holders will differ in their success at farming, in the productivity of their different pieces of land in different climates, in their luck with weather and disease. But the differences will be limited by the similar levels of work they can put in, as equal human beings, and by the lack of motivation to produce a surplus. What’s the point, if anything over what my family can eat will be left to rot in the ground? Rights to transfer allow those small differences to be entrenched and magnified. If I can sell a surplus, and use the money to hire others to work land for me, to produce more surplus, my advantages snowball. If I can leave my estate to my children, they start with a great advantage over others who walk into the wilderness with nothing.
Markets also detach ownership from work. Part of the attraction of Locke’s account of acquisition was the meritocracy of effort it imples: I get what I work for. But the children who inherit my farm haven’t worked on it, they’ve been given it. Still more, if their grandfather got rich in currency speculation, and they and I live off the interest on his capital, our rewards have nothing to do with our work. Humans have powerful cognitive biases in favour of thinking that people deserve what they get, regardless of its source, but this is clearly false under capitalism, if desert is proportional to effort. Many rich people did not work hard for their wealth, or at least no harder than some poor people. Capitalism is not a meritocracy.
How worrying you should find this depends on how attractive you found Locke’s work-based account of property-acquisition. If you think that legitimate ownership comes from work, then in consistency you should reject our capitalist regime of individual ownership, in which transfer rather than acquisition is all-important.
A consistent believer in justification of ownership by work would be a leveller. Under capitalism, ownership is highly unequal and unrelated to work. Levellers, first, want to reclaim land and other goods which are ‘owned’ on paper, but unworked, for the commons, and to be taken back out of the commons by people who work it for their livelihood. Locke’s contemporary levellers invaded park and waste land ‘owned’ by aristocratic landlords to clear, dig and plant. Our contemporaries might, with the same justification, reclaim their factories and neighbourhoods. Second, levellers imagine a world of free commoners making a living in roughly-equal self-sufficient smallholdings in place of our world of vastly unequal and transferable estates.
But that world would be impoverished by comparison with ours. Market societies create wealth.
True. But that’s a different argument, which we’ll consider in later chapters. The point here is that Locke’s attempt at a social contract justification of individual ownership fails. If we need reasons to start to have reasons to continue, we haven’t found reasons to continue. Humans living in Locke’s state of nature of political equality, natural law, and common ownership might create usufruct property in owner-occupied smallholdings, but would not create our regime of property. So, perhaps we should reject it.