Thursday, October 9, 2008

More on Locke, that sneaky SOB

Ah, Locke on property!

McGill was once the home of James Tully, eminent scholar of Locke. As much as I hate to criticize one with whom, but for the arrow of time, I would have been a colleague, I have profound reservations about his A Discourse on Property. Some of these stem from my general apathy towards Skinner-esque historical work. And some stem from my partisan desire to defend C. B. Macpherson (Another Canadian! Canada rules!!!), who comes in for some rough treatment, some of which is probably fair enough, but some of which is certainly way off base (I'm happy to share, if anyone's curious).

Setting aside these two issues, however, I am mostly annpoyed by the lengths and depths of Tully's credulousness. He gets so caught up in Locke's "obvious" distaste for money, for instance, that he actually seems to be convinced that Locke was some sort of Rousseauian romantic, longing for the good old days before money corrupted us all.

But the case I really want to talk about is this: Tully denies that Locke is a defender of private property, arguing that, in fact, Locke is arguing for a system of private use rights within common claim rights (mumbo jumbo for: Locke is SO NOT a tool of incipient capitailism, man!).

Why is this a sign of credulousness, you ask?

Because in order to make this argument, Tully has to take at face value all that stuff Locke says about 1) the earth being given to us by God for our common ejoyment, and 2) this end of enjoyment also limiting our natural right to property--we can't let anything spoil, and we have to leave as much and as good for others.

Not to get all Straussian, but Locke obviously thinks this is a bunch of bunkum, deployed only to sucker the rubes into thinking he's way more conservative than he is. Well, I'm not suckered.

First of all, the claim that the earth is meant for our use means only that nothing non-human has any rights. There is no teleology immanent in nature such that it is fitted for our use. That is why labor makes property; it distinguishes the thing upon which it expended from the commons by giving it a purpose it did not have by nature. Locke says this pretty explicitly (Sec.28).

Second, the natural limits of property are no limits at all, on Locke's own terms. Since nature is of no use to us withou labor, there is no objective grouds for determining spoilage: one man's spoilage is another man's scienc project, or art project, or whatever. Moreover, for the same reason, the person who apprpriates nature always necessarily leaves as much and as good for others. Without being apprpriated, nature is no good whatsoever. Therefore, Locke says that "he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind," averring only that he has here drastically underestimated the productivity of labor (Sec. 37).

It's merely the icing on the cake that money comes along and, by our tacit consent, overthows all barriers to prperty accumulation and inequality. They were barriers with no real existence to begin with.

Therefore, I say unto James Tully, "You've been had, sir; taken in and swindled."


unemployed negativity said...

I think that you are fundamentally right, although I must admit I do not know Tully's work. I teach Locke a lot, and I find the argumentative structure of this chapter to be very interesting. It functions as a kind of vanishing presupposition, in which a fundamental principle of equality, or commons, is posited only to be taken away. In that way it is similar to Hobbes' assertion or equality, or even Descartes good sense, all assertions of equality that only pave the way for inequality.
When I teach the book I always have a few students who are convinced that Locke is satirizing Capital.

unemployed negativity said...

oops that last line should have read capital, lower case c, not Capital, since they are talking about the social system, not the book.

Will Roberts said...

I find Locke to be extremely tricky because, in general, his use of many words ends up, when fleshed out, to be almost exactly the opposite of the everyday use. Therefore, if you take any statement out of its context, you can get Locke to say the opposite of what he's really saying.

For that reason, I actually think Locke is one of the best candidates for Straussian-type readings. I used to think Rousseau was custom-made for Straussians, but anymore he seems too over the top--the wink-wink, nudge-nudge is too overt. Locke, though, is just as "self-contradictory," but he's much more subtl about it.