Tag Archives: Locke

Libertarian Confusions

I’ve been engaged in a pleasant discussion with a libertarian in the comments section over at Matt Bruenig’s website. Bruenig himself is a practiced expert at destroying libertarian arguments. There is one common libertarian claim in particular that I find odd. Libertarians (or at least some brand of libertarian) categorize all rights as property rights. Thus, any infringement on one’s property rights is an infringement on the fundamental freedom of that individual. If laws exist to regulate my behavior, then that means if I violate those laws, the state will march in to take away my property. For example, if I violate the law against drug use (never!), then the state will come and throw me in prison. In this case, the property removed from me is… my body. My body is my most important piece of property of all!

The libertarian error is inherited, in a mutated form, from John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher. According to Locke, my first possession is my body, and anything my body “mixes with”, through its labor, becomes my property. This core concept of self-ownership is meant to explain how we have a moral right to our property. All of my original rights are property rights regarding my body. From this it follows that all property is an extension of those original self-ownership rights. Thus, any violation of my property is a violation of me.

Philosophers like Locke were looking for a way to create a “natural” right to property. His solution, almost alone among early modern political philosophers, makes property a moral right that predates a civil, organized society. Before human beings formed societies, with all the laws that follow, we recognized each others’ claim to pieces of the world because of the work performed on those pieces. Locke claimed that this was a rule that we recognized without the need for government. But this cannot be the case.

I will leave aside the empirical fact that Locke’s rule is not found among existing paleolithic peoples. Human beings closest to our natural state share in common.

Instead, we can just look at this logically. If self-ownership is the most fundamental sort of property, then every property right should be true of my self-ownership rights. Property is not a simple concept, but is actually composed of a number of rights, such as the right to use property, or the right to benefit from the property. One of these rights is the right of transmission. This is the right to transfer property from me to another. However, my body cannot be transferred. That is, my body cannot be removed from me and given to someone else. Therefore, because rights to my body cannot encompass all property rights, my body cannot be my property.

The response here is that, when I sign a contract obligating me to perform some action, I am transferring at least a share in my body to another party. I can even sell all my actions, into the future, to someone else, thus becoming a slave. But then other property rights will go unfulfilled. A person by their nature makes decisions, but property is subject to the decisions of its owner. This is the right of the owner to manage his property. But the slave-owner only manages by ‘consultation’ with ‘the previous owner’. Thus, the slave-owner never truly owns. Owning another person, in the sense of having all the rights of property in that person, is impossible.

This belief in the body-as-property is the source of many of libertarianism’s theoretical confusions. Of course, I do not “own” my body – I am my body. Violations against my body are violations of me as a person, not my property. We dislike violence and slavery, not because they are violations of property, but because they are violations of persons. Property, as philosophers after Locke recognized, is a social arrangement about objects, and as such, we can make new arrangements as we think are beneficial.

Locke on Authority

Locke was referring to absolute monarchy, with an eye to Hobbes, but he could have been talking about the employment relation:

[A]bsolute monarchy, which by some men is counted the only government in the world, is indeed inconsistent with civil society, and so can be no form of civil-government at all: for the end of civil society, being to avoid, and remedy those inconveniencies of the state of nature, which necessarily follow from every man’s being judge in his own case, by setting up a known authority, to which every one of that society may appeal upon any injury received, or controversy that may arise, and which every one of the society ought to obey; where-ever any persons are, who have not such an authority to appeal to, for the decision of any difference between them, there those persons are still in the state of nature; and so is every absolute prince, in respect of those who are under his dominion (Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter VII).

This passage reflects the republicanism of the earlier English Revolution of the 17th century. Hobbes’ insistence that we contract all of our rights to an absolute sovereign to escape the state of nature is a terrible deal. Locke characterizes the main problem of the state of nature as a state in which each man is a “judge in his own case”. That is, each person judges their own treatment of others. A Hobbesian tyranny only recreates that state of nature, with one man being the judge in his own case, as well as that of everyone else. In a similar way, the private tyrannies of the corporation or the patriarchal home reproduce the state of nature. Unless there is an appeal to a judge outside of those private tyrannies, to the labor union or the state, then we only reproduce the state of nature.