John Locke believes that individuals can acquire property rights in external resources by mixing their labor with unowned resources, and by ensuring that they leave "enough and as good" for others. Explain his argument, and critically evaluate it. Does Locke succeed in providing a theoretical justification for private property rights? Does he provide a justification for the specific distribution of property rights that actually exist in the world today? Explain your reasoning.
The question of property rights is one of the most important and difficult in political philosophy. On the one hand, people need to control material objects in order to allocate them to their most productive use. On the other hand, these material resources and objects are scarce, i.e. a large number of people may have simultaneous claims regarding their control of them. In order to avoid the actual and potential conflicts of interests, people should use the theory of private property rights. It should provide an objective justification of how property rights should be determined.
John Locke has developed a complex and correct theory of property. He states that in the “state of nature”, all material objects are unowned. As different people can make claims to the same objects, the only correct way of obtaining property rights to the previously unowned property is as follows. The individual “who mixes his labor with it … makes it his property” (Locke, 2015, p. 11). Locke provides the following justification for his system. As each individual has the absolute control of his/her own body, he/she can be considered as “being master of himself and owner of his own person” (Locke, 2015, p. 16). As this fact is undisputable, Locke states that each individual also has property rights of the product of his/her labor.
In general, it seems that the theory developed by Locke has several implications. First, the source of potential conflicts between people is scarcity. As their needs for some resources and goods exceed their availability, the needs of all people cannot be satisfied. For this reason, the theory of property rights is necessary. Second, the fact of one’s ownership of his/her own body is undisputable because even the fact of claiming opposite already presupposes one’s control over his/her body to express his/her opinion. Thus, it may serve as an objective foundation for property rights. Third, the first individual who mixes his/her labor with the previously unowned property becomes its legitimate owner. Therefore, the reason is that this material object contains only his/her labor. Thus, the claims of others to this object are unjustified.
Finally, this analysis applies only to the previously unowned property. If some objects or resources are already owned by someone, the fact of mixing one’s labor with it does not provide a justification for property rights. On the contrary, as private property rights are absolute, any unathorized attempts to mix one’s labor with the property of a legitimate owner constitute the example of violation of property rights. Thus, only the first person obtains an exclusive control of material objects.
Although it may seem disputable, in my opinion, it is the only possible and correct solution to property acquisitions. First of all, scarcity objectively exists, and the needs of all people cannot be satisfied. Moreover, Locke (2015) recognizes that public property is not a solution. Secondly, as all people cannot simultaneously control all types of property all over the world, the idea of public property cannot deny the objective necessity of some people’s control over scarce resources. Thirdly, as a resource, public property means merely an inefficient use of property as all people try to maximize their short-term gains rather than maintaining the highest possible value of property. Lastly, thus, private property is the only legitimate type of property.
Locke (2015) believes that the first person should receive the absolute control over resources because his/her claims for them are the most justified. As he/she mixes his/her labor with resources, he/she makes an explicit and objective contribution to their current state of affairs. As others have not made any contribution, all their claims are invalid. It also seems quite reasonable that an owner receives an absolute control over resources and may exclude others from ownership. In fact, any transfers of property rights are possible only as a result of voluntary transactions and exchange.
It seems that this system adequately describes the distribution of property rights in the modern world. In particular, it allows specifying those cases where the private property rights are legitimate and those where violations of rights are present. In general, the majority of transactions correspond to the system advocated by Locke as the private property rights are recognized in the majority of countries. However, some historical events demonstrate the violation of private property rights. For example, the land owned by Native Americans was confiscated by newcomers from England and other European countries. It is a direct violation of property rights. According to Locke (2015), these people should either re-obtain control over this property or be fairly compensated for it.
It seems that some current functions provided by the government are also illegitimate from the perspective of John Locke. For example, all obligatory insurance programs mean some degree of property rights violation. If citizens are required to participate in them, it means that the government rather than a given individual has a control over some fraction of his/her income. Thus, the theory of private property rights developed by Locke should contribute to restricting the government in its operations.
It may be concluded that this theoretical system is crucial for the development of civilization as it provides an objective justification for allocating resources and distributing them between individuals. Locke (2015) states that “there could not be any reason for quarrelling about title” (p. 18). His theory allows avoiding conflicts and maximizing the general well-being. The relevance of this theory is even higher nowadays than in the previous historical periods as both the number of people and potential conflicts tends to increase.
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