Responses on Locke’s proviso


In my initial thoughts on Locke’s proviso, I wasn’t doing much more than testing the waters, so to speak, or getting some new cards on the table. I had been wrestling, semi-unsuccessfully, with a follow-up post to my recent piece on markets, government and the environment, and decided it would make as much sense to tackle some key property issues head-on, as to wade any deeper, right now, into a debate that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere very useful. The responses so far suggest that maybe this stuff isn’t going anywhere either — at least without some real care in the exposition. David Ellerman suggests I read his book, and Iain McKay points me to Ellerman, Rothbard, and the importance of freedom, which I have presumably slighted in some way. James is concerned that a property theory that applies only to non-rivalrous goods doesn’t accomplish the things (autonomy, conflict resolution, stability, stewardship, etc.) that we expect a property system to accomplish, and says we “need a way of universalising property rights without destroying the grounds for them.”

In case it wasn’t clear, I agree that Locke was inconsistent. I also agree that the points raised by Ellerman about how Locke defines “the individual’s labor” are important, particularly as they open the door to exploitation. When Ellerman criticizes property theory for neglecting acquisition, I’m right there. It seems to me, indeed, that it may well be the non-proviso propertarians who are most vulnerable to the charge of having destroyed the grounds for property rights, by that neglect of the question of legitimate acquisition. Locke muddied the waters considerably, as I have noted, by positing an initial property-in-common. It essentially places the private-propertarian in the position of having to solve the resource-apportionment problem faced by communism, while also presenting a coherent theory of “property” which accounts for transformations from common to private property, as well as from private property appropriated by mixing to “unmixed” commodity-property susceptible to transmission by exchange. That’s a fairly tall order, and one which I am not sure any of the competing property theories actually fill. But, as I have noted before, my interest in Locke’s theory comes from the fact that he appears to have at least made a solid, relatively elegant start at covering the required ground. Allow me to repeat my earlier summary:

It seems to me that the strength of the model is that it gives us a clear mechanism for appropriation (labor mixing), a rationale for that appropriation (extension of the self), and a rule for avoiding the monopolization of property (the provisos.) That’s pretty elegant. Add an active, “unmixing” nature to the picture, and apply some attention and ingenuity to how expropriation will adjust property claims to fit the demands of the provisos, and you have some pretty simple, and fairly sustainable, guidelines. The provisos make the whole apparatus explicitly social in nature; changes of various sorts will require adjustments, expropriations and reappropriations (all of a voluntary sort, if folks are following the “rules.”) What puzzles me is that non-proviso Lockeans don’t seem to admire any of that except the fact that the rule of labor-mixing seems simple. It’s precisely all the dynamic potential, and the elegance of the rationale (the fact that self-ownership and the ownership of chattel or real property don’t have to be treated as separate) that they seem to oppose. What non-proviso Lockeans draw from Locke seems to be a ritual of appropriation with little or no logical connection to even the principles — like self-ownership — that they appeal to. Occupancy and use is certainly a lot less cut-and-dried, but compared to the “correct position” it certainly seems a lot more robust and complete.

I’ve very sympathetic to the concerns of both Iain and James. On the one hand, private property in rivalrous goods seems as much like a privilege as a self-evident and universal right. And the supposed ability of such a right to reduce conflict is really primarily a matter of reducing recourse. And when that reduced recourse is attached to the right to defensive or retaliatory force, it would be nice to have a better elaborated notion of justice that “first come, first served.” If the things that we expect private property systems to do can’t actually be done consistently by them, there’s no reason to keep flogging that dead horse; and if the things presented as universal, self-evident rights appear to be privileges granted in an arbitrary and unequal manner, then we should probably look elsewhere. On the other hand, the sorts of things that we would like private property systems to fix are certainly often worth fixing, and much of the progress toward the fixes has come out of the struggle over what should constitute socially-recognized, individual or private property.

Unfortunately, I frequently feel that, despite the importance attributed to questions of property, we seldom approach them with the sort of seriousness that critically important questions really deserve. In particular, I’m afraid that anarchist discussions of property seldom escape mild variations on either a communism which does not want to wrestle with the problem of property (although common property presumably needs a coherent theory just as much as private property), and a propertarianism that does not want to think of property as a problem. The dichotomy has even been read back onto Proudhon, via the famous Hagbard Celine “property-1/property-2/property-3” distinction. While Wilson/Celine acknowledges Proudhon’s three characterizations of property (“theft,” “impossible,” “liberty”), he reduces them down to two, and treats those two as separate concepts sharing a name. But Proudhon, critically, did not treat “property as theft” and “property as liberty” as different things. He never explicitly worked through the permutations of the connections he set up, but his work makes it clear that if property manages to accomplish its “aim” of liberty, it is not by ceasing to be “theft” (an exclusive form of appropriation rooted in individual absolutism, an over-reaching that denies the basic interconnectedness of individuals), but (as he said in 1842) by balancing and universalizing that over-reaching, which is necessary for the development of the individual. The three aspects of property exist simultaneously, and the key to understanding Proudhon’s theory probably comes from working out the details of their general equivalence, as a step towards firmly establishing the grounds on which they might be universalized. There is a sense in which “liberty is theft” or “liberty is impossible,” but also perhaps that “theft is impossible” (or even that “impossibility is theft.”) This undoubtedly isn’t the place to attempt to sketch out all the permutations, but I think that such a sketch is possible, without straying too many steps from Proudhon’s explicit statements on property. Some of this is already laid out in my posts on the “gift economy of property.” The one thing I would add or emphasize here is that the aspect of property which contributes most importantly to the continued, progressive liberty of the individual is not that of “use” (though that is necessary), but rather the aspect of “abuse” (by which Proudhon meant a certain socially-sanctioned leeway to experiment — and sometimes err — in the application of resources.)

It is in order to clarify that point, which probably needs a lot of clarification for many readers, that I want to focus on the details of some simple acts of appropriation, starting with a drink of water from a river, and explore the ways in which “property,” in its various aspects, might or might not enter into the question. I’ll probably take it pretty slowly, emphasizing the somewhat-neglected question of property’s “im/possibility.”

[to be continued…]

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. “Iain McKay points me to Ellerman, Rothbard, and the importance of freedom, which I have presumably slighted in some way.”

    Not sure about freedom being “slighted” (I’m not sure what is meant by that, to be honest), I was just raising an issue (freedom for non-owners) which is all too often ignored in discussions of the origins of property. After all, Locke and Nozick do not address the issue of how appropriating land reduces the freedom of others. They concentrate on whether there were enough goods left over (and here we get into the invention of money and how appropriation leads to more goods being created, so nullifying the priviso for Locke).

    Proudhon, of course, did not. He addressed the issue of what happens when land/workplaces are appropriated and people have to sell their liberty to gain access. Voltairine de Cleyre puts that well in one of her essays, namely how does a reform benefit the person without property and has to look for employment.

    In terms of theories of communal property and individual appropriation, I don’t think that this is too complicated. Under libertarian communism, people have free and equal access to the goods they need and which others are not using.

    This works on different levels. In terms of obviously communal property, such as workplaces, when an individual joins a workplace he/she does so as an associate of those already there. So no relations of domination or exploitation are created. In terms of things which are utilised by individuals exclusively then they take them as required.

    I would say this is rooted in Proudhon’s analysis of property and his notion of possession. The key difference is that Proudhon kept individual ownership of the products of labour, so people would have to buy goods while having access as free and equal associates to the means of life.

    The real issue here is how does communism handle goods which are not in sufficient supply. Kropotkin, I would say, was somewhat overly optimistic on this matter.

    Suffice to say, I would say that libertarian communism (and Marxism, when its at its best) is infused with Proudhon’s critique of property.

    An Anarchist FAQ

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