Property Rights and the Political Philosophy of John Locke

Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (1995)
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Abstract

The ultimate aim of this dissertation is to determine whether libertarian theories of property can be adequately grounded in Locke's theory of natural rights. I defend the thesis that Locke's theory has no room for a fundamental commitment to natural rights, including property rights. ;In the first three chapters, I challenge each component of the dominant interpretation of Locke's theory of property in this century, viz., that of C. B. Macpherson. In Chapter One, I criticize Macpherson's claim that Locke's view allows unlimited appropriation. In Chapter Two, I agree with Macpherson that Locke defended a state in which the franchise was restricted to those who held significant property, viz., land. However, this can be reconciled with an initial contract into civil society that meets certain standards of rationality and fairness. Thus, while political power is not equally distributed in the state Locke describes, that is not necessarily inconsistent with a rational, free, and voluntary social contract. This shows that we need not see Locke as committed to the interests of the wealthiest members of society. In Chapter Three, I agree with Macpherson that Locke's view is that the purpose of contracting out of the state of nature is the protection of one's property. But I briefly argue that Macpherson does not take seriously Locke's concept of property right and the wide range of objects that count as property. If we pay careful attention to Locke's terminology, we can see that although the purpose of the state is the protection of property, that does not guarantee greater protection for the wealthy than it ensures the poor. ;In Chapter Four, I challenge a quite different thesis. James Tully has argued that Locke did not defend private property at all, but attacked it. I criticize this interpretation on the grounds that Locke explicitly allows certain practices that Tully takes to be violations of the law of nature as Locke construes it. I also criticize the claim that certain developments in a commercial economy, such as the consumption of valuable land, necessarily violate the law of nature. In addition, I argue that the idea of conventionally established property rights is inconsistent with Locke's account of how and why government comes to be established. ;In Chapter Five, I provide an account of the principles underlying Locke's account of rights, both within and without civil society. I argue that Locke's view is improperly construed as a view which gives pride of place to rights. Rather, rights are almost always derivative from duties, and in those cases where they are not derivative, they are subordinate to certain primary duties that oblige us in virtue of our status as God's creations

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Ruth Sample
University of New Hampshire, Durham

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