Friday, August 27, 2010

In Locke Steppe

Students of American history know that Thomas Jefferson's oft repeated phrase from the Declaration of Independence, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was borrowed straight from English philosopher John Locke. The only difference between the two is that Locke was far more direct; property was the third element. Of course, in Jefferson's time, a person couldn't feel secure and happy WITHOUT property, so the slight alteration in verbiage was understood to mean exactly the same thing.

Locke's political philosophy exerted tremendous influence on the Founding Fathers and much of his formulations are contained both in our founding documents and the great American ideal. One of these concerns private property and that is the subject matter for this post.

For Locke and other philosophers of the school of classic liberalism (it's ironic that today's conservatives unwittingly often embrace the antithesis of what one might think!) property becomes private or owned when an individual or collective of individuals take raw resources and, through their own sweat and industry, improve upon it. This adding of an element of the self allows that self to lay claim to the finished product.

For example, if an individual discovers a barren piece of ground and turns it into a viable farm, it is said that the individual has improved upon the land and, thereby, can lay claim to it as being an extension of the self. Today, we accept such definitions as self-evident and "the way it's always been." To look at such an accepted concept in any other way is...subversive or worse!!

Since I'm an avowed subversive, let's look at this whole conception in a different way!

The raw materials that form the basis of property belong to the cosmos. Before humans ever developed as a distinct species, this world was populated by untold numbers of flora and fauna. So, trees, ore, cotton and the like did not come into being because we willed them to; they were already here, marching along their own evolutionary routes.

Consequently, anything that we say we own is really a partnership. Yes, by our own wit, industry, muscle or monetary investment, we may have altered raw materials in such a way that they serve a different function, but the basis for ANYTHING we might develop or create was already here to begin with. In fact, if we look at the long history of the species we have altered for our own purposes, that history alone dwarfs our contribution to the process.

If anything, about the most that we can say is that we are minority owners in those things we call mine. Why is it then that we, as minority owners, believe that we alone can decide what will or will not be done to those things we lay sole claim to?

[I will thresh a few more thoughts along this line in subsequent posts today and tomorrow.]


  1. As the old saying goes, the Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth. If more people would recognize this relationship and accept their place as stewards of the land rather than owners, we'd all be in much better shape.

    The aboriginal peoples who lived on this North American continent had it right, unfortunately they were out gunned (bad pun) by the Europeans. I often wonder what things would be like had those first meetings gone a different way.

  2. We belong to the earth! That's catchy. I may use that in a later post, if you don't mind, brother. ;-)

  3. i also like that phrase, "we belong to the earth." :) i figure we are caretakers of the land, with a whole lot of responsibilities and not a whole lot of rights (when it comes to us and the land itself). when it comes to us vs. the government or other people trying to exploit it, i will defend private property rights to the death. however what gives me the right to run off wild animals on "my" land? it's their land too.


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