The Lockean Fable of Initial Acquisition
Also known as the labor theory of property. John Locke tells a story (nothing more) that ignores the fact that current real-world ownership is based on past theft and conquest (expropriation) not initial acquisition (appropriation.) Initial acquisition without government is a myth. "Mixing of labor" is merely expenditure of effort: it does nothing to create property because property is a socially constructed institution.
- The worthless Lockean Fable of Initial Acquisition
- The ahistorical labor theory of property fails in many ways. Including ignoring the evidence in front of our noses.
- Expropriation (6 links)
- Libertarians generally ignore or make excuses for the fact that essentially all property in land has been coercively expropriated (often repeatedly) from preceding peoples. Including acquisition from the commons. Any philosophy of just property in land must deal with this historical fact.
- Homesteadin' Is the Place for Me [More...]
- How the homesteading idea was an excellent excuse for the theft of lands by the 17th-century English landowning class.
- Initial Appropriation: A Dialogue [More...]
- Matt Bruenig explains the coercion involved in "initial appropriation". Much easier to read than Proudhon. He also ridicules the "mixing of labor" idea as being symbolic, rather than an actual description of a physical process.
- Initial Property Continues to Vex Libertarians [More...]
- "Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without non-consensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward."
- John Locke Against Freedom [More...]
- John Locke’s classical liberalism isn’t a doctrine of freedom. It’s a defense of expropriation and enslavement.
- John Locke Says Everything Belongs to Everyone [More...]
- Locke straightforwardly claims that the poor have a right to the surplus property of the rich when they are in need.
- John Locke’s Road to Serfdom [More...]
- John Locke advocated for a world based on expropriation, enslavement, and serfdom.
- Locke’s Folly [More...]
- "Jeffersonian Democrats made a serious attempt to implement Locke’s theories. Colonization and expropriation followed."
- The Libertarian Bizarro World [More...]
- "If you are a libertarian who believes justice requires the following of a certain liberty-respecting process, you have to explain how anything can come to be owned in the first place. That initial move is, by any coherent account, the most violent extinction of personal liberty that there ever can be."
- Why Do Philosophers Talk so Much and Read so Little About the Stone Age? False factual claims in appropriation-based property theory [More...]
- The libertarian argument for private property relies on dubious factual claims about how property develops, how well off people are in pre-property-rights societies, and how much freer people are under capitalism than in pre-property-rights societies.
How is property given? By restraining liberty; that is, by taking it away so far as is necessary for the purpose. How is your house made yours? By debarring every one else from the liberty of entering it without your leave.
Jeremy Bentham, "Anarchical Fallacies"
It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one person's ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.
Robert Nozick, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia"
If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?
Robert Nozick, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia"
But the 17th-century English landowning class had a problem. They had been busy robbing both the English peasant and the American Indian of their land. To their credit, they couldn't admit openly to themselves that they had been doing so. While the Athenians could just say to the Melians that it was natural for the powerful to dominate the weak, or the Israelites could simply claim a land as God's chosen people, these options were not open to 17th-century English Christians. They needed a good justification for their theft. And Locke's homesteading doctrine is formulated very precisely to give them one: only when a man "tills, plants, improves, cultivates" some piece of land does he actually gain ownership of it. So, there you go! Just because some English peasants had grazed a pasture for a thousand years, or some "naked savages" had hunted it for five thousand years, that land wasn't really theirs, because they hadn't done with it what a member of the landed gentry would, which was to enclose it and farm it (or at least the part not reserved for the folly and the decorative fish pond).
Gene Callahan, "Homesteadin' Is the Place for Me"
Contra Locke, property is not made by mixing labor: it is made by mixing coercion.
Mike Huben, "Interview With Mike Huben, Creator Of Critiques Of Libertarianism"
The jump from the right to self-ownership to the right of property ownership always occurs hastily, as if the libertarian knows full well he’s fudging one of the most dubious steps of his proof. Boaz makes the unfortunate decision to choose John Locke’s theory of “labor mixing” as his preferred means of papering over the leap. This is the theory, dating from 1689, that when a person “mixes” her labor with a thing (say by turning a tree into a chair), she develops a property right in it. Why this should be so, nobody knows. What “mixing” even is, nobody knows either. Boaz doesn’t attempt to define it; its function is simply to jury-rig a rickety theoretical bridge that will suffice until the next deduction is made. So long as the reader blinks, she will fail to notice that the entire natural rights justification for property is built upon flashy prestidigitation.
Nathan Robinson, "Oh God, Please Not Libertarianism..."
[The Native Americans] didn't have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using.... What was it they were fighting for, if they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or maybe a few caves above it. Any white person who brought the element of civilization had the right to take over this continent.
Ayn Rand, "Q and A session following her Address To The Graduating Class Of The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, March 6, 1974"
[W]e have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
George Orwell, "Review of Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell"
So the thing to look for when reading a libertarian theory of initial appropriation is how they choose to hilariously turn all of this on its head. All of a sudden, once someone unilaterally asserts ownership of something, moving about the world freely somehow gets recategorized as violating other people's liberty. Even worse, moving about the world freely is even recategorized as aggressively attacking someone!
Matt Bruenig, "The Libertarian Bizarro World"
But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.
John Locke, "Two Treatises on Government, Chapter 4, §. 42."