The worthless Lockean Fable of Initial Acquisition

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The parts of the fable.

I'm going to fisk John Locke. Not because it is a great way to argue, but because there are so many assumptions and fallacies packed into just a few sentences.

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,

This is a religious belief, a particular interpretation of some sacred texts. It has no more force than a king's declaration that he is appointed by god to rule a land.

yet every man has a property in his own person:

Yet another unjustifiable natural rights assertion that certainly didn't hold in Locke's era of widespread slavery, monarchy, and patriarchy. Property is a social construct, and no society of his time or ours treated people's bodies as their own property: there were always major differences. Locke does not explain or defend this view in any way: he merely expects us to nod our heads in agreement.

this no body has any right to but himself.

Excepting slaves, women, children, servants, employees, lower classes, prisoners, etc. But perhaps this was aspirational, what he would like, as opposed to reality.

The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.

With the same exceptions, and the same merely aspirational nature.

Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own,

Here are some examples of mixing of labor. Which of these remove from the state of nature?

  • Traversing a forest.
  • Hunting in a forest.
  • Living in a tent in a forest.
  • Making a trail through a forest.
  • Burning undergrowth to make a forest better for game.
  • Clearing a forest by burning it.
  • Clearing a forest by timbering it.
  • Grazing a cleared forest.
  • Fencing a cleared forest that is grazed.
  • Planting crops in a cleared forest.
  • Constructing a house in the cleared forest.

and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it,

And just what is "annexed" to it? A footprint? Or does he mean something supernatural?

that excludes the common right of other men:

Just how are their "common rights" excluded? By Locke's say-so? The problem with natural rights theory is the same as angels-on-a-pinhead: there is no evidence of the existence of these fairytale rights. All we see in the real world is claims and coercive enforcement of claims.

for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to,

What justifies this claim? Nothing. Which of these establishes exclusive rights for one person?

  1. Two people working together to mix labor simultaneously.
  2. Two people working together to mix labor, one with a head start.
  3. Two people working separately to mix labor simultaneously.
  4. Two people working separately to mix labor, one with a head start.
  5. The first person to mix labor.

Most natural rights people would say number 5: but case 4 is identical. And why does a head start make a difference? Is there some moral right to "first come first served"?

But it gets much worse. As Susan Moller Okin points out in Justice, Gender, And The Family (pp 79-80), people are created by women. Thus, according to the mixing of labor principle, children would be the property of their mothers. Without an explanation or justification of how people would come to own themselves, they would remain the property of their mothers.

at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

This is the famous Lockean Proviso. In the real world, it is violated as soon as price arises: if there was "enough, and as good, left in common for others" then nobody would need to pay.

The Ahistorical Nature of the Lockean Fable

Essentially all modern ownership of land is based on conquest.

Go ahead: identify the original owners of land in any part of the US, and explain how their ownership was not by conquest. You can't even do it for the Native Americans, because they also fought wars of conquest amongst each other. There is no part of the world where ownership hasn't changed due to conquest except unowned international waters and perhaps Antarctica.

What about homesteading?

About the only claimed historical example of homesteading in the Lockean sense was Medieval Iceland: but they stole that land by expelling Irish Catholics who probably had stolen it from aboriginal inhabitants.

There is no land in the world that can show a convincing chain of ownership through original homesteading (before other owners.) Existing claims of homesteading generally ignore pre-existing peoples who were swept aside. The US? Swept away the Native Americans, who in their turn had swept away earlier tribes back to the Clovis culture or even earlier. Europe and Asia? Don't make me laugh. Australia? Swept away the Aborigines, and who knows what their unrecorded history over the past 40,000 years was like. Africa? Numerous whole species of humans were swept away, let alone Homo sapiens tribes.

The brief homesteading period in the US was a government method of giving away land it owned (stolen from the Amerinds), not spontaneous removal from a commons. It resulted in government-recognized ownership, not a natural right.

For more on this, see: Homesteading.

Alternative outcomes for the Lockean Fable