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The Real Role of
Property According
to Adam Smith
and John Locke

An Open Letter By Punkerslut
to the LockeSmith Institute

From PeaceLibertad Blog
Image: From PeaceLibertad Blog

Start Date: February 24, 2011
Finish Date: February 24, 2011

               Mission Statement of the LockeSmith Institute


     "The LockeSmith Institute" is such a wonderful name for a Libertarian thinktank. A combination of the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith. You seem to agree, especially when you cite Adam Smith's most notable work: "Wealth of Nations provides perhaps the greatest defense of the natural harmony of a freely functioning market." And, you go on to state, "There was a time when these principles dominated the dialogue of ideas in America. However, to date, intellectuals in the twentieth century have been rather unappreciative of these perspectives."

     There is more than a mild difficulty with this, though. In the essay, "The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism," you mention the reemergence as a variety of Libertarian theorists. Robert Nozick, for instance, is quoted as "reclaiming for the liberal tradition the utopian vision which virtually all liberals (except Hayek) had rejected as uncongenial to the pluralism demanded by the liberal ideal." This "utopian vision," naturally, is "a minimalist government for protection only." You've even pointed out the school of "Public Choice," and "one of the most recent areas in which the school has applied economic tools to political issues is free market environmentalism."

     The difficulty, of course, is that you're claiming the philosophy of John Locke, Adam Smith, and the Enlightenment Thinkers without referencing any of their works. For example, you described Adam Smith's book "The Wealth of Nations" as a defense of free trade. Here's what he actually wrote about Capitalism: "...whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters [Capitalists] are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of." (Book 1, Chapter 8.)

     The summary of Smith's views are this: Capitalists, in every culture or society or era, are always out to destroy whatever is of benefit to the vast majority of society, because it benefits them. Denying this means ignorance of both history and economics. Now, does that really sound like "the greatest defense of the natural harmony of a freely functioning market"? No, no it doesn't. Rather, it sounds like you probably read one or two quotes of Adam Smith, taken out of context, in some economics textbook. He wrote, after all, "Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities." and "Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased...." (Book 1, Chapter 5.)

     Using Adam Smith as a basis for our economics, we can begin our sociological discussion with two primary bases: (1) all Capitalists, possessors of capital, and exploiters of the laboring classes are opposed toward the general uplift or improvement of conditions for the common people; (2) all wealth that we possess in society is because of the laborers, which nobody else can claim credit for, whether stockowner or merchant or investor. Given these two premises, I'm rather baffled that you conclude with Robert Nozick as the modern reemergence of classical liberalism. Nozick said that taxing income is 'on a par with forced labor...' Adam Smith said that those who are enslaved are done so by the "conspiracy of masters," or simply called Capitalism today.

     I see a contradiction here. It looks like you're claiming the heritage of Adam Smith, but then using it as the foundation for the philosophy of someone who disagrees with him. But, let us move on toward the issue of John Locke.

     From part one of the only essay on your website, you state, "Beginning his political analysis in the theoretical state of nature, Locke proposes that people coexisted in relative peace. Acquiring property by mixing labor with resources, they found few obstacles save the inconvenience of being their own judges in cases ideally wanting impartiality." The phrase you chose, "mixing labor with resources," as proof of property, isn't quite accurate. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is an intentional reworking of the spirit that Locke gave to his texts. Or, more specifically, "Locke perceives personal liberty as dependent upon private property. This property must be secure under the rule of law, else those without could manipulate a system to acquire from those who possessed."

     But, you do point out succinctly, in overly poetic language, what John Locke believed in between these statements: "His definition of property hinges on the addition of personal labor, thus making ownership an intimate act of creation." That's it -- if you labor, and create something, then you have a right to property. If you just sit on property, collecting the profits of the labors of others, then you are a thief. Property isn't sanctioned by state, by law, or by anything, except the laborer's creation of it.

     Or, as he stated exactly, "As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in. Whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others." (Chapter 5 of "Second Treatise on Government.") That is to say, the Capitalist who makes money by owning property does not have a right to those "earnings," because they were stolen by those who did the actual labor: the working classes. Law has nothing to do with it. Contracts have nothing to do with it. It all drives back to the basic premise that the working classes are the sole creators of wealth, and therefore, ought to be sole proprietors of wealth.

     You claim that Locke believes that property comes from mixing labor with property. To quote him from chapter 5, again, "...labour makes the far greatest part of the value of things we enjoy in this world; and the ground which produces the materials is scarce to be reckoned in as any, or at most, but a very small part of it." and elsewhere, too, "It is labour, then, which puts the greatest part of value upon land, without which it would scarcely be worth anything; it is to that we owe the greatest part of all its useful products..."

     In fact, Locke made a disclaimer on his system, "...thus considering the plenty of natural provisions there was a long time in the world, and the few spenders, and to how small a part of that provision the industry of one man could extend itself and engross it to the prejudice of others, especially keeping within the bounds set by reason of what might serve for his use, there could be then little room for quarrels or contentions about property so established."

     However, as you know, there is PLENTY OF ROOM TODAY for quarrels and contentions about property, because none of it was established by means of labor. The capitalist who owns a business doesn't own it because they created it; they own it because they invested in it with profits previously acquired. The fact that so many want to reclaim property of the Capitalist class is proof itself of the injustice of the relationship Capitalist property! That's the only conclusion I receive from reading the one chapter on property.

     Locke, having written his piece in the 1600's, was writing in a time where anyone could claim some untilled piece of land, and start a farm to feed themselves. Nobody was dependent upon anyone else for the right to bread, because the immense breadth of the land meant that nobody was denied the land -- that essential ingredient for producing food. But here we are today, and there's not one free piece of land that anyone can claim to use for themselves and their families. And yet, discussions over inequality and revolutions over exploitation are more commonplace in our time than any other.

     It seems quite clear that we may want to call in John Locke in his disclaimer: "Sorry, Locke, but now we're living in a time where the vast majority of society is dependent upon a very few for the right to work, and they do not even have the right to the products of their labor." But Locke is a dead man -- we are alive and thinking, presumably.

     Adam Smith's essential points are about how Capitalists are determined to exploit the common workers of civilization and how laborers themselves are responsible for all the wealth that society possesses. What can we reduce from John Locke's position? (1) Only laborers have the right to the property that they create, and anyone who takes part of it, whether calling themselves landlord or capitalist, is a thief, (2) Anyone who possess property for the purpose of excluding others from it and profiting off of it is similarly a thief and a threat to the common people themselves.

     At the end, though, you conclude, "His descendants affirmed his justifications for inalienable rights..." and, reading throughout the rest of the essay, it seems you mean "property rights." Or, more specifically, the right to property for those who never labored in their lives, who are wealthy masters because they possess deeds and land. What John Locke actually said, about the earth being the common property of humanity and how everyone has a right to claim the benefits of their labor, is interpreted in the most narrow and exclusive sense. It does not conform either to the letter or spirit of Locke's materials.

     Thank you for reading this far. You're an entire "institute," funded and developed under the auspices of state dollars, to promote the ideas of reducing government involvement in our lives. I assume that with only a handful of paragraphs on your website, you'll have the time to respond to this letter. Thank you -- I can hardly wait for it.

Andy Carloff

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