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justification of private property and also compares and contrasts the role that private property plays in the theories of Locke and in his "Second Treatise" and Marx in his "Communist Manifesto." It asks whether individuals have a right to private property, or (which I think is the same thing) whether there are any good right-based arguments for private property. A right-based argument is an argument showing that an individual interest considered in itself; is sufficiently important from a moral point-of-view to justify holding people to be under a duty to promote it. So my question can be rephrased as follows. What individual interests are served by the existence of private property as opposed to some other sort of property regime (such as communism)? Are any of these interests so important from a moral point-of-view that they justify holding governments to be under a duty to promote, uphold, and protect property-owning? Or is it rather the case that, taken one by one, the interests which individuals have in the matter do not have this level of importance, and that these interests should be dealt with in the aggregate, in the form of utilitarian arguments about property institutions, rather than treated as the basis of rights?
Marx argued in The Communist Manifesto there cannot be private property for anyone at all unless nine-tenths of the population is property less -- then the possibility of a GR-based argument for private property, along the lines of the one we have attributed, is in danger. Any thesis about the inevitability of widespread propertylessness threatens the collapse of the sort of argument that Locke wants to put forward in favor of private property. It is the challenge laid down by Karl Marx in a furious response to bourgeois critics of the socialist programme outlined in The Communist Manifesto:
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its nonexistence in the hands of these nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property the necessary condition for whose existence is the nonexistence of any property for the immense majority of society. In one word, you reproach us for intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.
Both lines of argument hold that individuals have an interest in owning things which is important enough to command respect and to constrain political action. This is a basic human interest which everyone has: owning property contributes immensely to the ethical development of the individual person. On the Locke an approach, the interest which commands respect is one which people have only on account of what they happen to have done or what has happened to them. A man who has mixed his labor with a piece of land, or acquired it legitimately from someone else, has an interest in ownership which the government must respect; but a man who has done neither of these things, but would simply rather like to own something, has no such constraining interest. The Lockean right to property, in other words, is a special right.
Locke's argument about mixing one's labor is incoherent, and does provide a good argument for a general right of a rather different sort: a general right to subsistence which imposes welfarist constraints on whatever property system there may be. But no such general right is recognized in Nozick's theory. I maintain that this is a fatal flaw: no theory of the kind that could possibly be made acceptable in the absence of a background general right to subsistence.
Throughout his work, Marx is adamant that the indictment against capitalism is not merely the fact that private property happens to be distributed unequally or in a way that leaves millions without any guaranteed access to the means of production; the problem is that private ownership is a form of property that has this characteristic necessarily. No matter how noble your egalitarian intentions, the existence of any distribution of private property rights in the means of production will lead quickly to their concentration in the hands of a few. Thus egalitarian intentions, so far as private property is concerned are hopelessly utopian, for they underestimate the dynamic tendencies of the system they are interested in: 'for us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but its annihilation'. GR-based arguments for private property therefore would stand condemned on this approach just to the extent that they have egalitarian or quasi-egalitarian implications.
This is not Marx's only criticism of private property. The main critique throughout his work is: private property as a form for productive relations divides man from man, disguises the underlying co-operative nature of production and economic endeavor, and thus prevents the development of conscious and rational freedom in the economic sphere -- the only sphere where man can find his true self-realization. If there is a moral basis to Marx's indictment of capitalism, it is not a theory of equality but, as George Brenkert and others have argued a theory of freedom. Accumulation and the concentration of capital in a few hands, leading to mass propertylessness, is not only 'appropriate to' a capitalist mode of production; it is its inevitable result. There is a controversy as to whether Marx offers a moral indictment of injustice of capitalism at all. Certainly, in Capital, Marx argues that capitalist exploitation depends on proletarian propertylessness -- that is, on the worker being, as Marx put it ironically, 'free in the double sense that . . . he can dispose of his labor power . . . And that, on the other hand, . . . he is free of all objects needed for the realization of his labor power' -- and that it got under-way initially on the basis of forcible and bloody expropriation. The justice of this process was dubious even relative to the relations of production prevailing at the time. But those relations were pre-capitalist relations and expropriation was in those circumstances a revolutionary act by the bourgeoisie against social and political forces stifling their progressive aspirations. Relative to the capitalist relations that it ushered in, that revolutionary beginning is (retrospectively) legitimate. Certainly, on the Marxian account, there is no suggestion either of the possibility or the desirability of rectificatory redress or reversal for any putative injustice that accompanied the birth of capitalism. That would be a wholly reactionary step.
Often the most Marx appears to be saying is that private property is doomed historically, that it is obsolescent, that it will eventually, under pressure, give way to social control. If there is an evaluative dimension, it may be nothing more substantial than a commitment to the value of historical progress: 'From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd [abgescbmacht] as private ownership of one man by another.' From this point-of-view, it is wrong to see Marx condemning the inevitability of propertylessness under capitalism. Nevertheless, even on this account, Marx is always prepared to get involved in moral polemics in a characteristic 'counter-punching' sort of way. If someone offers to defend private property on the sort of moral grounds that we have been considering, then Marx (as much as Proudhon) is ready to expose the contradictions and inconsistencies in that defense. That, I think, is the context of the challenge we are considering. (I should add that, on Marx's view of ideology, it is to be expected that the historically transient and contradictory character of a form of society like capitalism should be reflected in similar inconsistencies in the super structural ideas involved in its defense.)
According to Locke, not only is government action constrained by special rights of private property, but those rights are themselves constrained by a deeper and, in the last resort, more powerful general right which each man has to the material necessities for his survival. This forms the basis of what one might refer to as entitlements of charity in Locke's system. Because it constrains the rights which constrain the activities of governments, it could be argued that its effect is to extend the realm of legitimate state action and to provide a justifying ground for redistributive activism in the economic sphere. Occasionally, Locke tries to argue that, given the circumstances of human life, this general right to subsistence actually generates the moral basis of particular private property rights.
Following Marx, of the sale and purchase of labor power and therefore as if labor, in this sense, could be owned. But this sense of owning one's labor is not much use to Locke, because it cannot be transferred to objects to create an entitlement. Someone may take an object I have labored on, but still leave me with my capacity to labor. Clearly, labor (meaning…[continue]
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