The original draft of the Declaration of Independence outlined the “inalienable rights” of all men as including “life, liberty, and property.” Benjamin Franklin convinced Thomas Jefferson to change the wording to “and the pursuit of happiness,” simply because it sounded better, but the Lockesian philosophy Jefferson alluded to has remained the cornerstone of American thought. John Locke was one of the great Enlightenment philosophers, one of the first to espouse the idea of “natural rights.” He was, for his time, incredibly radical in that he was among the first to assert that individuals have rights that derive from something more fundamental than the whim or a monarch ruling by divine right. Locke narrowed down these rights to three basics: life, liberty, and property. During the French revolution, one philosopher defined the differences between liberals and conservatives as one of priority: to conversatives, property rights are more important; to liberals, life and liberty. While few would argue Locke’s point on the first two, the right to property remains problematic, at best.
The radical Left of American political philosophy is deeply influenced by Marx, who rejected the notion of personal property as inherently exploitative. This has led to significant questioning of property rights among the Left, but mainstream liberalism still supports the concept of ownership, as Locke described. Yet, Locke’s argument is rife with unexamined implications that we need to examine more closely.
For Locke, the right to property comes from the application of one’s time, talents and labor to an object; it is that part of nature which an individual transforms into something useful and valuable. Thus, to rob a person of his property is to rob her of the products of her past–just as murder robs her of her future life, and slavery of her present liberty. All well and good, if one accepts a pivotal, unspoken assumption that nature has no value of its own and is free for our taking.
This certainly was Locke’s assumption, and the assumption of all his readers. In their understanding, G-d had bequeathed nature to mankind’s use. Humanity was destined to rule as the earth’s masters, and nature existed only to serve mankind. In this context, Locke’s philosophy makes perfect sense. To date, however, no philosopher has ever successfully divorced Lockesian property rights from monotheism.
Obviously, nature cannot offer consent to being plundered, as there is no “nature” to request it from–nature is, at best, a shorthand for referring to all the complex, interrelated cycles of life going on throughout the universe. First, we must assume that nature has no value in itself, that it is, in a sense, itself “property” to some form of deity. In a sense, then, Locke’s property rights are already relying on circular logic: human property rights are dependent on divine property rights, so that we have a right to property because there is a right to property.
Nor can Locke’s argument even stand in all theistic formulations. Does Thor really have the right to give us free access to nature? What would Odin think of that? If there are many gods, which ones “own” nature, and which ones do not? For Locke’s argument to hold in a polytheistic world, the gods must all grant us free access to that part of nature they “own.” In short, the gods must act as one–essentially mimicking the behavior of one, monotheistic god.
Once we have either a monotheistic deity, as Locke presumed, or at least a pantheon acting as one, then Locke’s argument is at least tenable, if circular. Let us, for a moment, consider the theological implications of this monotheistic god that Locke supposes.
Such a god creates nature, thus making nature his “property” to do with as he pleases–including allow humans free access to it, if he so desires. Does this god know the ultimate outcome of such an arrangement, and of all the suffering and death that will be unleashed on the various plants and animals he has made, essentially selling them into slavery to another of his creations? If he cannot foresee this, he is not only not omniscient, but in fact incredibly short-sighted and rather dim, frankly. If he can foresee this, then his grant of such access means that he approves of such an arrangement–making him an evil tyrant. The implication of Locke’s argument is either that G-d is stupid, or G-d is evil.
I believe neither; instead, I reject Locke’s argument. His justification for the “right to property” is far too problematic. But we cannot simply stop here. We have dismantled the concept of “ownership,” but humans, like any other animal, have practical needs that must be met. At a minimum, we require clean air and water, food, and in some climates, shelter and clothing. Jeff Vail echoes my own thoughts on this matter in A Theory of Power:
When one steps back and examines the notion of â€śowningâ€? something, the abstraction becomes readily apparent. Ownership represents nothing more than a power-relationshipâ€”the ability to control. The tribal institution of â€śOwnership by useâ€? on the other hand, suggests simply that one can only â€śownâ€? those things that they put to immediate, direct and personal use to meet basic needsâ€”and not more. A society crosses the memetic Rubicon when it accepts the abstraction that ownership can extend beyond the exclusive needs of one individual for survival. Abstract ownership begins when society accepts a claim of symbolic control of something without the requirement of immediate, direct and personal use. Hierarchy, at any level, requires this excess, abstract ownershipâ€”it represents the symbolic capital that forms the foundation of all stratification.
Most of us feel wronged when something is stolen from us, but why? Much of it is acculturation, but what bothers is most is the denial of our own use. As I write this on my laptop, Giuli is using my desktop. This does not bother me in the least, though by Lockesian logic it should. After all, is she not violating my sacred rights as “owner”? I do not mind, because it does not impinge on my own use. If I wanted to use it right now, the situation would change, but so long as another’s actions do not change my ability to use those resources, it doesn’t bother me.
The theft of material goods leaves us feeling wronged because it robs us of our ability to use a given resource. If someone broke in and took my computer, I would feel wronged, because I could no longer use my computer. It is not that my “right to ownership” has been violated that bothers me; it is the violation of my “right to use.”
Such a distinction may seem like splitting hairs at first, but there are important–if subtle–implications. One is that the “right to property” is devalued from the realm of sacred rights, to mere practicality. Robbing someone of their use of some object is no longer “wrong,” but simply “mean.” Enforcement of laws against theft is no longer upholding some moral order; it is merely oiling the gears of a smooth society.
The implications are profound for intellectual property. The RIAA and MPAA have recently recruited the U.S. courts in a campaign against sharing over the internet. They call such sharing “theft,” based on the speculation that every download is a lost sale. This, despite the empirical evidence that file sharing has no effect on sales, to say nothing of common sense, forms the entire basis for their claim, ignoring the very real difference between potential and actual loss. Yet they have managed to prevail, and their unfounded presumptions are now accepted as fact, with an increasing and dismal precedent forming the law on this issue.
Thus, sharing is illegal. But it is by no means immoral. The RIAA and MPAA argue that it is, sometimes supporting such bogus evidence as summarized above, but ultimately relying on their sacred rights of “ownership.” If we accept, instead, a paradigm of “property by use,” this issue is transformed. If I have a song, and someone copies that song, then my ability to listen to that song again is in no way compromised. Neither the RIAA’s nor the MPAA’s members have lost any of the discs they have imprinted data on. No one has lost anything, but someone–the one with the copy–has gained something in that copy. If we believe in “property by ownership,” sharing is wrong, because one’s ownership has been violated. If we believe in “property by use,” though, sharing is good.
We are currently seeing the logic of ownership unravel as computers provide a purely abstract environment for these ideas to play out, forcing us to refine our thinking and be more precise with what, exactly, we believe. It gives the lie to “property by ownership” with increasingly draconian measures such as the DMCA, and forcing its proponents often to rely on completely fabricated evidence.
“Property by use,” on the other hand, was the pragmatic reigning paradigm of human society throughout our evolution, abandoned only recently with the rise of civilization and hierarchy. It is a practical arrangement that promotes the idea of sharing–something we instinctively see as “good,” because of its long history as a basic underpinning of our society and survival. “Property by ownership” ends up being an unfounded mythology that must be maintained in spite of all facts and logic; “property by use” ends up being a practical, reasonable understanding of property rights that fits nicely with our moral intuitions. “Property by ownership” is new, untested, and already falling apart at the seams; “property by use” has been proven by two million years of human evolution.
We own nothing; we have no “right to property,” and nature is not ours to take and do with as we please. We can use the things we need, just like any other animal, within the same bounds as any other animal. But to pretend we have some kind of divinely protected claim to anything is simply delusional.