Access the full text.
Sign up today, get DeepDyve free for 14 days.
Perhaps the strongest attempts to derive support for basic income policy from John Locke's political philosophy hinge on Locke's view that the world and its resources were originally owned in common by all persons. This world ownership, many have supposed, gives all persons a natural right to equal shares of resources and thus a right to an equal basic income under conditions (like our own) in which nearly all resources have been appropriated. This reasoning betrays a misunderstanding of Locke's conception of original world ownership and, once this understanding is corrected, it becomes clear that there is no natural right to equal shares of resources, although there is a natural right to sufficient shares. Consequently, although governments must guarantee sufficiency for their citizens, there is no Lockean reason why this guarantee must take the form of a basic income or a scheme of equal and unconditional payments. Keywords distributive justice, full self-ownership, libertarian socialism, libertarianism, political freedom, basic income, universal welfare, welfare policy, welfare reform, welfare state For helpful comments, I am grateful to Daniel Moseley, the participants in the February 2011 Basic Income Guarantee Conference in New York, and two anonymous referees. I would also like to thank the members of the Cottage Group for a great deal of lively and productive discussion about Locke and distributive justice. DOI: 10.1515/1932-0183.1217 Copyright ©2012 De Gruyter. All rights reserved. 1. Introduction In Daniel Moseley's (2011) contribution to this journal debate issue, he suggests that libertarian thinking about property rights has deep roots in John Locke's natural rights framework, which therefore provides a good standpoint from which to consider whether libertarians ought to endorse a basic income. I couldn't agree more. However, I disagree with Moseley: I don't think Locke's framework provides strong support for a right to basic income. Working within the left-libertarian tradition of Henry George (1997) and Hillel Steiner (1994), Moseley argues that, according to Locke, the world and its resources are owned by all people in common even before anyone begins to labor on resources, and that this world ownership gives individuals both a right to appropriate an equal share of resources and a duty to compensate others when they take more than their share. It is this duty to compensate that is supposed to generate a right to a basic income. I argue that although Locke (1967) does hold that the world's resources are naturally common to all persons prior to appropriation, this original community does not provide the grounds for a right to equal shares of resources. Rather, according to Locke's view, resources are originally common to all in the sense that everyone has an equal right to exercise exclusive control over resources in the course of using them in ways that fall within the boundaries of the basic moral requirements that Locke calls the "Fundamental Law." According to this reading of Locke, neither the original community of resources nor the right to appropriate resources establishes a right to equal shares of resources, although Locke's commitments do generate a right to sufficient shares of resources. And since basic income schemes are distinguished (at least in part) from other approaches to welfare provision by their guarantee of equal payments to all qualified recipients, Locke's account of property rights does not provide any grounds for a right to basic income in particular. Rather, basic income is just one of many ways in which governments might successfully guarantee the sufficiency for each citizen that Locke's picture requires. Note that my argument here is not meant to prove that any variety of libertarianism's lending support to basic income is impossible. As Moseley (2011) and Peter Vallentyne (2011) both make clear, the range of libertarian thought is wide, and reliance on Locke is not uniform throughout it. However, Lockean reasoning about property has long played a substantial role in the libertarian tradition, so a blow to the Lockean case for basic income will have serious (though not conclusive) implications for libertarian support for this kind of policy. For the purposes of this essay, "basic income" refers to any policy that entitles all adult citizens (or all nonincarcerated adult citizens) within some jurisdiction to an equal payment (either periodic or lump sum) or tax credit regardless of their ability or willingness to work. There is no need to discuss the many interesting and important distinctions between the forms of basic income here, as I argue that the Lockean structure of property rights gives no direct support to any form of basic income. 2. Locke and the Original Community of Resources Locke states early in his discussion of property that "God, who hath given the World to Men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience" (Locke, 1967, Second Treatise [ST, hereafter], §26, p. 304).1 This immediately raises a problem: if the whole world is jointly owned by all persons, how can anyone justly remove a resource from the commons (and so exclude others from it) in order to use it for one's own advantage or convenience? The answer hinges, Locke says, on self-ownership: "Though the Earth, and all inferior creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This nobody has any right to but himself" (Locke, 1967, ST, §27, p. 305). Locke seems to suggest that because we hold exclusive ownership rights over ourselves, we own our labor. And when we mix our labor with resources, we come to have exclusive ownership rights over the resources that contain our labor. As many have pointed out, though, it is not entirely clear how selfownership can bear this important theoretical weight. After all, even if I own my labor, why should mixing it with other things create property in those things? Why doesn't mixing my labor with resources amount to simply giving my labor away? Hillel Steiner helpfully puts the point this way: "Any claim, to the effect that its being infused with my labour makes this land mine, can be met with the counter-claim that, in so infusing the land, I was relinquishing my title to the labour" (Steiner, 1994, p. 235). One strategy for dealing with this problem, which Moseley endorses, is to argue that based on world ownership each person has some title to the resources that that individual takes out of the common, even before the resources are removed (Moseley, 2011, pp. 67). According to this view, each person enters the world with a prelabor entitlement to an equal share of the world's resources. Following A. John Simmons, I call this the Divisible Positive Community reading of Locke's claim that all resources were originally held by all in common Editor's Note: This title includes the books called First Treatise and Second Treatise. The in-text citations for this journal article give the First Treatise as "FT" and the Second Treatise as "ST." (Simmons, 1992, pp. 238). According to the Divisible Positive Community reading, laboring on resources is a means of marking off the portion of resources that one means to claim as one's share. If we assume the Divisible Positive Community reading is correct, then, it is clear why labor on resources establishes a property right to them. Labor is simply a means of taking the resources share to which the laborer already holds a right. Furthermore, since everyone holds a title to an equal share of the world's resources, appropriators owe compensation to those whose equal shares they thus impinge on. Following Steiner, Moseley argues that this debt of compensation for restricted access to resources serves as a foundation for a basic income policy under conditions (like our own) of near-total appropriation. Everyone is due an equal share, and a scheme of equal payments funded by taxes (of some kind) on appropriated resources is the best way, perhaps, to guarantee an equal share for everyone (Moseley, 2011, pp. 78; Steiner, 1994, pp. 271272). Thus, according to the reading of Locke under consideration, the original community of resources serves as a plausible Lockean foundation for a right to basic income. 3. Problems Facing the Divisible Positive Community Reading The Divisible Positive Community reading faces a number of difficulties. I point out these problems before suggesting that an alternative understanding of Locke's picture of the original community of resources, the Inclusive Positive Community reading, both avoids these problems and has a number of virtues that the Divisible Positive Community reading lacks. Unlike the Divisible Positive Community reading, however, the Inclusive Positive Community reading does not provide grounds for a right to a basic income. Perhaps the most serious problem with the Divisible Positive Community reading is that it is not well suited to accommodate the theoretical roles played by two of the most central features of Locke's account of natural property acquisition, namely the property one holds through one's own labor and the value that labor adds to resources. Let's start with labor ownership. If I am entitled to an equal share of the earth's resources simply in virtue of my equal stake in a scheme of collective ownership in accordance with the Divisible Positive Community reading, I am entitled to my equal share whether I labor on resources or not. An equal share is, after all, my birthright as a member of the human race. As noted above, if I labor on some particular resources that no one else is currently using, this might serve to mark them as the ones I mean to claim as all or part of my share. But it would nonetheless seem that the question of whether I am entitled to the resources I thus mark is settled, quite apart from whether I own the labor I mix with them. After all, I have a right to my share, and so long as my labor serves the purpose of making it clear which bundle of resources I am claiming as my share, it is neither here nor there whether I hold a natural property in my labor. But Locke goes to great lengths to make it clear that persons' natural property in their own labor is of central importance to the creation of private property rights in external things. According to Locke, the sort of activity that counts as property-creating labor adds value to resources. He writes: "Nor is it so strange...that the Property of labour should be able to over-ballance the Community of Land. For `tis Labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing" (Locke, 1967, ST, §40, p. 314. He clearly and quite plausibly does not count simple acts of flag planting or fence building as property-producing labor. Rather, the kind of labor that Locke thinks creates private property adds value to the resources involved; indeed, Locke writes at length about how private property is very much in everyone's interests for precisely this reason (Locke, 1967, ST, §4044, pp. 314317). However, if labor merely serves to demarcate the boundaries of particular persons' equal shares, there does not seem to be any good reason why this should be so. It's not clear why simply setting off an unused plot of land or heap of resources with tape or fencing would not do just as well as tilling, cultivating, cooking, etc. In addition to difficulties with accommodating the role of labor and its unique value-adding power in Locke's theory, the Divisible Positive Community reading faces an obstacle in Locke's "enough and as good" proviso on just property acquisition (Locke, 1967, ST, §27, p. 305306). This condition states that appropriation of resources fails to yield property rights if the appropriator neglects to leave a sufficiently sizable and equally valuable portion of the same 2 resource for other people to take as their own. If the Divisible Positive Community reading is right, this proviso does not make sense, as it seems to require laborers to leave an equally large share for others. However, the proviso manifestly does not require this. Furthermore, with a reading of the proviso in terms of equality ruled out, the Divisible Positive Community reading leaves us no resources for determining what "enough and as good" might amount to. Thus, the Divisible Positive Community reading faces some important problems. If another reading avoids these, we have reason to prefer it. The The other proviso, which prohibits waste, raises unique difficulties for any interpretation. See Locke's (1967, ST, §31, p. 308) discussion of this proviso. literature offers many readings of Locke's understanding of original community. In addition to "Inclusive Positive Community," which I discuss below and ultimately endorse, two other understandings of Locke's original community feature in the work of recent commentators. Simmons calls these "Joint Positive Community" and "Negative Community" (Simmons, 1992, p. 238). According to Joint Positive Community, all persons own the world's resources similarly to the way a group of persons might hold, under Anglo-American law, concurrent estate in a property. An upshot of this picture of original community is that consent (of some kind) from everyone is required in order for distributions of resources to be legitimate. Judith Thomson (1976) endorses such a reading of Locke, and Grotius (2005 ) argued for it independently, roughly two generations before Locke. According to Negative Community, there is no real original community of resources at all, but rather merely a negative liberty to create private property by means of labor. This has been the prevailing reading in recent Locke scholarship, and its supporters include Eric Mack (2009) and Patrick Kelly (1988), among others. I cannot discuss Joint Positive Community or Negative Community at length here. I reject them for the following reasons. Joint Positive Community fails to do justice to Locke's deliberate move away from the (then dominant) Grotian paradigm. Unlike Grotius, Locke emphasizes that others' consent is not required in order for private property acquisition to be legitimate (Locke, 1967, ST, §25, p. 304). While Joint Positive Community errs in placing Locke's position too close to his immediate predecessors, Negative Community overreaches by saddling him with a striking departure from the long natural-law tradition that understands private property as deriving from an original community of rights to resources. Locke is no less clear about his intention to maintain the traditional picture of humankind as being the collective recipient of an original grant of resources than he is about his intention to reject Grotius's consent requirement (Locke, 1967, ST, §2526, p. 303305). 4. A Different Lockean Approach In this section, I argue for the Inclusive Positive Community reading of Locke's claim that all resources are originally held in common by all persons, and I set out the implications for private property rights that follow from it. I first show how this picture follows from the central problem that drives Locke's project. I then show how this reading proves a better fit for the provisos. In the final section, I apply Section 4's results to the question of basic income. According to Locke's property acquisition model, as I understand it, the right to appropriate resources and the limits of this right derive from two core elements of the Lockean system: the "Fundamental Law" and the natural equality of all 3 persons. The Fundamental Law is simply a bedrock moral requirement that all persons must 1. support themselves and their dependents as best they can; 2. do nothing to prevent others from supporting themselves and their dependents as best they can; and 3. help others support themselves when possible (Locke, 1967, ST, §6, pp. 288289). The sort of equality Locke has in mind is not equality of property, status, or even opportunity, but rather equality with respect to domination; apart from the rights of parents over their minor children, no one has any natural rights of coercion over anyone else (Locke, 1967, ST, §5455, p. 322). With the Fundamental Law and the equality premise both in place, the central problem of private property acquisition comes into view (Locke, 1967, ST, §2527, p. 303306). All persons have not only a right but a duty to maintain themselves, and this involves using resources. But often, one person's use of a resource (e.g., planting land, eating fruit) is incompatible with anyone else's using that resource at the same time or, in many cases, ever using it. This creates a problem because, while the Fundamental Law enjoins self-preservation, it also commands us not to "impair...what tends to the preservation...of another" (Locke, 1967, ST, §6, p. 289). So although all persons have a right and a duty to use the earth's resources, in order to do so they must take resources out of the commons, and so restrict others' use of resources. But since everyone is equal under the Fundamental Law, how can anyone have the right to restrict another's access in this way? Locke's solution to this difficulty hinges on the proposition that every agent holds exclusive rights over that agent's own person, or has "a property" in it (Locke, 1967, ST, §27, pp. 305306). That is, everyone has an exclusive right to control one's own body and ideas as long as one does not violate the Fundamental Law by failing to support oneself or one's dependents or by preventing others from doing the same. Consequently, it is not legitimate to interfere with another agent's person or action who isn't violating rights protected under the Fundamental Law (or a moral principle that follows from it). And since everyone has a right and a duty to use resources to fulfill the Fundamental Law, it is never legitimate for anyone to prevent another person 3 I have benefited greatly from John Rawls's (2007) treatment of these points. Furthermore, my understanding of the structure of Locke's view has features in common with Jeremy Waldron's (2002), A. John Simmons's (1993) and James Tully's (1980) framings of Locke's take on property rights, although I diverge from each of these authors in some respects. from carrying out courses of action (including long-term courses of action such as cultivating, building, etc.) that are aimed at and reasonably suited for deriving support from resources to which no one else already holds an exclusive right. Locke does recognize, then, that there must be some kind of prelabor title to natural resources if labor on them is to result in property rights to them. In particular, he holds that all persons hold an equal right to use the earth's resources to whatever extent is necessary in order for them and their dependents to live well. Locke subscribes to the Inclusive Positive Community understanding of the original common right over resources. Indeed, he comes close to stating this explicitly in the First Treatise: "An equal right to the use of the inferior creatures for the comfortable preservation of their beings...is all the property man hath in them" (Locke, 1967, First Treatise [FT, hereafter], §87, p. 4 224). The natural right to create private property in this way out of resources originally common is just the right to exercise exclusive control to resources in the course of using them in fulfillment of the Fundamental Law. The Lockean structure I just set out has the important virtue of making good sense of the enough and as good proviso. While the Positive Divisible Community reading left this proviso something of a mystery, it is now clear both what the proviso requires and how it is motivated. "Enough" should be understood as enough for all persons to be able to extract sufficient value from resources through labor to see to their needs and those of their dependents. If persons do not leave enough (so understood) for others, they violate the Fundamental Law by impinging on others' ability to derive sufficient support from the earth's resources. By the same token, Locke's strategy suggests that we may cash out as good along the lines of as good for providing for people's needs. Since persons' abilities, needs, and circumstances vary significantly and influence what it takes for them to derive sufficient support from resources, there is no natural right to an equal share of resources. Rather, there is a natural right to a sufficient share, and this right holds even in political society, because natural rights do not lose their force in civil society (unless they are replaced by civil arrangements that better protect more basic natural rights, as in the case of the natural right of all to punish rights violators). And governments may not countenance states of affairs in which the actions of some (including actions of 4 What exactly counts as comfortable preservation is, of course, a central problem of moral and political theory, and Locke's own views on the matter are less than perspicuous. What few comments Locke does make on this point suggest that he sets the standard of sufficiency considerably lower than most of us are likely to be willing to accept. See, for example, the suggestions for improvements to the Elizabethan poor laws that he offers in the late policy paper (which Locke wrote as a member of the Board of Trade in 1697) "The Unemployment of the Poor" (Locke, 1993). I discuss this issue in Section 5. appropriation and control) violate the natural rights of others (Locke, 1967, ST, §135, pp. 375376). Governments may establish and maintain property structures that allow for much larger accumulations of property so long as these arrangements leave enough for everyone, thereby respecting the Fundamental Law (Locke, 1967, ST, §45, p. 317). However, there is no Lockean natural right to more or less than a sufficient share, and thus no Lockean natural right to an 5 equal share, because the normative structure that generates natural property rights in the first place also limits these rights at the point of sufficiency. 5. Basic Income: Some Conclusions If the Lockean scheme of property rights I have just set out is correct, there is no Lockean right to a basic income. While agents enjoy a right to control a certain amount and quality of resources, the amount and quality to which each person has a right is not an equal amount. Rather, each person has a right to resources that are good and plentiful enough to allow for work capable of providing the sort of material support protected by the Fundamental Law. Because persons (and, so, citizens of states) have no right to equal shares of resources, governments have no natural, direct duty to make equal, unconditional payments or credits to citizens. The following clarifies what sort of support different households do and do not have a right to expect from their governments under the Lockean scheme I 6 have set out. Every household has a right to whatever support is necessary in order to reach a point at which its adult members are in a position to support themselves and their dependents at whatever level is necessary for human lives to go reasonably well. If all or some of the adults in a household are able to work, then that household is entitled to whatever degree of state support will, in conjunction with full-time work, raise it to the sufficiency level. If, for whatever reason (including a sluggish labor market, recognized educational commitments, maternity or paternity, etc.), no one in a household is in a position to work, that household is entitled to the full amount necessary to bring it to the sufficiency level. Suppose that it takes $40,000 per year for a family of four (without health problems or other complicating factors) to live at the sufficiency level. If such a family is only able to earn $20,000 without help, the state has an obligation to provide assistance that will bring that family's income to $40,000. This support This is true unless, by an odd coincidence, the shares sufficient for each household should all turn out to be the same. For my purposes here, households may consist either of a group of persons (with or without dependents) or of a single person. might have to take the form of a straightforward payment, but when possible, it ought to be some kind of employment assistance or training combined with payments until such time as the assistance or training pays off. This accords with Locke's insistence that it is our common right and duty to support ourselves by laboring on resources whenever we can and not simply to receive support from them. If the adults in such a family are neither in a position to work nor to become able to work, then the family is entitled to the full $40,000. Note that this does not mean that all citizens are entitled to some minimum amount of state support. Many (and perhaps even most) households are in a position to support themselves at or above the sufficiency level without any such help. The Lockean entitlement of such households is zero. Thus, our Lockean welfare entitlements are neither equal nor unconditional. It may be objected that this Lockean approach to welfare policy is unusable because it relies on an unspecified standard of sufficiency or, in Locke's own words, "comfortable preservation" (Locke, 1967, FT, §87, p. 224). But surely this is wrong. For although fixing this standard is a taxing and complicated public task, nearly all welfare programming, including our current attempts in this arena, requires citizens or at least law makers to decide upon and to continually refine this standard. This is true even of most equal payment schemes, for it is natural to suppose that such programs should be counted unsuccessful if they failed to guarantee a sufficient standard of living for recipients. Thus, although the work of fixing a sufficiency standard is vexing, it is neither intractable nor unique to the Lockean picture I endorse. Finally, nothing I have said should be taken as indicating that a basic income policy is incompatible with the best Lockean understanding of property rights or that governments can never come to have a duty to make equal and unconditional payments or credits to citizens. For, it is entirely possible that for pragmatic reasons or for moral reasons relating to other rights, a basic income might turn out to be the best way to secure sufficient resources for all. For instance, faced with the obligation to ensure that everyone has sufficient resources to achieve the ends established by the Fundamental Law, governments might decide that the way to fulfill this obligation with the least possible bureaucratic involvement or least waste (these two aspects might well coincide) 7 is to provide a basic income. Of course, this would entail providing some citizens with more than they are entitled to. After all, as I argue above, many citizens are entitled to no welfare support whatsoever from the state. Nevertheless, there are no Lockean reasons why this would not be a legitimate Michael Munger (2011) makes a point along these lines. See also Milton Friedman (2002, pp. 190195). way for governments to discharge the obligation to guarantee sufficiency for all. But where governments decide to eschew a policy of equal and unconditional basic income, it is not clear that the Lockean theory of property rights yields any grounds for complaint.
Basic Income Studies – de Gruyter
Published: Jan 19, 2012
Access the full text.
Sign up today, get DeepDyve free for 14 days.