By Karl Williams
“Whenever, in any country, the proprietor ceases to be the improver, political economy has nothing to say in defence of landed property. When the “sacredness” of property is talked of, it should be remembered that any such sacredness does not belong in the same degree to landed property.”
John Locke was an Oxford scholar, medical researcher and physician, political operative, economist and ideologue for a revolutionary movement, as well as being one of the great philosophers of the late 17th and early 18th century. But how much of a proto-geoist was he? Despite his impressively-geoist quotes below, the answer is not so clear cut.
Locke was born in Bristol, England, to a Puritan family headed by a father who was a lawyer and minor landowner as well as a participant in the English Civil War on the side of the Parliament. In 1652 he entered the college of Christ Church at Oxford University, under the direction of the highly respected Puritan leader, John Owen.
After college, Locke continued to study and read with passion. He boldly expressed his views about freedom of religion and the rights of citizens so it should come as no surprise that, in 1682, his ideas were seen by the English government as a challenge to the King’s authority. He fled to Holland, only returning to England in 1689 after the Civil War.
Shortly thereafter Locke began publishing his writings, many of which focused on government. Throughout his writings, Locke argued that people had the gift of reason, giving them the natural ability to govern themselves and to look after the wellbeing of society. Locke spoke out against the control of any man against his will, and such control was acceptable neither in the form of an unfair government nor in slavery.
Locke’s two main works, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government were written more or less concurrently at the end of the 17th century, with the latter treatises being highly subversive texts at the time, so Locke was for a long time reluctant to admit authorship of them. They have now become cornerstones to political liberalism.
It’s fair to say that Locke did not have a full grasp of the concept of economic rent, which partly explains how, in the chapter on property in the Locke’s Second Treatise, it begins with the observation that God has given the earth to ‘mankind in common’ and ends by rationalising the unlimited accumulation of wealth. It would appear that he did not understand how the margin is created by location more than by soil quality.
How did Locke get around the notion that the private ownership of land itself cannot be justified, since no human being produced it? Locke invokes a condition “there be enough, and as good, left in common for others”. But, contrary to his assumptions, such conditions did not exist even at the time he wrote, in view of the cost and burden of emigrating to regions where habitable land could be had without payment. Of course, fully-fledged geoists cut through the problem of the unequal value of land by requiring that the annual rental value of land be collected for public purposes.
It seems that for Locke the state of nature has two stages: the first, a stage prior to the introduction of money in which there is land “enough and as good” for everyone, and a second stage in which money has *rightfully* allowed some to own more land than others. Unequal ownership of land is natural and moral, according to Locke, since it does not deprive people of their natural right to property because each person owns himself or herself and can earn subsistence by selling his or her labor. Self-ownership, not the right to “enough and as good” land as others, is thus the basis of the rest of his political argument.
If Locke had argued otherwise, he would not only have been a political radical (which he was, by authorizing rebellion against unlawful government), he would also have been an economic radical in the geoist sense (which he was not). He was a radical and a geoist in his repudiation of the traditional, feudal conception of property rights being derived from royal authority, but he did not propose that every person had an equal right to land.
“The earth belongs in usufruct to the living and is given as a common stock for men to live and labor on.”
“It is in vain in a country whose great fund is land to hope to lay the public charge on anything else; there at last it will terminate. The merchant (do what you can) will not bear it, the labourer cannot, and therefore the landholder must: and whether he were best to do it by laying it directly where it will at last settle, or by letting it come to him by the sinking of his rents, which when they are fallen, everyone knows they are not easily raised again, let him consider.”
Image courtesy of the IEP