The Age of Enlightenment can be regarded as the epoch when people put reason above all and believed they could explain everything. Importantly, this was also the time when moral (Christian) values were seen as effective doctrines everybody followed without hesitation (Perez, 2012). John Locke is one of the most prominent thinkers of that period. He explained many things, and one of his important explanations was concerned with the nature of private property as well as the right of people to own land (or any other property including money). Many people have accepted his ideas as the universal truth, but the philosopher’s perspective is rather controversial. This paper unveils some of the most controversial points of Locke’s ideas concerning the property with some reference to the modernity.
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First, it is necessary to briefly summarize Locke’s ideas concerning individual property. The thinker claims that the land was given to the human by God, so people have the right to own land (Locke, 2016). Importantly, Locke states that since the land was given to all humans, it is communal. Nevertheless, it becomes an individual when a person applies some labor. Likewise, anything including products of human labor (and later money) can become an individual’s property if a person works to develop some product (food, clothes, and so on).
The most important premise for this right, as seen by Locke, is the perishability of the products produced or taken. If an individual takes too much land and cannot manage it effectively, or if a person takes too many apples they cannot eat, this person is deprived of the right to own the property mentioned.
However, people need more than one or even several products they can produce themselves. Therefore, barter appeared as a way to enjoy the fruit of their own labor. For instance, if a farmer growing crops, he could give some part of the harvest and could get clothes or tools in return. Clearly, this was quite an inconvenient method, so money was introduced. Locke claims that money is only a measure people agree to use, and labor is still the premise for the right to property.
At that, the thinker also claims that if a person managed to accumulate some amount of money, this means that this person was a successful laborer who has the right to own the property (including money and land). Importantly, Locke tries to address an important aspect concerning the right of force and claims that the “labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good, left in common for others” (Locke, 2016, p. 21).
This claim is one of the most controversial ideas due to several reasons. First and foremost, the philosopher adds that the right to have something is secured as long as there is enough of this kind of property for others. However, even people of the Age of Enlightenment already started experiencing issues associated with the scarcity of resources (Pike, 2014). In fact, this problem is as old as the hills since some resources may be abundant in some areas while limited in others (Epstein, 2013).
Inequality is impossible to prevent as some people may take better land and gain more while others may get an equal portion but gain significantly less as plants simply do not grow well there. In the contemporary world, this issue is quite burning as such basic and vital resources as water are becoming scarce. Hence, taking some part of the land or other resource or product often means that others will not have access to it.
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Furthermore, the practice of having unperishable items used to measure labor is not consistent with the idea concerning the background for the right to property (Machuga, 2015). It is often difficult to measure the value of labor, and there have been numerous examples when the price given to laborers was unjust. Owners of big corporations and industrial sites may pay unfair salaries, which will help them gain more resources (property, money) while depriving others of having enough resources to satisfy basic needs. In such regions as India or China, Africa, and some countries of Latin America, this practice is common, and its scale is rather alarming.
Finally, another important aspect to take into account is the use of force. As has been mentioned above, Christian values reigned during the Age of Enlightenment (at least, in the minds of philosophers). Locke repeatedly mentions that a person is likely to be satisfied with the amount of wealth they can actually benefit from (Locke, 2016). According to Locke, people strive for constant development, be it cultivating the land or constructing buildings for people (Johnson & Bagby, 2012).
Nevertheless, many people do not share such values and are ready to gain as much as they can gain. Interestingly, taking another person’s property is also a kind of labor that ensures the right to property (Locke, 2016). Therefore, the use of force is justified, but the major premise (concerning properties perishing) should be in place. Again, the use of money nulls the concept of perishability. This controversy is central as people often feel they have the right to take the property of others.
This practice is one of the factors contributing to inequality. It is possible to consider the wealth of billionaires who often use force (or used force at some point in their life) to take some property from others. At that, Locke’s philosophy as well as similar ideas make this practice common and secured by the government. The right of the strongest has become the primary law.
In conclusion, it is possible to note that Locke’s ideas concerning the property are valuable but rather controversial. They are still used in the contemporary world, but they are hardly applicable since they partially justify inequality. The use of money as the measure of labor has made it difficult to understand whether an individual has the right to own their property. The scarcity of resources and people’s vice also makes Locke’s ideas ineffective or even harmful to the modern world. Many people gained their wealth in an illegal or immoral way, but their right to property is still secured. Inequality is unlikely to disappear if people continue sharing Locke’s views.
The right to property should be questioned, and new paradigms have to be developed. People are unlikely to be happy with only a limited amount of resources (just enough to live) as people have different needs and desires. However, it is still possible to make the world a better place through the focus on the just measurement of labor. It is also vital to make all people understand that excessive wealth is absolutely unacceptable. Education can become the platform for achieving these goals.
Epstein, R. A. (2013). On the optimal mix of private and common property. In R. A. Epstein (Ed.), Private and common property: Liberty, property, and the law (pp. 357-383). New York, NY: Routledge.
Johnson, L. M., & Bagby, L. M. (2012). Locke and Rousseau: Two Enlightenment responses to honor. New York, NY: Lexington Books.
Locke, J. (2016). Second treatise of government. Los Angeles, CA: Enhanced Media Publishing.
Machuga, R. (2015). Three theological mistakes: How to correct Enlightenment assumptions about God, miracles, and free will. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Perez, N. (2012). Freedom from past injustices: A critical evaluation of claims for intergenerational reparations. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Pike, J. (2014). John Locke: The second treatise of government. In D. Matravers, J. Pike, & N. Warburton (Eds.), Private and common property: Liberty, property, and the law (pp. 135-185). New York, NY: Routledge.