John Locke and America’s Cult of Private Property

John Locke and America’s Cult of Private Property

John Locke and America’s Cult of Private Property

Californians both voted to protect their private property rights and for Biden by a nearly two-to-one margin. How do those two things square?


Donald Trump spent the final months of the 2020 presidential campaign trying to convince voters that Joe Biden—under the influence of his “communist” running mate Kamala Harris—was not the moderate he ran as but a crypto-socialist. “Socialism is the mainstream of the Biden campaign,” Trump asserted at a rally in August.

Voters were already skeptical of claims that the centrist Biden would turn the country toward socialism. But clearer evidence of the elusive nature of socialists’ hold on the Democratic Party emerged in a series of ballot measures in Harris’s home state of California, where, on Election Day, voters upheld privileges of home-ownership and rejected protections for workers.

Taken together, four major ballot propositions reaffirmed the primacy of private property in one of the bluest of blue states, where Biden defeated Trump by a nearly two-to-one margin. Liberal voters often accuse those in poor, rural states of “voting against their interests”—supporting Republicans who want to gut the social safety net despite the fact that these states receive a greater share of federal support. But this year, we could accuse Californians of voting against their values—claiming to support the policies of Bernie Sanders, who won the state’s Democratic primary, while voting to protect their own private property rights.

The 2020 California ballot proposition that has received the most attention is Prop 22, which strips protections from app-based drivers and classifies them as contractors rather than employees. Companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash spent $200 million on the “Yes on 22” campaign, more than 10 times as much as their opponents, with a deceptive campaign that implied drivers were pushing for the change. The proposition includes an outrageous clause that it can only be overturned by a seven-eighths vote in the California House and Senate. Prop 22 passed by a 59-41 margin.

But Prop 22 was not the only ballot initiative that shored up property owners’ benefits. Proposition 19, which narrowly passed, will expand the ability of homeowners over the age of 55 to transfer their current tax assessment to new homes of higher value, thus allowing them to move without their taxes going up. While the proposition also includes some benefits for the disabled and victims of natural disasters—and limits tax breaks on inherited property—this is an enormous benefit for what is already a financially advantaged group. Proposition 21, which would have allowed cities to set their own rent control policies, failed by a nearly 60-40 margin in a win for landlords.

Perhaps most significantly, Proposition 15, which would have reversed portions of Prop 13—the “third rail of California politics”—narrowly failed by 52 to 48 percent. Prop 13, which passed in 1978, keeps property taxes tied to a home or business’s last sales price, meaning that even as the cost of housing has skyrocketed across the state, tax revenues have been kept artificially low, with devastating consequences for school systems. Proposition 15 would have rolled back these tax breaks for commercial and industrial properties, taxing them at their current market value and bringing in an estimated $8 billion to $12.5 billion a year in revenues, 40 percent of which would have gone to public schools and community colleges.

Why are Americans, even the most supposedly progressive, so wedded to the ideology of private property? Why do we instinctively believe that, as Mitt Romney said during his 2012 presidential run, “corporations are people too”? And that, conversely, the people who work for those corporations are mere cogs in machines? One answer lies in the early theorizations of property that provided the intellectual basis for the colonization of America and the American Revolution. The protection of private property was central to our government’s founding and continues to shape our understanding of the basic purpose of civil society.

John Locke provided the point of origin for this viewpoint in his 1689 Second Treatise of Government. Locke contended that people form compacts creating civil governments to protect themselves from the State of Nature, which could easily become a State of War. Individuals agreed to “take sanctuary under the established laws of government, and therein seek the preservation of their property.” He continued: “Government has no other end but the preservation of property.”

Locke’s theory was an original one, offering a justification for the existence of private property despite the theological perspective that, as he wrote, “God…gave the world in common to all mankind.” He also defined property in a novel and influential way. An individual possessed “a property in his own person,” which comprised “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands.” By cultivating nature, a person “hath mixed his labour with [it], and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

In particular, Locke explained how the individual could turn formerly common land into property: “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.” Locke explains land ownership by tying it to individual effort.

It is easy to see how Locke’s theory of property could be used to justify the colonization of foreign lands, and, in fact, Locke was explicit that the “wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature,” did not constitute property. “In the beginning,” he wrote, “all the world was America”—that is, land available to be converted into private property.

Likewise, Locke used the example of enclosure—the legal process in Britain of “enclosing” common lands with fences or hedges and converting them into private property—to explain his theory. A person who improves land through labor “does, as it were, inclose it from the common.” Over the course of the 18th century, almost all of the agricultural land in England was enclosed, forcing now-landless commoners into wage labor positions on farms or in new industrial factories. Landlords claimed that common land had to be enclosed in order to be “improved” with the new farming methods of the Agricultural Revolution, a process that allowed them to raise rents on their tenant farmers.

Locke’s Second Treatise was a key text for American revolutionaries, especially for its assertion that civil society requires the consent of the governed and its opposition to absolute monarchy. The colonists’ focus on what they saw as unjust taxation also drew from Locke’s emphasis on property. Locke represented civil rights as a kind of property, and property as the foundation of civil society. In either case, property was at the center of social relations.

However, Locke’s theory of property is not straightforward; scholars differ on whether he is discussing capitalist private property or merely individual property. But the long-standing influence of his emphasis on property is perhaps more significant than the details of his definition. Karl Marx, for example, wrote that Locke’s “philosophy served as the basis for all the ideas of the whole of subsequent English political economy.”

In the contradictions of voters who say they believe the current system of wealth distribution is unfair but who consistently vote against tax increases or worker protections, we can see the long shadow of Locke’s theory. Although Locke would not have agreed, his argument could be taken to imply that people have earned their property through hard work. Despite rising anti-billionaire sentiment, Americans tend to believe this is true. Our cult of private property explains how being a “successful businessperson”—whether Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, or Tom Steyer—can be seen as a qualification to run for political office.

Even the ballot proposition system itself, allowing voters a direct say on how to assess and distribute taxes, can be seen to have its roots in Locke’s classically liberal argument that people must actively consent to restrictions on the use of their property. Prop 22, for example, overturned a 2019 California law that classified gig workers as employees rather than contractors.

Importantly, in the Second Treatise Locke argued that people did not have a right to more property than they could use for themselves and their families: “Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” He was opposed to hoarding and miserliness, and his writing could be interpreted to say that the rich have a duty to benefit society with their wealth. If progressives hope to implement left-leaning social policies in blue states—the backers of Proposition 15, for example, have already vowed to reintroduce it two years from now—they must convince voters such as those in California that this aspect of Locke’s legacy is more important than protecting private property.

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