Sunday, January 31, 2010

Owning Land

A follow-up to the land ownership thread on Keane's blog: Locke's commonsense account of what justifies title to land is, as our own perspective now allows us to perceive, rather specific to European culture, agriculture, and history. He extends his labor theory of property to land tenure, which relies for its persusasiveness on the way labor can multiply the productivity of land in agricultural contexts. Thus it seems obvious to Locke's contemporaries that the 'savages' in America are squandering natural resources by not building permanent settlements and farming more productively.

Ironically, the claim that one loses title to one's land by neglecting it, which ought to be a populist principle favoring land reform (landless poor willing to work could justly appropriate the land of absentee owners who did nothing with it) was actually used to disenfranchise indigenous people who had rather different patterns of life and ideas of ownership. This process was underway long before Locke. Here's John Winthrop, Jr. writing in 1629 (a text which Locke does not cite, but is obviously familiar to him):

"[the Indians in America] enclose noe Land, neither have any settled habitation, nor any tame Cattell to improve the Land by," so they were only entitled to their cornfields. Thus "the rest of the country lay open to any that could and would improve it. We may lawfully take the rest, there being more than enough for them and us."

So here the "enough and as good" clause and the labor theory of property applied to land function ethnocentrically as a justification for colonial appropriation.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Property as basis for Government in Locke

Ownership plays a central role in Locke's Second Treatise of Government because, Locke argues, it is a desideratum of any justifiable system of government that it respect people's property. This seems fair enough, though it places a heavy burden on what property is, where it comes from, and whether it can be justified. Thus we will read the entire Second Treatise (it is quite short), but our main focus will be on the even more compressed account he gives of the nature of property -- or rather on the several accounts that seem more or less loosely braided together in his treatment. One of our main tasks will be to attempt to tease apart these threads and understand them, both separately and together.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Preliminary Questions about Property

What are the features of a property-right? Many accounts include the right to possess (even in absentia), use, consume, transfer, profit from, and even waste one's property. Less prominent are discussions of the responsibilities that accompany ownership, including (on some accounts) to share it with the needy, preserve it on behalf of future owners, use it productively, and avoid acquiring more than you can make good use of.

What is the origin of property, and how (if at all) does this inform our normative understanding of contemporary arrangements?

Can a right of private property be justified at all? If so, how does such a justification work, and what are its limits?

Are there alternatives to private ownership on the one hand and government control on the other?

In what ways is ownership dependent on, or independent of, the social relationships and institutions that make its exercise possible?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Paeon to Unquantifiable Value

In this unusually engaging commencement speech, Margaret Edson speaks as a classroom teacher to what is of value but won't fit on a pie chart or a bottom line. Thanks to David Langston for calling it to my attention.