Elizabeth Warren, Locke & Rousseau on Private Property

Elizabeth Warren made a bit of splash recently by identifying the role infrastructure paid for by all of us played in facilitating commerce. Her point, as related to the topic of this post, is that for you to be able to efficiently contribute your labor to your property, and thus enhance its value, you rely on the benefits received from being a part of society. Hence, it is right that the social contract should require you to fund similar benefits for the next generation. Pretty compelling in my book. I wonder if one can take it a step further and say that the very existence of private property is a convention that springs from the social contract.

John Locke says no. Locke’s essay Concerning Civil Government (“CCG”) largely concerns private property because Locke sees the preservation of private property as the primary function of government. See, e.g., CCG ¶ 88 (the power of the commonwealth to punish is “for the preservation of the property of all members of society”); ¶ 120 (assuming men “enter into society with others for the securing and regulating of property”); ¶ 138 (“the preservation of property being the end of government”); cf ¶ 123 (“all being kings . . . the enjoyment of the property he has in this [natural] state is very unsafe, very insecure”). By contrast, Jean Rousseau writes more generally in The Social Contract (“TSC”) that “all being born free and equal, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage.” TSC Book I, Section 2, para. 3.

Locke recognizes that laws regarding private property are conventions, but if the purpose of civil government is the protection of private property, private property must predate civil government. For this, Locke turns to Natural Law. Locke describes the state of nature as “a state of liberty” but not “a state of license,” because “[t]he state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it.” CCG ¶ 6. Pursuant to Natural law, for any man, “[t]he ‘labour’ of his body ad the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say are properly his.” ¶ 26. Thus, private property rights spring from one’s labor under the precepts of Natural law. As demonstrated above, men give up certain rights, such as the right to punish, in exchange for security in the property rights they already possessed. For Rousseau,

What a man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses.

TSC Book I, Section 8, para. 2. Thus, for Rousseau, proprietorship, or the right to property, doesn’t exist until one enters into the social contract.

Because Locke sees private property as a product of Natural law, he sounds almost like a member of the modern TEA Party when discussing legislation that infringes on it: “Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery, they put themselves into a state of war with the people.” CCG ¶ 222. I happen to agree with Rousseau. I don’t think property rights exist without a government to enforce, or at least declare, them. This informs my assessment of the modern discussion because I see complaints of slavery or oppression associated with taxation not only as wrong for the reasons listed by Warren, but because they are nonsensical since without the government supported by taxes no such right to property exists.

Does society merely make it possible to utilize our property, or is society responsible for all property rights?

38 replies on “Elizabeth Warren, Locke & Rousseau on Private Property”

Hi, Jim,

Seems to me that the two reflect a larger predilection. The first is an individualist orientation, as if we are solitary units that choose whether or not to interact with other solitary units. The second posits that we are always/already enmeshed in unavoidable social relations, which automatically implies a sort of Newton's law of social interaction: every action causes ripples in the social network.
As for private property, my conviction is that PP indeed is a social convention — a socially-agreed hallucination, if you will — which works to the advantage of those who wish to insist that "my" private property interacts with others only as I wish. What's "mine" is mine, and mine only. So, in order to increase my security, I increase my property. "You" are on your own, and may do the same.
Rousseau seems to open the door to a more cooperative understanding of both possession and human interaction.
From my perspective, though, both approaches are trumped by a faith-orientation, which says that all property has a prior owner: God. We are custodians who are evaluated according to how well we enable all to share the benefits with equity. Each item of property, then, becomes a test of our faith in the providence of God, and a public display of how well we have "exteriorized" our interior trust in that God. So, in my view, if you want to go "Lockean," then you have to admit that God is the sole and proper owner of any and all "private" property. If you want to go "Rousseau-ian," then you admit that we seem to be immersed in an already-given social network of human relations, which is biased toward an equitable sharing of the goodies with one and all.


Curiously enough Locke posits exactly the same premise you do–all property is a gift from God collectively. Locke argues, however, that once one contributes his labor to that which was given collectively to all humans, it become that individual's private property. Locke says this is a result of Natural Law and not a upshot of cultural norms.

My suggestion is that Locke is wrong because private property is a convention. I think a "socially agreed hallucination" to be an unproductive convention. That the convention is destructive because it ignores the interconnectedness in the system seems like a good insight to me. Although, I will admit that I prefer recognizing that society has the authority to regulate private property, because it is a convention, rather than abandoning the idea altogether.

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