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Philosophical Foundations of Poverty and Distribution

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Any Lockeian scholar would be lying if they told you that any topic in

the secondary literature on the Two Treatises of Government was more famous (or

infamousÐ"‰depending on who you talk to), widely debated, or caused more

controversy than the old Oxford gradÐ"*s theory of property. Some are shouting

from the left that Locke argues a rights claim for subsistence for all

individuals, that it may even support MarxÐ"*s theory of exploitation. Yelling

back are those from the right who claim that he formulates a moral

justification for capitalist appropriation of property. Then of course there

are those somewhere in between who are telling everyone to shut up because

Locke wrote the damn thing over three hundred years ago in the political

context of 17th century England and to derive these kinds of modern political

presumptions is ludicrous. They all make fine cases for their respective

theories. This humble treatise, however, will merely essay to provide a fairly

objective explanation of John LockeÐ"*s disputed offering to the political and

economic understanding of property and how it relates to poverty and the

distribution of wealth. It will then continue to examine the two most

preeminent, contemporary champions of welfarist and entitlement theories in

that of John Rawls and Robert Nozick respectively, focusing specifically on

what they, standing on LockeÐ"*s shoulders, offer as an acceptable system of

economic justice.

Locke begins by stating that each person has a natural right to preserve his or

her life. "God has given the Earth to all people in common for their

sustenance." (Locke 310). In the state of nature, each person owns everything

in nature equally with everyone else. However, some things in nature must be

"appropriated" in order for one to derive any sustaining benefit from them. As

an example, Locke says one must take possession of acorns or apples in order to

eat them and, so, derive sustenance from them. But one must do something

positive in order to appropriate the acorns or apples and, thus, make them

one's own. A person possesses his or her own body and the actions of that body.

One owns oneself. By virtue of exercising the labor of one's body in

conjunction with the machinations of nature on land held in common by mankind,

one removes a thing from the state of nature and makes it one's own. Locke says

that one's labors puts a "distinction" between oneself and the rest of mankind

in relation to the object of one's labors. The rights of the individual as

expressed in one's labors creates private rights.

Ownership comes out of the appropriation of land and the mixing of labor into

the appropriated land. This originates in the state of nature where there is no

government above the individual to impede their efforts to use and hold onto

their property nor regulate trade between buyers and sellers. Natural freedom,

according to Locke, is to live within the bounds of natural law (reason) which

are respected in the state of nature as the right to enjoy the product of one's

labor and protect its use.

This does not mean, however, that every person has a right to remove from

nature everything that he or she wills. There are limits to what may be

appropriated from nature. First, something may be appropriated from nature so

long as it is enjoyed. Next, one may appropriate to the point of spoilage or

destruction. It is a limit because the properties that were spoiled or

destroyed should have remained common property. As common property, another

person could have mixed his or her labors with nature, thus taking it his or

her property.

In terms of land, one takes possession of land by improving it. It is owned to

the extent that one can manage the land and use its products, and is subject to

the same limitations as the other things one can appropriate from nature

through his labors. God has commanded that it be so to the extent that He

commanded mankind to labor over the earth. And regardless of one's

appropriation of land, there is so much land left in common that the affect of

appropriating the land is negligible. Indeed, when one cultivates his land, one

increases the "common stock" of mankind by creating an abundance of product,

when compared to leaving the same land to nature. Thus any amount that is

cultivated beyond one's needs can be used to supply the needs of others. That

portion of one's lands which produces the surplus remains somewhat in the

possession of the rest of mankind. The rest of mankind benefit's from the

abundance produced through

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