Saturday, February 11, 2006

Why Locke can't keep his story straight


So John "Mixin' it up" Locke gives two accounts of property and where it comes from and what it's good for. Both args are from his Second Treatise. The first explanation is bottom-up: Locke says that property is foundational in several senses. I've changed the language surrounding his mixing-labor passages to be more Aristotelian:
  • The protection of property is the final cause of the state (the reason for which the state was instituted);
  • it is the efficient cause of the state (property pre-existed the state temporally, and caused the state to come into being);
  • and it is the formal cause of the state (the protection of property is a yardstick by which the effectiveness of the state is to be governed).
On the other hand, Locke notes later a second more, uh, utilitarian or policy-oriented derivation. Property makes for rich subjects, and rich subjects make for large tax receipts for the ruler. An economically well-run state will thus grow a large army, and soon will be powerful enough that its neighbors can't threaten it (and it can, in turn, happily threaten its neighbors). Even the seemingly-harmless early-modern Dutch fit this bill, when they are not busy painting. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with mercantilism, on this view, and in fact it's probably desirable; it just has some negative consequences that have to be reckoned with.

Isaiah Berlin described the transition from the first argument to the second as "the rejection of the central idea of western civilization"--that of a legal perfectionist state to one of radical pluralism and, for the most part, utilitarianism. The first argument tightly links up the formal and final cause, and has a natural law flavor. Humans are such and such a way, and these characteristics lead to certain types of interactions between individuals; both natural rights and natural law spring from these facts on the ground. The second argument is positivistic. Because it rests on an incompletely theorized agreement as to ends, it can be adopted by such disparate leaders as Emperor Joseph II, the Soviet Nomenklatura, and Napolean.

This distinction also mirrors the Anti-Federalist vs. Federalist debate during the Philadelphia ratification period. The Feds wanted a strong nation for defensive and offensive purposes, while the Anti-Feds were trying to focus more on the foundational reasons for liberty rather than building a regime "framed..with a view to arms, and war."

Finally, as is typically the alignment, the catholic and protestant arguments are universalistic and nation-state based, respectively. The bottom-up argument doesn't require competition among ends, and while it is not anti-nation-state, it certainly is not drinking unqualified toasts to the concept. The top-down argument is constantly invoked by states like modern post-ideology China that have a zero-sum attitude to the national sovereignty game.

In case you hadn't guessed it, this is more-or-less the post that I promised relating Aristotle's theory of the tongue, below, to natural law.

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