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Down With the Lockean Proviso

From Mises blog:

[Update: See also The Blockean Proviso (Sep. 11, 2007); and Michael Makovi, “The ‘Self-Defeating Morality’ of the Lockean Proviso,” Homo Oeconomicus 32(2) (2015): 235–74:

Locke’s theory of appropriation includes the “Lockean Proviso,” that one may appropriate ownerless resources only if one leaves enough for others. The Proviso is normative and obviously may be rejected on normative grounds. But it is less obvious that it may have to be rejected for positive reasons. According to Hoppe, private property is a means for minimizing social conflict under conditions of scarcity. But the Lockean Proviso would actually exacerbate social conflict. According to Demsetz, property emerges precisely when scarcity arises and there is not enough left for everyone. Accordingly, the Lockean Proviso may be logically incompatible with the very purposes of the establishment of property. Or the Proviso may constitute what Derek Parfit calls “self-defeating morality.” Several adaptations of the Proviso – including Nozick’s – are rejected as well, based on the impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of subjective utility and the problem of economic calculation.]

Down with the Lockean Proviso

[Archived comments below]

March 13, 2009 2:35 PM by Stephan Kinsella | Other posts by Stephan Kinsella | Comments (7)

My attention was recently called to Tibor Machan’s paper “Self-Ownership and the Lockean Proviso” (working paper version), which will be in his book The Promise of Liberty (Lexington, 2009). As noted in the Abstract, the paper argues as follows:

Locke’s defense of private property rights includes what is called a proviso—”the Lockean proviso”—and some have argued that in terms of it the right to private property can have various exceptions and it may not even be unjust to redistribute wealth that is privately owned. I argue that this cannot be right because it would imply that one’s right to life could also have various exceptions, so anyone’s life (and labor) could be subject to conscription if some would need it badly enough. Since this could amount to enslavement and involuntary servitude, it would be morally and legally unacceptable.

Other libertarian criticisms of the Lockean Proviso include Rothbard, ch. 29 of The Ethics of Liberty; Hoppe, p. 410 et pass. of The Economics and Ethics of Private Property; and de Jasay, p. 188 and 195 of Against Politics (also discussed on p. 91 in my review thereof).

See also my own critique of what I call Walter Block’s “Blockean Proviso“. As I note there, the Lockean Proviso says that you may homestead an unowned good but only if “enough and as good” is left for others—that is, if you don’t harm them by your homesteading action by making it more difficult for them to have a similar opportunity to homestead some goods of that type. Both Block and I would reject this. But the Blockean Proviso would say that you can only homestead property that is a potential means of access to other unowned resource so long as enough and as good access to the unowned resource remains available!

Archived comments:

Comments (7)

  • Lucas
  • I got a good gist of this from Narvesson, Respecting persons…
  • Published: March 13, 2009 4:15 PM

  • David C
  • I disagree with this. Human action is the ends in itself, not property. Property is usually a consequence of human action, because without it all that is left is “might makes right” – which tends to minimize human action.”… that this cannot be right because it would imply that one’s right to life could also have various exceptions…”

    There are various exceptions. If I’m locked in a cage with you, and there is only although water for one person to live. My right to live is as much as yours – irrespective of property or claim.

    However, in larger populations, all claims like this are a fraud. It will be “every man for himself”, long before any leader ever claiming to represent the greater good could “wisely” allocate the remaining scare resources.

    Philosophies that don’t make maximization of human action the ends will always run into unrealistic problems. EG. someone claiming a continent, and then violating peoples liberties in the name of “property rights”

  • Published: March 13, 2009 10:28 PM

  • newson
  • david c says:
    “might makes right” – which tends to minimize human action.”you mean it tends to minimize productive, rather than re-distributive human action? or human action in general?
  • Published: March 13, 2009 11:28 PM

  • Gil
  • I disagree – moral might does make right. A problem with a lot moralities is the way they preach Pacifism. If a moral society is to last then they should follow a moral creed that preaches the moral to be strong warriors and teach this strength to their descendants. Pacifists act surprised when they keep finding themselves overrun by criminal gangs again and again. It’s almost a crime to good strong people taking their knowledge ‘to their graves’ because they’re afraid the next generation might use the knowledge for evil never thinking for a moment that criminal gangs immediate school their children in their criminal ways.
  • Published: March 14, 2009 12:22 AM

  • Aeon J. Skoble
  • I think Nozick already defused this issue. The proviso is ONLY applicable in the hypothetical state of nature. It’s a hypothetical limit on original appropriation in the S of N. In the real world, the proviso is always met* because you have either literally created new stuff, or obtained something via trade, thus automatically “leaving” something for others.
    *unless you’re stealing of course
  • Published: March 14, 2009 9:31 AM

  • Richard Garner
  • Aeon,I am inclined to agree with you on Nozick. However, one point to pick up on:

    I think Nozick already defused this issue. The proviso is ONLY applicable in the hypothetical state of nature.

    Actually, Nozick doesn’t mean it just to apply in the state of nature. In a footnote to page 55 of ASU he suggests that the proviso may apply to prohibiting acquiring property so as to trap somebody in their home (by acquiring the property around the person’s house). The implication of those, though, is that the proviso is not simply about “the principles of justice in acquisition,” but also about “the principles of justice in transfer,” since it would allow a third party to impose conditions upon the terms by which one person sell’s their land to another. In the end, though, it means that, by allowing the proviso, Nozick’s theory of justicie ceases to be a historical one and beomes a patterned theory. It also seems not conform to a “will” or “choice theory of rights,” making it open to incompossibilities of rights or duties.

  • Published: March 16, 2009 12:02 PM

  • Michael A. Clem
  • Reading the original Locke, I didn’t see where he provides any real argument in support of the proviso–he just sort of throws it out as an assertion. The closest he comes to an argument for it is that God gave the world to man in common. Clearly not a good, logical argument.Thus, I think it’s safe to just ignore the proviso–it doesn’t hurt the rest of his argument for the initial acquisition of unowned resources–and don’t see a need to dance around it, explain it away, or anything else.
  • Published: March 16, 2009 1:04 PM

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