Locke’s theory of original acquisition is modified by the general right of subsistence, through the operation of conditions, the most significant of which is the command to leave ‘enough and as good’ for others. This stipulation cannot be applied accurately, under conditions of immediate or even ultimate scarcity, without nullifying all acquisitions. Consider the first person Z who finds herself left without enough and as good to appropriate. The last appropriator Y left Z without her earlier liberty to appropriate an object from the common and so did not leave enough and as good for her. So Y’s appropriation is prohibited by the condition. Therefore, the penultimate appropriator X left Y in a state of affairs where she could not appropriate for X’s appropriation ended allowable appropriations. Therefore X’s appropriation was impermissible. But then, the appropriator two from last W, ended allowable appropriations, since she left X in this situation. And so on back to A the original appropriator.
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So it seems better to follow the line recommended by Locke’s drinking from the river example of focusing on whether any injury to another follows an appropriation. From what Locke says there we may deduce that one person can think herself injured by another’s appropriation only in circumstances of scarceness. Even then the condition does not come into effect until an appropriator has secured her own continued existence for the first duty of natural law is to conserve oneself. In all of this there is no obstruction to appropriating more than one needs when such appropriation does not intimidate the survival of others.
Any trouble with Lockian appropriation starts when there are almost no more natural resources in common since everything has been privatized. Once that situation attains a general right of subsistence cannot be met from a liberty to appropriate from nature directly.
The propertyless can have their continued existence needs met only if they can make a just claim on the holdings of property-owners. In the First Treatise Locke is quite understandable that there is such a claim based on the law of nature which obliges us not simply to give justice to others but to protect them.
We recognize that God hath not left one Man so to the Mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his Children such a Property, in his unusual Portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his deprived Brother a Right to the Surplusage of his Goods; so that it cannot fairly be denyed him, when his pressing Wants call for it (Locke, 1991).
Manifestly, Lockian self-ownership is restrained by the duty to protect others which comes into play once a person has protected her own subsistence. And the right to be sustained out of another’s abundance is not superseded by the fact that it is unquestionably the fruit of her own labor or that of her previous circumstances. This observation is maintained by the fact that Locke does not dispute that the right to survival gives a general right to private property, that is, a right that there be resources presented for each individual to appropriate. (Walzer, 1983).
For non-appropriators and their heirs the right of subsistence can be met from charity which, for Locke, is a severe obligation on all those with property excess to their needs.
So Locke does not look forward to later worries regarding the impact on self-ownership of people claiming rights in the fruits of others’ powers. Evidently, this is for the reason that he thinks of the conservation of mankind as a duty under the commands of natural law as well as scripture alike, a structure which gives duties precedence over rights. Within this structure self-ownership exists to allow us to accomplish our duty of self-preservation.
But despite the fact that has priority over the duty to conserve mankind in the event of struggle the two duties must become likely in normal circumstances. So the requirement of self-ownership is restricted by its role in allowing us to conserve ourselves as part of a wider system of duties.
In other words, self-ownership cannot be described in a way which would prejudice our duty to meet the needs of others out of our excess goods (any more than in a way which would prejudice God’s property in us by allowing suicide or self-enslavement).
This clarification also shows why, not like an orthodox Lockian, a present-day libertarian finds self-ownership mismatched with welfare rights (Tully, 1980). Once the theological/natural law framework is dropped, there is no outside source of duty to limit individual liberty. So if individual liberty becomes the baseline value for our theory of justice no precursor duty of self-preservation let alone the preservation of others exists to restrain it.
A right to individual liberty is the same as the rights of exclusive self-disposal of full noninterventionist self-ownership and these are incompatible with rights to reciprocated assistance, even in the case of need.
Locke. Locke on Money, 2 vols, ed. P. Kelly, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).
Tully, James, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries (Cambridge, 1980).
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Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality (Oxford, 1983).