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Property and Inequality Viewed by Locke and Rousseau Essay

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Updated: Nov 15th, 2020

Even a superficial assessment how John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau used to conceptualize the notions of private property and inequality will reveal that there is a fundamental inconsistency between the both philosophers’ views, in this respect.

According to Locke, all people are born equal, regarding their right to pursue happiness in whatever the way they consider the most fitting, “All men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit” (Locke 10). Since it is in the very nature of men to regard the amount of money/material assets in one’s hands reflective of the measure of the concerned individual well-being, it is thoroughly natural for people to be innately prompted to place ownership-claims on just about anything that comes in their sight.

What this means is that a person comes into possession of material things “naturally”, since the concerned process cannot be discussed outside of his or her willingness to apply an effort in trying to materialize its ownership-related aspirations. In its turn, this means that law and order, in fact, derive out of the informal/formal institutionalization of private ownership/property even in the most primitive societies. Therefore, the government’s function is to merely provide a legal framework for people to go about exploring their personal agendas (extrapolative of the concerned individuals’ obsession with the thoughts of enrichment), without causing the society to collapse due to the internal divisions between its members.

Some of the most important implications of such Locke’s suggestion are as follows:

  • The institution of private property is indispensable to the society’s proper operating. By owning property, individuals are endowed with the natural right to use just about any mean necessary to protect it from being claimed/violated by others. Because everybody is aware of this simple truth of life (even if on an instinctual level), it prevents the uncontrollable escalation of tensions within the society.
  • Inequality is natural (and even desirable). Even though people are born equal, in the discursive sense of this word (concerned with the discourse of Judeo-Christianity), this does not presuppose their de facto equality. One of the reasons for this is that one’s endowment with the right to make free choices in life does not necessarily mean that he or she is capable of taking practical advantage of it. According to Locke, this is the main motivating factor behind the class-based stratification within just about any society.The philosopher’s other inequality-supporting argument has to do with the assumption that, even though the functioning of the free market (Capitalist) economy does result in inducing inequality, both rich and poor equally benefit from living in the society that becomes ever more technologically and culturally advanced – the process made possible by the same society’s appropriation of the inequality-inducing operational paradigm. As the philosopher observed: “The poorest day laborer in England, living under a private ownership system, is better off than a chieftain, the best off person, in a North American tribe that lives under something closer to a free use system” (“Locke on Property” 4). This is the reason why Locke is commonly regarded as the founding father of economic Liberalism.
  • Every person is at liberty to live as he or she consciously chooses. However, Locke does recognize that there are certain limits to this liberty – the above-mentioned provision only applies for as long as the manner in which the concerned individual goes about trying to achieve self-actualization does not threaten the interests of other people. Nevertheless, the philosopher refrains from specifying how to determine the “rightful boundaries” of each person’s existential interests.

As compared to Locke’s point of view, in regard to the discursive significance of private ownership/inequality, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau is much different. The foremost inconsistency between the two has to do with the fact that unlike Locke, Rousseau refused to acknowledge the quintessential “naturalness” of the private property institution: “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe he was the true founder of civil society” (Rousseau par. 1).

This refusal, on the philosopher’s part, was reflective of his realization that the measure of a person’s industriousness plays a secondary role within the context of defining his or her chances to attain social prominence – a primary role is played by a blind luck. Therefore, being rich and socially respectful does not mean deserving to be in the position to exert influence on the policy making process within the society as something thoroughly “natural”. What this means is that the institution of private property cannot possibly serve as the theoretical foundation for establishing a morally sound and long-term sustainable social order, especially given the fact that the assumption of a private ownership’s “sanctity” has been commonly evoked to justify slavery.

What is then the source of law and order in the society? According to Rousseau, it is what he used to refer to as “social contract” – the people’s legally (not “naturally”) binding agreement to act in a manner beneficial to the society’s overall well-being, even if this requires them to apply an effort into suppressing the irrational domination/enrichment-seeking instincts within themselves. In its turn, this implies that private property is a socially (rather than “naturally”) constructed concept.

As yet another indication that there is nothing “natural” about the concept in question Rousseau considered the fact that the extent of the governmental authority’s legitimacy positively relates to the government’s ability to withstand corporate pressures, exerted by the selfishly minded representatives of the social elites. This, however, would never be the case, had one’s entitlement to property rights been the actual agent of social progress. Consequently, this supposes that, contrary to the Locke’s take on the subject matter, human society is a highly systemic entity of its own, the overall quality of which only indirectly relates to the qualities of its composing elements (people).

The suggestion’s practical implication is quite apparent – being highly irrational, people’s obsession with accumulating material riches (which Locke believed was the enabling trigger of socioeconomic advancement) stands opposed to the very principle of historical dialectics, which in turn predetermines the qualitative essence of the surrounding social reality’s emanations. After all, one’s stance in life cannot be discussed outside of the affecting environmental circumstances, which are the subject of a continual transformation. Therefore, there is nothing “sacred” about the concept of private property – one’s fixation on trying to accumulate property as the actual purpose of his or her life, is merely the indication of the concerned individual’s underdevelopment as a socially integrated being.

Rousseau’s outlook on the societal significance of private property helps to explain his insistence that there is nothing “intrinsic” about people’s inequality as well. As the philosopher pointed out: “If we follow the progress of inequality in its different revolutions, we shall find that the establishment of the law and of the right of property was its first term” (Rousseau par. 57).

In fact, Rousseau believed that inequality is instrumental in helping the rich and powerful to impose their dominance on the socially underprivileged citizens: “The origin of society and law… gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty… converted clever usurpation into unalterable right… and subjected all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery and wretchedness” (Rousseau par. 147). Therefore, there is indeed nothing too surprising about the fact that this French philosopher is commonly referred to as one of the early precursors of Marxism.

In light of the recent breakthroughs in the fields of sociology, psychology and neuroscience, Rousseau’s view of property/inequality appears much more scientifically sound, as compared to that of Locke.

The reason for this is that, unlike the former, Rousseau proved himself capable of realizing that there are strongly systemic subtleties to the society’s functioning, evocative of the Aristotelian famous suggestion that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – something that exposes the sheer fallaciousness of Locke’s idea that a person is predetermined to prioritize its personal agenda in life, even at the expense of adopting a strong anti-social stance, and that there is an “intrinsic” quality to one’s property rights. The failure of Neoliberalism in the West (the ideology that can be traced directly to Locke’s writings) serves as yet additional proof of this statement’s validity.

Works Cited

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Hackett Publishing Company, 1980.

“Locke on Property.” UCSD. 2012. Web.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Marxists. Web.

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