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One of the most confounding concepts on the discipline of political theory is the issue of property. Classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle dedicate a large part of their work to speculations about the state of nature and property ownership. However, a comprehensive theoretical exploration of the concept of private property ownership is credited to relatively modern philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The writings of Locke and Rousseau on property ownership are quite fascinating to compare. Both philosophers portray the early stages of man in what they refer to as the state of nature. This paper takes a critical look at Rousseau’s conceptualization of private property and the state in relation to Locke’s work on the subject.
Origin of Property in the State of Nature
According to Locke, man is driven out of his primitive state by his desire to satisfy his needs. He believes that man is able to acquire only the basic essentials while in the primitive state. John Locke perceives the issue of property acquisition from the standpoint of land. He asserts that land increases in value and productivity due to cultivation. Therefore, labor is the foundation on which one can claim property ownership.
If a person works tilling land, then the land belongs to him while the one who constructs a house owns the house. Locke proposes certain principles, which must be adhered to for ownership of land and property to be permissible. He asserts that man must not harvest from nature in excess of what he can use. When accumulating property, man must ensure that there is enough left to satisfy the needs of others.
In an apparent response to Locke’s ideas on the origin of private property, Rousseau maintains that man is completely solitary in the unadulterated state of events. He believes that, in this state, man is only motivated by individual desires and procreates only during accidental encounters with the other sex (Rousseau 63). He is deeply opposed to Locke’s idea of man as a sociable being. In his state of nature, man lacks the ability to identify even their own offspring.
In the state of nature, Locke and Rousseau seem to agree on several issues especially the theoretical nature of their conceptualization. Rousseau concurs that the state of nature is a largely nonviolent period. However, his revelation of the state of nature is much more appealing. While Locke appears to insinuate that man has progressed out of this state of nature, Rousseau praises it as a period of harmony and virtue.
In addition, Rousseau does not simply take the contemporary man and place him in the state of nature. Instead, he makes a convincing argument of a relatively different and primitive man who slowly evolves into a modern version.
Locke’s version does not explain the evolution of man until the state of nature. Rousseau’s argument seems more convincing since the facts that corroborate the evolution theory have been unearthed. Therefore, Rousseau’s theory appears entirely reasonable in allocating diverse attributes to ancient man and contemporary man.
However, some of the attributes Rousseau’s gives to ancient man and his life in the state of nature are questionable. One these attributes is that man’s basic desires are mostly satisfied in the state of nature.
Rousseau’s idea of a man relaxing while eating fruits off a tree and sleeping under the same tree is more idealistic than realistic. Another concern is that since Rousseau believes that man is solitary as a primitive being, dismissing the threat from wild animals is not very rational. The life of ancient man is perhaps not as peaceful as Rousseau proposes.
Legitimization of Private Property
Private property ownership is a substitution to communal and collective property ownership. In a private arrangement, property ownership guidelines are established around the concept that several disputed resources are delegated to the decision making power of certain individuals or groups. The individual to whom a certain entity is allotted or the person who discovers or constructs it has dominion over the entity. That person holds the decision on what can be or cannot be done with the entity.
Rousseau appears to agree with Locke concerning the disparities that ensue from the inequitable allocation of property. Nevertheless, for Rousseau, personal property and its effect on the human race is a key source of inequality and repression among humans, and not the solution.
Rousseau maintains that the route that leads to privatization of property is the same route that turns humans away from civilization to their model pre-civilized communal society. However, Rousseau believes that private property is introduced long after man abandons the natural state. Unlike Locke, he believes that private property does not exist in the classical state of nature.
I agree with Rousseau on the concept that the privatization of property comes with advancement in civilization. However, I prefer the state of affairs in the private property civilization. Due to the unpredictable nature of climate and the subsequent scarcity of resources, it is only wise that man accumulates property in preparation for a rainy day. The inequalities therein are the consequences of poor management of the privatization process by the authorities trusted with the distribution of property.
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Legitimacy of Government
In his second treatise of government, Locke asserts that the state of nature is of absolute freedom and equivalence and believes that man should strive to imitate the state of nature. In Locke’s perception, the authority of the state is dependent on its capability to make laws and protect each member’s rights (Locke 22).
The state must also protect individual rights to private property. Locke holds that the authority of the government rests on the consent of the governed. This is the most important element in Locke’s conceptualization of government as it recognizes the role of the government in protecting the rights of the governed. This is the underlying principle behind the formulation of human rights legislation throughout the world.
Rousseau, on the other hand, does not perceive the social contract as the stage where state of nature ends and an ordered society commences. His philosophy does not speculate a specific point where man suddenly transitions from a primitive life to civilization. Instead, Rousseau postulates a progressive transition through evolution (Rousseau 22).
The crucial part of Rousseau’s theory lies in his perception of government. He argues from an assumption that there is a ‘general will’ that profits everybody. His ‘general will’ seems to be a contrast to ‘the will of all’ where citizens pursue their individual interests. In my opinion, the collective good is a collection of individual interests.
A society cannot claim true freedom if the competing interests of its members are not met. In his conception of the ‘general will,’ Rousseau fails to distinguish utility from the will. Instead, he says that the general will is interested in the good of all.
In the state of nature, Rousseau argues that man functions effectively in his pre-civilized state where there is no inequality (Rousseau 19). However, in the social contract, he argues that man can only function effectively under the supervision of the sovereign state. This may seem like a contradiction since his proper functioning of the state of nature envisions man as independent. However, a further reading of his ideology presents a clear understanding of this concept.
He believes that, with the inequality that arises from privatization of property, man requires supervision to prevent chaos. Rousseau asserts that the sovereign is useless without a proper relationship with the governed. Without the general will (and outside the state of nature), a leader only serves his private interests and not the interests of the people he claims to serve.
Rousseau portrays the general will as a technique of legitimizing the power of government. General will also serves as a way of limiting the use of this power by those in authority. It is an integral part of the social contract that unites the citizens under one political sovereign and guarantees protection of the citizens. It is also a way to minimize corruption in government. However, Locke believes that the government has little to do with ensuring the functionality of the state. Locke does not perceive the government as requiring public participation like Rousseau does.
Though contradictory on many fronts, the perspectives of Locke and Rousseau can be reconciled on several aspects such as their joint opposition to dictatorship. In both postulations of government, the legitimacy of government lies in the will of the people.
The conception of private property as envisioned in most modern legislation can be traced to early philosophic deliberations on the origin of government. A comparison between these two theories of government reveals the related nature of their premises as well as their points of divergence. Their views on private property lead us to the relationship between property ownership and the legitimacy of government. From the above arguments, it is evident that Rousseau’s theory is in response to Locke’s theory.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government, USA: Maestro Reprints, 2012. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse On the Origin of Inequality, Minneapolis: Filiquarian Publishing, LLC., 2007. Print.