Democratic Distributive Justice

By Ross Zucker | Go to book overview

3
Unequal Property and Its Premise in
Locke's Theory

John Locke made two major contributions to the theory of property: a justification for assigning the right of property to individuals rather than to collectivities and a justfication for a principle of unequal distribution of economic resources, goods, and money. The repudiation of Soviet communism in the late twentieth century has rendered Locke's first justification less controversial because it has led to more general agreement on assigning property to individuals rather than to states. But the reduction in the threat of Soviet communism may make his second justification more controversial, because market societies may become secure enough to contemplate the great disparities of income and wealth that prominently mark their social landscapes.

Many opinion leaders will look to Locke's theory as an intellectual bulwark against an egalitarian distribution of economic resources, while others will abjure it for precisely that reason.1 Therefore, Locke's theory will continue to be an important subject of study. Scholars disagree over what makes his theory the classical liberal theory of property, yet they agree that it conveys something essential about the liberal way of looking at property.2 With some frequency scholars formerly viewed the theory as a justification of a right to unequal property based on individualistic assumptions, and many still do.3 By now, however, leading Locke

____________________
1
The high regard that contemporary theorists have for the theory is indicated by the lengthy sections devoted to it in Munzer 1990 and Waldron 1988. Some have argued that the theory could have egalitarian implications for distribution, for example, on the basis of the second proviso. But as we shall see, it provides a weak limitation on the scope of inequalities in a monetary economy.
2
Schlatter 1951, p. 151, calls it “the standard text of liberalism and natural rights. ”
3
Since the 1960s the theory has been regarded in this way by left-leaning scholars (e.g. Macpherson 1962, pp. 214–215), by members of the critical legal studdies movement, including Roberto Unger, and by neo-Marxists. Before that, mainstream scholars and law professors at major universities also embraced the interpretation of Locke's theory as a justification of inequality based on individualistic assumptions, because they simply assumed that accumulations due to individual drive and initiative are virtuous. Donahue, a professor of property law at Harvard, stated: “the Western legal concept of property has always been associated with various forms of individualism” (Donahue 1980, pp. 58, 40). Simmons holds that Locke justifies inequality on the basis of the “voluntary” consent of “men” to the use of money (1992, pp. 303, 304). See also Donahue 1974, pp. 249, 253–254; Berry 1980, p. 90; Berolzheimer 1968, pp. 135–136; Singer 1997, pp. 14–15.

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