Philosophical Foundations Of Poverty And Distribution Essay

, Research Paper

Any Lockeian scholar would be lying if they told you that any topic in

the secondary literature on the Two Treatises of Government was more famous (or

infamousÉdepending on who you talk to), widely debated, or caused more

controversy than the old Oxford gradÕs theory of property. Some are shouting

from the left that Locke argues a rights claim for subsistence for all

individuals, that it may even support MarxÕs theory of exploitation. Yelling

back are those from the right who claim that he formulates a moral

justification for capitalist appropriation of property. Then of course there

are those somewhere in between who are telling everyone to shut up because

Locke wrote the damn thing over three hundred years ago in the political

context of 17th century England and to derive these kinds of modern political

presumptions is ludicrous. They all make fine cases for their respective

theories. This humble treatise, however, will merely essay to provide a fairly

objective explanation of John LockeÕs disputed offering to the political and

economic understanding of property and how it relates to poverty and the

distribution of wealth. It will then continue to examine the two most

preeminent, contemporary champions of welfarist and entitlement theories in

that of John Rawls and Robert Nozick respectively, focusing specifically on

what they, standing on LockeÕs shoulders, offer as an acceptable system of

economic justice.

Locke begins by stating that each person has a natural right to preserve his or

her life. "God has given the Earth to all people in common for their

sustenance." (Locke 310). In the state of nature, each person owns everything

in nature equally with everyone else. However, some things in nature must be

"appropriated" in order for one to derive any sustaining benefit from them. As

an example, Locke says one must take possession of acorns or apples in order to

eat them and, so, derive sustenance from them. But one must do something

positive in order to appropriate the acorns or apples and, thus, make them

one’s own. A person possesses his or her own body and the actions of that body.

One owns oneself. By virtue of exercising the labor of one’s body in

conjunction with the machinations of nature on land held in common by mankind,

one removes a thing from the state of nature and makes it one’s own. Locke says

that one’s labors puts a "distinction" between oneself and the rest of mankind

in relation to the object of one’s labors. The rights of the individual as

expressed in one’s labors creates private rights.

Ownership comes out of the appropriation of land and the mixing of labor into

the appropriated land. This originates in the state of nature where there is no

government above the individual to impede their efforts to use and hold onto

their property nor regulate trade between buyers and sellers. Natural freedom,

according to Locke, is to live within the bounds of natural law (reason) which

are respected in the state of nature as the right to enjoy the product of one’s

labor and protect its use.

This does not mean, however, that every person has a right to remove from

nature everything that he or she wills. There are limits to what may be

appropriated from nature. First, something may be appropriated from nature so

long as it is enjoyed. Next, one may appropriate to the point of spoilage or

destruction. It is a limit because the properties that were spoiled or

destroyed should have remained common property. As common property, another

person could have mixed his or her labors with nature, thus taking it his or

her property.

In terms of land, one takes possession of land by improving it. It is owned to

the extent that one can manage the land and use its products, and is subject to

the same limitations as the other things one can appropriate from nature

through his labors. God has commanded that it be so to the extent that He

commanded mankind to labor over the earth. And regardless of one’s

appropriation of land, there is so much land left in common that the affect of

appropriating the land is negligible. Indeed, when one cultivates his land, one

increases the "common stock" of mankind by creating an abundance of product,

when compared to leaving the same land to nature. Thus any amount that is

cultivated beyond one’s needs can be used to supply the needs of others. That

portion of one’s lands which produces the surplus remains somewhat in the

possession of the rest of mankind. The rest of mankind benefit’s from the

abundance produced through labor.

Civic freedom in the political society transfers only the right of property

protection to the government, the executive power of individuals becomes the

government’s duty to punish transgressions of natural law. Civil rights, argues

Locke, are not the restriction of the liberties of private property but the

consent of individuals to this duty of government to be the judge and executor

of civil law founded upon principles of reason. Property rights are passed on

from the state of nature to the political state. John Locke demands that the

government which is instituted by the political society is assigned with the

power and purpose to regulate and protect the use of property. He argues that

people are not "naturally subject" to any human government but introduces the

consent of the governed concept.

The people, however, have the natural liberty at all time to revoke their

trust in the government, should it unjustly intrude on their property rights,

equality, or other freedoms. But Locke clearly articulates this breaking of

trust in a government is not a return to the state of nature but to the

political society (which then creates a new government). During this upheaval

the natural right of individuals to own and use private property is maintained;

the "artificial" government is what changes.

Locke does believe that this human government will be uncorrupted as it was

mentioned earlier that "perfect freedom" is an ideal for imperfect beings. The

social contract, in the form of Locke’s political society, is primarily meant

to secure individual freedom. Whether it binds together a group of people with

a national myth or social identity seems to be a secondary benefit of the

political society. Locke intends for the distinct members of the newly formed

civil state to be served by their government, not serve the personal interests

of the leaders. It is interesting that the method Locke prescribes for choosing

the form of government is a majority vote among the political society’s members

but that form of government is not necessarily representative democracy. Once

the form of government is decided then the people place their trust in whatever

it is, revocable by the citizens should it interfere in their civic liberties

and private property. The political society formed out of the individuals and

not the government would be the social identity of Locke’s state. The

government can be replaced by the permanent political society.

Without private property rights to be protected it could be possible to

guarantee individual freedom for everyone to appropriate as much as they

please. But Locke points out that property accumulation is limited, not by

intruders, by the factors of spoilage and individual labor strength (not

necessarily intruders). Labor not only defines the individual as owner of

property but also defines how much of the property can be appropriated. The

property is meant to be enjoyed by the owner to the maximum; only as much

property that can be used without surplus spoiling is the other limitation of


Locke’s detailed discussion in Chapter V outlines the impact of money in

reducing and eliminating these limitations by exploiting the so-called surplus

value and wage-labor to maximize profits. It is most important for Locke that

this productive activity is free from intrusion by other individuals in the

state of nature and the government in the civil state.

There is no individual freedom unless property rights are established and

property protection is enforced. Modern-day critics label these statements as

justification of uncontrolled, industrialized capitalism and exploitation of

the labor working class. "[Some scholars feel] that LockeÕs theory indirectly

inspired Karl MarxÕs theory of exploitation" (Yolton 90). Some thinkers like

Marx actively participated in organizations with the goal of bringing down

liberal, capitalist states. Yet today documents like the American constitution,

embody principles such as consent of the governed, inalienable rights, and

protection of property. Individual freedom is meaningless without private

property in both the "non-governmental", theoretical state of nature and

political societies such as the United States which are modeled on liberal

ideas espoused by Locke. Finally, though the natural and political states are

founded on reason as revealed by the divine will Locke does not propose

theocracy but the right of members of the civic state to choose whatever form

of government they want.

Locke’s view of property accepts and endorses two states of affairs we find

problematic today. Huge differentials in wealth between the rich and the poor.

Locke essentially claims that the advent of money made it possible to

accumulate vast wealth. When wealth was measured in goods that were perishable,

this meant that there was a limit to what could be accumulated and kept. For

Locke, it is unjust to hoard those things which will simply perish uselessly

and since money is something lasting, it can be hoarded without any problem.

But as Locke continues, if a person exchanges his perishables for something

durable, such as money, then if, he invaded not the right of others, he might

heap up as much of these durable things as he pleased; the exceeding of the

bounds of his just Property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but

the perishing of any thing uselessly in it. This view is taken up in

contemporary theories of justice by libertarians such as Robert Nozick which

will be examined later. (Regan Class Notes).

After acquiring goods of a particular kind there must be enough, and as good

left in common for others. We must take only what we can use to prevent

spoiling and waste. Locke makes it clear that there is always a right of

subsistence that can be evoked be the poverty stricken. Furthermore, Locke

insists that those who own property have a duty to the needy. The holding of

property carries certain duties and the central one is that the holder creates

wealth that will benefit the common good. Locke holds a doctrine of communal

rights – often called "use rights" and "claim rights." This is found in the

notion of common or public land which is used by everyone in the society. So he

recognizes the need for both private property and common land.

Locke sees private property as essential for the development of a productive

modern economy, one which will vastly increase the wealth of the society so

that everyone in it benefits. Locke is not celebrating private wealth as a good

in itself but rather as a means to make society wealthier which in turn

improves the lives of everyone in the society. Enclosed land, when it becomes

private property, yields ten times what it would yield as common land. Locke

sees the right to property as grounded in a person’s ability to make this land

productive. By property Locke means more than just material goods. He means the

rights we have that others have a duty to recognize.

Locke’s thought on political legitimacy and property have had enormous

influence on contemporary political philosophy and his ideas have become part

of the public political culture of democratic societies. Despite his mistakes

and prejudices, he offered an account of how political power ought to be

constrained, making way for the justification of modern democratic societies we

find so ascendant todayÉand their critics. This brings us to the Rawlsian and

Nozickian take on the matter.

There are many theories of distributive justice. A detailed discussion of all

such theories is beyond the scope of this essay. For our purposes, it is

sufficient to explore the differences between entitlement and welfarist

theories of distributive justice. Under entitlement theories, a person deserves

goods because of some action the person has taken or some trait the person

possesses. One entitlement theory is the notion, sometimes associated with John

Locke, that a person has a right to what he produces. A modern variant, offered

by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia, states that a person is entitled

to those goods acquired in uncoerced exchanges with others.

In his famous, controversial work Nozick adopts a theory of property rights


which a person has a right to property if he acquired it in accordance with the

principle of "justice in acquisition" or in accordance with the principle of

"justice in transfer" from someone else who was entitled to it. Nozick attempts

to distinguish his theory from desert theories that judge the goodness of the

world according to whether the distribution of goods is consistent with a

person’s endowment with some quality. Instead, Nozick

evaluates the justice of a person’s property holdings solely according to the

method by which such holdings were acquired. Thus Nozick rejects theories of

distribution of the form "To each according to his X" as consequentialist and

ahistorical rather than process-based.

Welfarist theories of distributive justice, on the other hand, judge the

goodness of social states solely by the welfare or utility enjoyed by the

individuals in those states. Perhaps the two best known welfarist theories are

utilitarianism, which judges the welfare of a society according to the

unweighted sum of the utilities of its individual members, and the "leximin,"

based loosely upon the philosophy of John Rawls, which judges the welfare of a

society according to the well-being of its least well off member. Lying between

utilitarianism and the leximin with respect to preference for equality are

weighted utility theories that, like utilitarianism, consider the welfare of

each individual in determining social welfare, but that give greater weight to

the well-being of the less well off members of society.

The leximin is derived from the second of Rawls’ two principles of

justice, which maintains that society should be structured so as to maximize

the amount of primary goods held by the least well off class. This principle is

to guide societal structure only after society has implemented Rawls’ first

principle of justice, which calls for the maximization of the liberty of each

individual, consistent with the preservation of a like amount of liberty for

others. The welfarist leximin, unlike Rawls’ theory, maximizes the welfare, not

the primary goods, enjoyed by the worst off individual and considers the

distribution of liberty only as it affects the level of welfare.

Under a leximin, if the least well off individuals in two societies are equally

well off, the societies are judged by the welfare of the second least well off

individual and so on. If only the welfare of the least well off individuals are

considered, then the term "maximin" is used rather than leximin.

Although concern for incentive and demoralization effects may lead some

welfarist theories to consider how individuals acquired goods in determining

distribution, the fundamental focus of welfarist theories is often thought to

be at odds with that of entitlement theories. Under entitlement theories and

certain other non-welfarist theories, an individual has a right to a good

regardless of whether her ownership of the good is consistent with the welfare

of others or even with her own welfare. For example, according to Nozick, a

person who acquires a good in a just manner would have a right to the good even

if it were of little or no value to her and of enormous value to others.

In contrast, welfarist theories consider the fact that a person has created a

good only to the extent that allocating goods to their creators improves social

welfare by encouraging production or stability. The creator would not, however,

have a claim to the good derived solely from the act of creation. Thus,

welfarist theories of distributive justice permit taxation either to finance

public goods or to redistribute income, if the well-being of individuals in the

society is thereby improved.

An understanding of the implications of welfarist theories of distributive

justice for the tax structure should be understood. We focus on welfarist

rather than entitlement theories, in part because we believe that such ethics,

while not without problems, have more to commend them. It seems plausible, at

least, to judge government policies by the impact those policies have on the

welfare of the individuals in the society.

One particularly attractive feature of a welfarist analysis of taxation is its

responsiveness to the efficiency effects of various tax structures –effects

that nearly everyone finds relevant. Welfarist theories view as desirable any

change that makes some member of society better off without making any other

member worse off. Entitlement theories, on the other hand, may not endorse a

tax that increases the welfare of an "undeserving" individual even if that

change does not reduce the welfare of any other person. While it may be

possible to formulate a coherent ethical theory that rejects the this,

acceptance of this principle is frequently considered a prerequisite of any

acceptable social decision making rule.

A final reason for othe focus on welfarist theories is that entitlement

theories do not clearly justify any rate structure. Any tax imposed on an

unwilling taxpayer may be inconsistent with a system based on the view that a

person has a right to what he produces. Under such an entitlement theory, a

state might be permitted only to levy taxes that lead to making every member of

the society as well off or better off than she was before the tax. For example,

compulsory taxation might be justified to maintain a government strong enough

to protect the rights of the individuals living under it. Even if this notion

is accepted, however, it provides little guidance as to the appropriate rate

structure. The tax implications of welfarist ethics have been explored in the

important economics literature on "optimal taxation."

Welfarist ethics are not without their own difficulties, however. Many reject

such theories because they do not value rights except to the extent that they

improve the welfare of individuals. Others find the interpersonal comparisons

of utility required by welfarist theories to be not only difficult to make, as

most supporters of welfarism would admit, but also meaningless.

The rejection of an exclusively welfarist ethic does not necessarily imply

acceptance of an ethic that is exclusively entitlement-based. Conceivably, a

just society could consider both the welfare of individuals and entitlements in

determining a fair system of distribution. Optimal taxation analysis should be

of interest to those who believe in a mixed ethic, since it provides insight

into the tax structure inspired by any theory of distributive justice that is

at least partly concerned with individual welfare. Ultimately it is the duty of

society to see how the redistributive features of various progressive rate

structures comport with a wide variety of welfarist ethics, ranging from

utilitarianism to the Rawlsian leximin, in order to discover the best structure

for the society in which we live.



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