Rousseau Vs. Locke Essay, Research Paper
Rousseau VS. Locke
The origins and Consequences of private property.
We have read two books, John Locke’s “The second treatise on government” and Rousseau’s “Discourse on inequality.” Of the several topics touched upon in each book, many topics seem to deal with the same issues. One topic in particular concerns the origins of land ownership and the consequences it has had for the human race. Locke seems to take one side of the argument, while Rousseau seems to have taken the opposite. I believe that Locke has prepared a more convincing and realistic view of this topic than Rousseau. The focus of this paper will be to explain why I believe Locke has done the better job.
In John Locke’s book, “The second treatise of government,” Locke sketches out a brief history of early man and his progression from simple land dweller to land owner. In this description, Locke explains how the concept of property is necessary to human preservation and that property becomes property by having applied work, or effort upon an object. Locke explains that in the beginning, all of earth’s great wealth belonged to all men in common, where everyone had an equal right to everything. Locke says that without the concept of property, humans would never be able to survive, because being allowed to use anything for ones survival would depend on having the consent of every one else. Therefore its only natural to think for example, that an apple belongs to anyone and everyone only until such a time as one person makes the apple theirs. Locke continues to explain that by nature, humans should not, and generally did not, take from nature more than was necessary to preserve their lives, because to do so would be wasteful and could deprive others of their right to a fair share of food. Locke later explains that ownership of physical land is made possible by first, applying effort to making such land more productive, in the earliest sense that meant cultivating the land to produce more food. This surplus of food was acceptable because the idea was that the individual could then sell this food surplus to his fellow man for something of worth. In the earliest sense, this would have been bartering. For example, if you owned an acre of land, on witch you grew apples, you could use the surplus of apples you have grown to trade for other things that you need, say fish, milk and so on. It is at this point that humans collectively decide on a particular system of trade that involves the use of the first currency. Currency being an item that would never rot, and could be saved for latter use, was a new and wonderful invention because in hoarding money, you would not be wasting that witch nature provides for all, and you also now had a way for the first time to advance from a subsistence way of life to a more comfortable form. With the creation of money, and the ownership of land, all mankind would benefit, and those who were most “rational and industrious” now had a means by which they could advance themselves as far as they wanted. Locke, being a land owner himself was very much in favor of land ownership, and felt that those who had done very well for themselves deserved there wealth, and those who were not so well off were so because they were “quarrelsome and contentious.”
Locke goes to great labor in order to support his belief in the ownership of land. And if you take all that Locke says as the truth, you could easily agree with him. For the most part, I have to agree with Locke on this topic, as it closely shadows what we have in modern society. Modern man has advanced far beyond anything even Locke could have hoped for and in general, all mankind has benefited from the kind of economy that comes with the ownership of land, and the use of currency as a medium for advancement. However, where I have some concern with Lock’s doctrine is his dismissal of the very real consequences that come with this advancement. Locke probably never envisioned a time when man would be as advanced as we are today. I have to believe that if Locke could somehow be brought form the past to see the futures success, as well as some of its failures, he would more than likely have cause to amend some of his earlier thoughts. But even in his time, Locke seems to have failed to realize that not everyone has the same capacity to rise to the standard of living that he himself enjoyed. Property is scarce. And when property is scarce, money is scarce. After having read Locke’s book, one gets the sense that he in fact knows this, and without coming right out and saying it, he is trying to sugar coat the fact that he advocates in a sense, holding down those who are weaker in order that the stronger may retain, or have more. This is precisely what kings had been doing for years, only on a grand scale. An extreme few had all the power and most of the wealth, the rest were kept in extreme poverty as a consequence. Locke companied against this despotism, as it was called, however his plan for a better government hinged around landowners, which he was one. I feel that Locke was for the people, so long as the people were like him. In his scenario, there are still many that will have to do without. He justifies this be attaching an all-inclusive title to the poorest individuals and saying that they are “quarrelsome, and contentious.” Idealistically, Locke does not provide a way for the each and every person to share in what I think of as being a fair share of the wealth. However, Locke seems to have accurately forecast a more realistic doctrine for the future.
Rousseau discuses the topic of land ownership and its consequences in his “Discourse On Inequality” as well. Rousseau is a die-hard believer that modern society is completely without hope. At first glance, you have to respect Rousseau for his completely idealistic view of modern society. Rousseau says, “Oh what atrocities could have been prevented if we had pulled up our stakes, filled in the ditches and said those who lay ownership of the land do so in contempt of nature who has given her bounty to us all.” This poetic statement immediately struck a cord within me and I thought of some of the most horrible atrocities that man has brought on his fellow man. Yet these atrocities are only icons of the underlying inhumanity that humans impose on each other. Sure you would probably save someone from a burning building if you thought you could get away with it. Individually, most humans don’t have it in for there fellow man, but if you think about it. Would you give up all that you have so that the less fortunate may have a better life? I know that I would not. It is our very unwillingness to give up what we have that ultimately forces other so to do with out. It comes back to the idea of scarcity. Not every one can live at a high standard of living. Rousseau points out in his discourse on inequality, that it is this pressure to want more and more that drives men to hold others down, and in the most extreme cases to depravity. Idealistically, how can I disagree with Rousseau? He is right. Humans inherently are out for themselves first and if it comes at the expense of others, than that’s the price of doing business. Rousseau shows that not only is there an inequality based on money and material positions. He also points out that we now have inequality on many levels, not that various types of inequality never existed, but with the introduction of land as personal property, these inequalities explode into very real and menacing problems. It’s not hard to put together a reasonable series of events in witch you start by owning some land. If you’re successful, you prosper and you become wealthy. With this new wealth, you begin to look at yourself as being more intelligent than your fellow man and so on. You get to a point where you honestly believe that you are somehow justified in treating others in a certain way. Rousseau probably would have seen W.W.II as the single most supportive piece of evidence that man has totally been corrupted by what society. And you can easily tie the roots of this insane war back to the fundamental relationship between man and his need to own land. The ownership of land, the scarcity that it involves, and the system of money that the whole system runs on is inherently bad for some, and in the worst cases, out right appalling.
Rousseau clearly has cut past all the sugar coating so to speak, he has genuinely pointed out that there are very real costs that come with the closing off chunks of land and calling it your own and the cost is scarcity. Those that can’t have will try to get it. Those that do have, cant have enough. It is very plausible to think that the vast number of problems faced by today’s society can be directly traced to the notion that land could be owned. It is this idea that Rousseau hinges is “Discourse on Inequality” around. Where Rousseau loses me is with his answer to the problem. Rousseau did something that no one else had ever thought of, and that was attacking a problem from a completely idealistic view. This was good in that it slashed through all of the lies and cover-ups man has created to justify his depravity. Where he failed was in trying to answer this problem form a completely idealistic point of view. As I have stated in an early essay, Rousseau would have you believe that man should look deep within himself and realize that he is not happy. He implies that the only way that men can truly be equal among each other is to return to simpler time, a borderline state of nature. We should cast aside our selfish material needs. In a very generic sense, Rousseau advocates mans return to a state of ignorance. By doing so, man may truly be free. The problem is that Rousseau himself could not live up to these standards. He was an outcast everywhere he went, and in order to live in any society, he had to conform to its standards. Rousseau may hold that even he was too warped by society to be able to live without it. But how does Rousseau know that returning to a semi state of nature is the best answer? As the notion of land ownership comes with a cost, casting it aside also comes with a cost. Can Rousseau expect us to believe that all society has become is bad. Most would agree that many positive advancements have been made possible by what society has become. These advancements could never have been realized in Rousseau’s simple society. I wish I could ask Rousseau; is the cost of having our modern society worth less than the cost of not having it? And how is it that you know that your vision of society would be better than that of the present? I agree our current society has its problems, but its all I’ve ever known. I have been conditioned to understand the rules by which this society works and I’m comfortable with it. How can we say returning to a more primitive existence would be better. We have no proof that I would be better. The notion is based completely on speculation.
Was Locke correct in his view about the ownership of land? Or was Rousseau the one who was correct? In my opinion, Locke has made a stronger case. I think we need the ownership of land. We certainly want the benefits that it has afforded to society, even if Locke skated around the less desirable facts. His ideas are much more applicable to today’s modern society. However I can’t say that Rousseau is without merit. You can’t argue the fact that the cost of owning land is scarcity, and scarcity dives men to do very evil things. There is a very important message to be taken from both Locke and Rousseau. Today more than ever, I think that combining the ideas of both men to create a hybrid in a sense would best assist our society in the future. De-evolution may not be the answer, but abandoning all sense of morality is not good either. We should seek to evolve, but we should never stop asking, how can we evolve better?