By: Matthew Downhour and Mihali Felipe
Perhaps nothing defines a society more than its ideas on property – that is, things that people possess, indefinitely have control over, and have responsibility over. While what we do and can do with our property are easy to understand, how property comes about or how we initially establish ownership varies from one individual to the next. This has always been a source of conflict among neighbors, from homeowners bickering over who should rake leaves, to lawsuits from injuries, to paying for access to a park, to which country can rightfully extract oil in the bottom of a sea. After all, the debate about the justness or unjustness of taxes is at its core a property issue, and the disagreement stems from different beliefs on how property is arrived at. We shall consider this topic head on, and attempt to ground it in something objective, not merely traditional.
It is unavoidable to encounter John Locke when discussing modern views of property and this essay is no exception. There are numerous interpretations of what Locke was trying to say and we shall here demolish what is false and emphasize what is true in these interpretations. What we will show is that Locke was explaining something highly profound and ahead of his time, but has been systematically misapplied.
Locke labored to write his chapter on property and ownership because mere appropriation of Nature will lead to injustice. Nature “belonged to mankind in common” and taking what is common and alienating one from his rightful common inheritance did not sit well with someone as rhetorically dedicated to natural rights as John Locke. There has to be some way of creating a semblance of ownership of land while addressing the problem of alienation. Locke thus postulated two criteria for property rights to remain operational: (1) the mixing of what is “properly yours” with a part of Nature and (2) that the part of Nature being appropriated was not scarce – in other words, that there was enough and as good left for others. Locke’s profound idea is that labor is what is properly yours. It is property in its purest form. This is because just ownership can only come by attribution and the only thing that can be attributed to us are the changes we make to Nature. Nature itself cannot be attributed to anyone. Matter, energy and space have already been provided for us to use. The changes we make is what Locke refers to as labor. There is a technical term for these changes in Nature: entropy changes. The changes in entropy, or labor, that we’ve created are the only things that we properly own and we expand this idea below.
Differentiating labor and Nature, from which we draw understanding of natural rights, can be explained physically and biologically. It all starts with life: labor is what life does. We see that from life’s initiation that it acquires from Nature what it needs to make itself survive and develop. You can think of life as having its own will. It accumulates matter and energy from its surroundings, borrowing and fixing them to lower entropy, and thus to higher order. So our bodies are composed of borrowed space, matter, and energy, in higher order of organization – we are truly labor and Nature mixed together.
The organization and the will are significant. Our physical makeup, the space we occupy, and the energy our bodies contain are borrowed from the universe and for the duration of our use is part of ‘us.’ Hence, we see that labor is not mere energy as another related word, “work,” connotes. Labor involves the redirection and transformation of energy by the will, our free will, to change natural order. The act of acquiring already pre-existing matter and energy around is one’s own, and thus we say one “owns his body” in reference to the structural organization. It is therefore not the pre-existing space, matter and energy themselves that are owned, but the anatomical, physiological and biochemical order created by life’s activity. This physical description of life and its activity accords with Locke’s principles – you own your own labor since these are the changes in entropy resulting from your living. It is what your life creates and is attributable to you.
These concepts are not vague notions. Entropy – the level of disorder or randomness in Nature – is scientifically measurable, and the tendency of things to become disordered over time is an observable and quantifiable phenomenon. The character of life is intimately connected to this idea. “As entropy quantifies the degree of disorder in a system, any envisioned lifeform must have a higher degree of order than its supporting environment.” (Azua-Bustos, Vega-Martinez, 2013) This is how the existence of life can be recognized on other planets.
Having defined labor, we now have a consistent framework to base property on. To illustrate, a person with adequate time and experience could fashion a net or bow out of those things arising in nature – fibers and wood from plants, stones from the earth – and in so doing call it his own. Of course the fibers, wood, and stones already existed before, but now the degree of order to them as a whole in the final products has been altered. And with most property, this is a temporary state of affairs – entropy is relentless, as created property ‘decays’ or ‘depreciates’, words which typically place an economic name to the natural process of things gradually falling to a lower level of order. Labor is furthermore needed to maintain property, to combat the inexorable increase of entropy.
Societies have long recognized this, even if they had not described it scientifically. A constant expenditure of energy is needed to create and maintain property that can then be used for immediate satisfaction or the creation of more property. A society that does not recognize the right of a person to own at least some portion of the things they have spent energy lending order on will quickly find itself overwhelmed by rising entropy unless it can find some other means of compelling people to work.
How is everything said above different from property as commonly used? Often when people say they own Land (for example, because of scarcity), they are making a claim that is quite different. They are claiming that the already pre-existing space, matter, and energy themselves are owned. But how do you do that without employing mere force or threat of force? It is a kind of ownership that is through aggression or backed by aggression rather than an ownership through created labor. How does one reserve land for oneself indefinitely without a guarantor who is willing to exact force on behalf of that person? Or how do you own land absolutely – that is without obligation to society without a monopoly of force – or ironically, without a State? The location itself precedes your efforts, and while you may add order to it – plowing a field or laying a foundation – this can only reasonably secure a ‘right’ to the improvement, not the land under it.
This is what Herbert Spencer reflected in his seminal work Social Statics. Because land as property cannot have grown out of personal exertion, it must have come about through aggression – aggression which is well attested in history books. Of land he wrote “The original deeds were written with the sword, rather than with the pen: not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers: blows were the current coin given in payment; and for seals, blood was used in preference to wax. Could valid claims be thus constituted? Hardly.” Land ownership is thus rooted in aggression, either personal or performed by the state. Of course, all legal property rights are *enforced* by the state, but the liberal tradition finds their origin elsewhere: the directed expenditure of energy to create order.
Property rights are to a great degree socially constructed, and thus vary from community to community. But most communities have recognized some degree of ownership in physical personal property, and have done so well before the creation of anything recognizable as a modern state. The reason is rooted in something deeper – the realities about entropy and energy in the universe. Attempting to apply this same rationale to the ‘ownership’ of a location in the form of private land ownership, however, introduces myriad societal problems, because on a fundamental level this ownership is not based on, and does not reward, the same physical life processes as ownership of land does.
It is difficult to overstate the impact Locke’s ideas on property have had on the creation of the modern understanding of the word, and of society as a whole. However, his caution regarding landed property – that it can only be justified where land is non-scarce – is too often disregarded. Because landed property cannot be justified by the entropic changes that define labor, it operates on a fundamentally different level. A healthy society needs to acknowledge and adjust to this difference by ensuring that the benefits of land are distributed to the community as a whole, not simply to individuals claiming ownership.