The theories of Locke, Hume and Kant dominate contemporary philosophical discourse on property rights. This is particularly true of applied ethics, where they are used to settle issues from biotech patents to managerial obligations. Within these theories, however, the usual criticisms of private property aren’t even as much as intelligible. Locke, Hume and Kant, I argue, develop claims about property on a model economy that I call “Frontier Town.” They and contemporary authors then apply these claims to capitalist economies. There are two problems with this application: First, we’ll be considering the wrong kind of property: The only property in Frontier Town are means of life. Critics, however, object to property in concentrated capital because they associate only this kind of property with economic coercion and political power. Second, the two economies differ in central features, so that very different claims about empirical consequences and hence about fairness and merit will be plausible for each. This second problem, I argue, is a consequence of the first. I conclude that Frontier Town theories are more likely to distort than to illuminate property issues in capitalist economies.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
This argument bears similarities to the following criticisms of the liberal concept of property: Macpherson’s (1962) historical analysis of its 17th-century foundations; Christman’s (1994) distinction between “control ownership” and “income ownership” and the different justifications for these; Gourevitch’s (2013) criticism of the neo-republican concept of domination as ignoring the structural domination at the workplace that developed with industrial capitalism; and Graeber’s (2011, ch. 2) “Myth of Barter” as the origin of our contemporary understanding of markets.
The only notable exception is the 14th-century debate on poverty between Dominicans and Franciscans.
A notable exception is Rousseau’s SecondDiscourse, Part 2.
It could be mere survival, or a certain minimal quality of life (examples would be defenses of a universal basic income from basic human needs, such as Murray 2008, or of basic rights from capabilities, such as Nussbaum 2006), or it could be the ability to preserve what characterizes you as a person ( Radin 1993a, b), or some type of equality or of freedom (e.g., Parijs 1995)—to name just a few options.
One of the very few counter-examples might be Plato (Republic 416-424). Even here, however, interpreters disagree about whether this ’communism’ is to be implemented for all citizens or only for the guardians.
See Christman (1994, ch. 7) for a contemporary treatment of this idea.
This includes economists who advocate “free markets.” Hayek (2011, pp. 381–3), e.g., regards capital concentrations (or: “monopolies”) and the resulting coercion as market failures and allows government regulations that prevent their occurrence, such as anti-trust laws.
There is a grim, Hobbesian version of this consequentialism, according to which the current situation might be lamentable but still better than its catastrophic alternatives (read: Soviet planning), and an optimistic version, on which the rising tide of capitalism will lift all boats and furthermore diminish inequalities in the long run. (A famous example is “Kuznet’s Curve,” see Kuznets 1955.)
Note again that this does not mean that there is no capital in Frontier Town; it merely means that there is no concentrated capital. As per my earlier definition (p. 6), non-concentrated capital is a constituent of means of life.
Thus, Graeber (2011, ch. 2) lists examples from contemporary economic textbooks that all start by taking “us to what appears to be an imaginary New England or Midwestern Town,” and he complains that it is difficult “to locate this fantasy in time and space” (p. 23) because it does not resemble any actual society studied by anthropologists or described in historical records. (For an analysis of the anthropological accuracy of Locke’s property theory, see Widerquist and McCall 2017, ch. 4). For my argument, it suffices that Frontier Town differs significantly from capitalist economies.
One possible interpretation that will not be discussed, e.g., is that all three authors only defend some property regime over remaining in the state of nature. They all specify a regime to adopt, and Locke and Kant believe that we already have property rights respectively a proto-version of these in the state of nature.
The mention of a servant in the respective passages should not be misunderstood as meant to indicate a class society—just as the mention of a slave by Hume (in the passage cited in Section 9 below), who also occurs in a list alongside cattle. Neither the Lockean servant nor the Humean slave are included in the group of people who adopt the social practice of property and form the state. They are part of the property.
Note that Locke’s argument here is an early predecessor of Kuznet’s Curve (see fn. 8).
Hervaeus Natalis, De paupertate Christi et apostolorum. For an English translation, see Jones (2005).
This tradition might explain why most historical authors accept property in means of life (see Section 4).
See, e.g., the special issue (vol. 22) “Kant and Marx” of the Kantian Review.
Baier AC (1987) The need for more than justice. Can J Philos 17(sup1):41–56
Breitenbach A (2005) Kant goes fishing: Kant and the right to property in environmental resources. Stud History Philos Science Part C 36(3):488–512
Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) (2015) Do we need GM crops to feed the World? http://gmoinquiry.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/do-we-need-gm-feed-world-report-E-web.pdf
Center for Food Safety (CFS) & Save Our Seeds (SOS) (2013) Seed giants vs. US farmers. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/seed-giants_final_04424.pdf
Christman J (1994) The myth of property: toward an egalitarian theory of ownership. Oxford University Press
Gilabert P (2010) Kant and the claims of the poor. Philos Phenomenol Res 81 (2):382–418
Gourevitch A (2013) Labor republicanism and the transformation of work. Polit Theory 41:4
Graeber D (2011) Debt: the first 5,000 years. Melville House
Hasan R (2018) Freedom and poverty in the Kantian state. Eur J Philos 26 (3):911–931
Hayek FA (2011) The constitution of liberty: the definitive edition. The collected works of F. A. Hayek. University of Chicago Press
Held V (2005) The ethics of care, personal, political, and global. Oxford University Press
Herzog L (2014) Eigentumsrechte im Finanzsystem. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 62(3)
Hume D (2000) A treatise of human nature: being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects. Ed. by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. With an introduction, annotations, glossary and an index. Oxford University Press
Jasay A (2004) Property and its enemies. Philosophy 79(1):57–66
Jones JD (2005) Hervaeus Natalis’ the poverty of Christ and the Apostles. A translation, with introduction and notes. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies
Kant I (1909) Metaphysik der Sitten. In: Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften (ed). Kants gesammelte Schriften, vol 6. Reimer, pp 200–494
Kuznets S (1955) Economic growth and income inequality. Am Econ Rev 45 (1):1–28
Lindsay IK (2014) A Humean theory of property rights. University of Michigan, Ph.D. thesis
Locke J (1823) An essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government. In: The works of John Locke, vol 5. Tegg, pp 338–489
Macpherson CB (1962) The political theory of possessive individualism. Hobbes to Locke, Clarendon
Mancilla A (2015) A can of tomato juice in the sea. Philos Now 107:20–21
Mansell S (2013) Shareholder theory and Kant’s duty of beneficence. J Bus Ethics 117(3):583–599
Markovits D (under contract) Snowball inequality: meritocracy and the crisis of capitalism. Harvard University Press
Marx K, Engels F (1962) Das Kapital, vol 1. In: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (ed), Werke, vol 23. Dietz
Murphy L, Nagel T (2002) The myth of ownership. Oxford University Press
Murray C (2008) Guaranteed income as a replacement for the welfare state. Basic Income Stud 3(2):article 6
Nussbaum MC (2006) Frontiers of justice: disability, nationality, species membership. Tanner lectures on human values. Belknap
Parijs Pv (1995) Real freedom for all: what (if anything) can justify capitalism? Clarendon
Peterson J (2008) Lockean property and literary works. Legal Theory 14(4):257–280
Piketty T (2013) Le capital au XXIe siècle. Éditions du Seuil
Proudhon P-J (1840) Qu’est-ce que la propriété? Recherches sur le principle du droit et du gouvernement. Prévot
Radin MJ (1993a) Property and personhood. In: Reinterpreting property. Chicago University Press, pp 35–71
Radin MJ (1993b) Residential rent control. In: Reinterpreting property. Chicago University Press, pp 72–97
Ripstein A (2009) Force and freedom: Kant’s legal and political philosophy. Harvard University Press
Shrader-Frechette K (2005) Property rights and genetic engineering: developing nations at risk. Sci Eng Ethics 11(1):137–149
Smith A (1784) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, 4th edn. Strahan & Cadell
Sterckx S (2006) The moral justifiability of patents. Ethical Perspect 13(2):249–265
Varden H (2012) A Kantian critique of the care tradition: family law and systemic justice. Kantian Rev 17(2):327–356
Waldron J (1994) The advantages and difficulties of the Humean theory of property. Soc Philos Policy 11(2):85–123
Waldron J (2013) To bestow stability upon possession: Hume’s alternative to Locke. In: Penner J, Smith H (eds) Philosophical foundations of property law. Oxford University Press
Westphal KR (2016) How Hume and 7Kant reconstruct natural law: justifying strict objectivity without debating moral realism. Clarendon
Widerquist K, McCall GS (2017) Prehistoric myths in modern political philosophy. Edinburgh University Press
Wittgenstein L (2009) Philosophische Untersuchungen / philosophical investigations, 4th edn. The German text with a revised English translation by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Blackwell
Wood AW (2007) Kantian ethics. Cambridge University Press
I am deeply grateful to the many colleagues who commented on earlier versions of this paper at various conferences. I am particularly indebted to Ulf Hlobil, Pablo Gilabert, Peter Dietsch, David Borman, Elijah Millgram, Arash Abizadeh and two anonymous reviewers.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Nieswandt, K. Beyond Frontier Town: Do Early Modern Theories of Property Apply to Capitalist Economies?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 909–923 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-019-10009-7
- Property rights
- State of nature