Beyond Frontier Town: Do Early Modern Theories of Property Apply to Capitalist Economies?

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    The only notable exception is the 14th-century debate on poverty between Dominicans and Franciscans.

  3. 3.

    A notable exception is Rousseau’s SecondDiscourse, Part 2.

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    See Christman (1994, ch. 7) for a contemporary treatment of this idea.

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    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.)

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    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.

  11. 11.

    The hackneyed super-wages (Markovits, under contract) are statistically a rare phenomenon (Piketty 2013, pp. 50-53), and firm shares bought from middle-class wages (usually indirectly, through pension funds) do not fulfill my definition of “concentrated capital” (see Section 4).

  12. 12.

    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.

  13. 13.

    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.

  14. 14.

    Note that Locke’s argument here is an early predecessor of Kuznet’s Curve (see fn. 8).

  15. 15.

    Hervaeus Natalis, De paupertate Christi et apostolorum. For an English translation, see Jones (2005).

  16. 16.

    This tradition might explain why most historical authors accept property in means of life (see Section 4).

  17. 17.

    See, e.g., the special issue (vol. 22) “Kant and Marx” of the Kantian Review.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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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

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Keywords

  • Property rights
  • State of nature
  • Capital
  • Locke
  • Hume
  • Kant