Locke’s Right to Theft of Private Property?

Is “theft” ever just?  Is the right to private property absolute?  That is to say, does a man in urgent need have a right to the means of his sustenance so that he is entitled, if necessary, to take what he needs from a person who has more than enough?  Regular readers of this blog will recall that this has been a frequent theme of discussion here in the past year.  In the past, however, it was Aquinas who was commonly referenced as the chief example of this concession, this limitation of private property rights (common though it was in the classical Christian tradition).  But although John Locke often figures in such discussions as the symbol for the development of modern, capitalistic, increasingly absolute property rights, it turns out that this theme is not alien to his thinking either.  He remains more traditional than we might expect.  

Locke shares with Aquinas and the tradition the belief that in the beginning, the world and its goods were created for the common enjoyment and sustenance of all mankind, each of whom had an equal right to be nourished by the earth’s fruits.  Although he gets from this point to the lawful existence of private property via a significantly different route than Aquinas, this starting point means that he can hardly allow that anyone’s subsequent private property rights could extend to the point of denying basic sustenance to the starving.  

In his meticulous summary in The Right to Private Property, Jeremy Waldron states that according to Locke, private property rights “are themselves constrained by a deeper and, in the last resort, more powerful general right which each man has to the material necessities for his survival.  This forms the basis of what one might refer to as entitlements of charity in Locke’s system.”  Waldron expounds further: according to Locke, everyone has a responsibility, second only to the preservation of his own life, to preserve the lives of others.  This of course imposes the negative duty not to harm others,

“but Locke quickly makes it clear that the duty has a positive side to it as well.  When it is put together with premisses (1) and (2), it generates the following claim-right as the substantive basis of the Lockean theory of property: ‘Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation, and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence’ (II. 25).  That this doctrine imposes positive duties on men to satisfy others’ needs (or at least stand aside while the needy make use of property  acquired by those who are not needy), and that these duties are correlative to the rights of the needy, is emphasized in the following important and often-overlooked passage from the First Treatise: 

‘God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his Children such a Property, in his peculiar portion of the things of this World, but that he has given his needy Brother a Right to the Surplusage of his Goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it. . . . As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, . . . so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise. (I. 42)’

Locke, in other words, is not prepared to concede absolute rights to any owner, no matter how respectable the [147] pedigree of his endowment.”  

Of course, we may notice the oddity of the term “entitlement of charity” and the clause, “so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty…”  This seems a bit oxymoronic, as the whole point of “charity,” one would have thought, was that it was free and voluntary, extending beyond the obligations imposed by justice.  Justice involves strict rights and obligations, it concerns what a man has a “title” to, but charity operates at the less clear-cut level of moral obligation, where one’s duty to render something to another does not necessarily correspond to any right that he has to expect it from you.  Needless to say, the dividing line between these two, particularly on this question of economic justice, has been bitterly contested.  For, if an obligation is one of justice, then, on standard definitions, one has recourse to the justice system in case the obligation is not performed.  And thus, on our particular example, the hungry man would presumably be exonerated in court for taking the loaf of bread from the rich man’s larder.  But if the property owner merely has a charitable duty to forgo his rights in favor of the needy man, then he could still prosecute the thief.  On a wider level, if the right to sustenance is a right of justice, then a government may have some role in restricting property rights accordingly.  Waldron clearly takes the right to sustenance as a fully-fledged right that can genuinely override the right to private property, but the actual language is a bit fuzzy.

Of course, Locke’s ambiguity at this point is not uncommon.  Even in Aquinas, there is a confusing tangle of duties of charity and justice governing the limitations on property rights (though John Finnis has helpfully untangled these–see here); in Leo’s Rerum Novarum, more influenced by Locke than Aquinas, he says “if the question be asked, how ought man to use his possessions? the Church replies without hesitation: ‘As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need.’ Wherefore the Apostle says: ‘Charge the rich of this world…to give readily, to share with others.’”  But, he goes on, “these are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action,” a point that has proved contentious in subsequent Catholic Social Teaching.  However, it is worth noting that Leo does make the case of extreme need–of basic sustenance–which is the proviso under discussion in Locke, a matter of justice, and so an actual structural limit on property rights.


One other interesting point on which Locke does not advocate absolute private property rights–he does not believe one has a right to use or abuse one’s property.  C.B. Macpherson claims that according to a modern understanding of property rights (with which he groups Locke), “It is a right to dispose of, or alienate, as well as to use; and it is a right which is not conditional on the owner’s performance of any social function.”  James Tully argues however, that for Locke, property rights “are not rights of abuse; on the contrary, a man ‘has not the Liberty to destroy . . . so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare preservation calls for it’ (II. 6).”

Fermentations on Discovery

The fourth issue of the magazine I help edit, Fermentations, was printed about a week ago, and is as we speak en route to the four corners of the US.  This latest issue, entitled “Discovery” includes Brad Belschner reflecting on how science really ought to work in “Science in Context,” Dr. Peter Leithart reviewing William Pfaff’s “Irony of Manifest Destiny,” Cat Sentz offering an apologia for video games in “Saving Art with Games,” instructions on how to make suet pudding, reflections on the latest shenanigans in the Anglican Communion, the ever-popular Bits of Tid, and much much more.

Here’s a particularly intriguing excerpt from the theme article, by Brad Belschner: 

“We must understand organisms within the context we find them—not just biologically, but temporally, as well. Here’s where it gets confusing. Bear with me for a moment. This is not an area many scientists have considered. Just because I did a chemical experiment today, does that mean I can repeat the exact same chemical experiment tomorrow? Well, maybe not. History itself is part of the context. Some observations just don’t match up with the Laws of Physics as they’re currently understood. I’ll give you an eerie example: When chemists synthesize new chemicals (species of chemicals the world has never seen), they often have great difficulty in getting those chemicals to crystallize. They just won’t budge. They sit there and remain liquids practically forever. Sometimes it takes years for them to crystallize. But once they do crystallize, they suddenly begin to crystallize in laboratories all over the world, simultaneously. It’s as if the chemical needed to “figure out” how to crystallize, and it took a while to get the hang of it. Turanose, an obscure kind of sugar, was considered to be a liquid for decades until it first crystallized in the 1920s. After that, turanose everywhere started crystallizing.”

If you want to learn more about Fermentations, check out our (very bare-bones and not even up-to-date, but soon to be completely renovated) website.

Romans 13 and the Law of Love

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on the subject, one of the keys to the reading of Romans 13 that I’ve been working on is to read verse 8 as if it reflects back on vs. 1-7.  This seems a rather natural thing to do, especially in view of the clear verbal connection between v. 7 and v. 8, but in the dozens of commentaries I’ve consulted, I have searched almost entirely in vain for a commentator who made any use of 13:8 to help interpret Paul’s message in 13:1-7. 

Until I came to Calvin (or rather, returned to Calvin–the first time I looked at his commentary on the passage, a year and a half ago, I didn’t even notice this juicy tidbit).  Calvin does not follow the practice of most commentators in isolating 13:1-7 as an independent section, but handles chapter 13 as a whole, and doesn’t see any major break between 7 and 8.  This means that when he comes to “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another,” he reads it, as I do, as saying, “Recognize that all your various duties are in fact nothing more or less than specifications of the call to show love to all.  In other words, these responsibilities I have just been telling you about–obeying the magistrate–are to be understood as part of what it means to exercise Christian charity.”  Wow.  This is what I would call a big deal.  But Calvin, alas, is not doing quite what I’m trying to do.  Let’s look at exactly what he says:

“I think Paul wished to refer the precept concerning the power of the magistrates to the law of love, that none might consider it weak, as if he had said, ‘When I request your obedience to magistrates, I require only what all Christians ought to perform, according to the law of love.’  For if you are desirous for virtuous men to prosper, (and not to desire this would be contrary to the feelings of humanity,) you ought to study, and zealously to labour to give validity to the laws and statutes, that he people may be obedient to the guardians and protectors of the laws, by whose blessing and favour the tranquillity of all is secured.  Charity, therfore, is violated by the introducers of anarchy, which is immediately followed by the confusion and disturbance of all establishments.  For he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law–Paul’s plan is to reduce all the commands of the law to love, that we may be assured of our obedience to the commands being conducted in a proper manner when love is maintained; and we should be prepared to undergo any burden, by which the law of charity may be preserved entire and unbroken.  The precepts already given concerning obeyed to magistrates, in which no small part of love consists, are thus strongly confirmed by Paul.” 

Now this is quite interesting.  Calvin does explicitly assert that the commands in 13:1-7 are to be understood as extensions of the law of love, but not of love shown to the magistrate, but to all our neighbors in society.  The magistrate is so good for society, argues Calvin, that if we are to love our neighbors, we must obey and reverence the magistrate, as a way of loving our neighbor.  This would seem to run directly counter to my reading, in which the point, following off of the discussion in ch. 12 of loving enemies, feeding them, and overcoming them with good, is to say, “Even though the magistrates may seem like your enemies, serve and obey them anyway, because this is all part of how you show Christlike love to them, and overcome their evil with your good.”   

Of course, the two readings are not antithetical, but there is a remarkable difference of emphasis.  A similar tendency emerges in the commentary of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s, who, following Chrysostom, argued that there was a connection between the “Do not repay evil for evil” in 12:17 and the commands not to rebel against the magistrate in 13:1-7. Again, their connection was not mine–“Don’t repay anyone evil for evil, and that includes the magistrate: whatever trouble the Roman authorities give you, don’t repay it with rebellion”–but was, on the contrary, to say, “Don’t repay anyone evil for evil, and all the more so, don’t repay evil for good, like the good that the magistrate does you.”   

These readings, while they do not seem to be as probable in context, would seem to be supported by 13:4: “He is a servant of God for your good.”  My instinct is that the two readings are not so mutually exclusive as may seem, but that there might be a bit of both going on.  But that is for another day.  For now, I merely want to draw attention to how interesting it is that the instincts of the Calvin, Vermigli, and Chrysostom, given their own experience of the magistrates, was to assume the magistrate as a friend, whereas the instinct of many of us today is to assume him as an enemy.  

Defending Constantine

All the participants in the big debate on natural law seem to have wearied of the discussion all at once, which suits me fine, as I’ve been having to attend to other things lately.  Meanwhile, Peter has posted the second installment of his series over at Wedgewords, outlining what he sees as the eschatological and ecclesiological problems of the “neo-Anabaptism” of which he considers me to be a fine specimen.  This discussion will no doubt be carried on for some time to come, and I hope to soon have leisure for further posts on natural law and the place of the Church vis-a-vis the political.  Meanwhile, though, I wanted to draw attention to one of the finest recent contributions to this whole field of discussion (ecclesiology-meets-political-theology): Peter Leithart’s brand new Defending Constantine.

In some ways a sequel to his just as provocatively titled Against Christianity (2003), but couched in the form of a historical narrative (thus showcasing Leithart’s ability to range widely across writing genres and scholarly disciplines), this book seeks to shatter all the silly myths about Constantine the man and the “Constantinianism” he stands for, and in the process, provide a new compass for a post-Christendom political theology.  As America’s Christian publishing houses have long been busy churning out criticisms of Constantine and Constantinianism, this book had the potential to be something of a bombshell, and it seems to be having the desired effect.  Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most renowned peddlers of anti-Constantinianism, recently reviewed it in the Christian Century.  

After beginning with the acknowledgment that “Asking me to write a review of Peter Leithart’s defense of Emperor Constantine may seem like asking the fox to inspect the henhouse,” Hauerwas goes on to acknowledge that, aside from the excellent historical work in the book, the theological task–critiquing Yoder’s account of Constantinianism–is powerful and persuasive, and one that Yoder himself would have taken seriously.  Hauerwas rightly recognizes that Leithart, unlike many critics of Yoder and Hauerwas, is a very appreciative critic, who grants many of their fundamental premises, but then refuses to follow their oversimplifications.  He concludes the review by saying, “As a pacifist, I could not want a better conversation partner than Peter Leithart.  God is good.”  

Other endorsements have come from N.T. Wright, who says, “Few will agree with everything he says. All will benefit enormously from this challenge to easygoing received ‘wisdom,” and from William Cavanaugh, another political theologian in the anti-Constantinian tradition.  Cavanaugh says “An excellent writer with a flair for the dramatic, Peter Leithart is also one of the most incisive current thinkers on questions of theology and politics….Any worthwhile political theology today cannot fail to take Leithart’s argument seriously.” 

Of course, if this sounds like an infomercial, it pretty much is.  This book is near and dear to my heart, as I had the privilege of helping to index it, and more importantly, as I had the privilege of studying under Leithart during the time he was working on this, and having many fantastic discussions with him about the issues involved.  

So, go buy this book! 🙂