Locke’s Theory of Just Expropriation and Kelo v. City of New London

by John Quiggin on April 18, 2015

For quite a few years now, I’ve been working on a response to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, a defence of free-market economics first published in 1946, but still in print and popular among libertarians. Hazlitt, as he says, is essentially just reworking Bastiat’s analysis of opportunity cost, represented by the broken window parable. What I’m trying to do is take the idea of opportunity cost seriously, and apply it across the board, including to issues of income distribution and property rights. It’s obvious (to me, at any rate) that any allocation of property rights to one or more people has an opportunity cost, namely the benefits that could be realised if the property rights were allocated to someone else. This is a live issue when property rights are being created explicitly right now, as they are with various kinds of intellectual property. But it is just as relevant when we come to consider the historical origins of property. I’ve spent a fair bit of time debating the question of whether property rights have a basis (say, in natural law) for existence independent of the states or governments that typically define and enforce them. I don’t want to talk about that issue right now, but it explains why I’m taking an interest in (I think) the most prominent proponent of natural law in relation to property, John Locke.

It’s a long time since I read Locke and, at the time, I was mostly concerned with Hume’s objection that

there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice.

That’s true of course. But rereading Locke[^1] I now conclude that he is not offering a theory of original acquisition, but rather one of expropriation, designed specifically to justify the “fraud and injustice” to which Hume refers.

(Update: Read to the end of comments, around 90, for references to the current literature, showing that the link between Locke and the need to justify expropriation in the context of American colonisation was even more direct than suggested in this post)

Locke’s central idea is that agriculturalists, by mixing their labor with the soil, thereby acquire a title to it. He immediately faces the objection that before the arrival of agriculture, hunters and gatherers worked on the land and gained sustenance from it. So, it would seem, the would-be farmer has arrived too late. The obvious example, to which he refers several times, is that of European colonists arriving in America[^2]. Locke’s answer is twofold.

First, (Sec 31) he invokes his usual claim that there is plenty of land for everybody, so that appropriating some land for agriculture can’t be of any harm to the hunter gatherers. This is obviously silly. It might conceivably be true for the first agriculturalist (though on standard Malthusian grounds there is no reason to suppose this), or the second or the fiftieth, but at some point the land must cease to be sufficient to support the pre-existing hunter-gatherer population. At this point, well before all land has been acquired by agriculturalists, his theory fails.

Locke must surely have known his claim to be false, not as a matter of abstract reasoning distant history, but in terms of contemporary fact. His Treatises on Government were published in 1689, a year after the outbreak of King William’s War (the North American theatre of the Nine Years War). The core issue in this war, as in a string of earlier conflicts, was control of the fur trade, the most economically significant form of hunter-gatherer activity. But underlying that was the general pressure arising from the steady expansion of European agriculture into lands previously owned by Indian tribes. As a capitalist, and shareholder in American businesses such as the (slaveholding) Bahama Adventurers, Locke could scarcely have been unaware of these facts.

His real defence is that regardless of whether there is a lot or a little, uncultivated land is essentially valueless (Sec 37). All, or nearly all, the value, he says, comes from the efforts of the farmers who improve the land. Since God gave us the land to improve, it rightfully belongs to those who improve it (Sec 34).

This is exactly the reasoning of the Supreme Court majority in Kelo v. City of New London. Ms Kelo and her neighbors were indeed occupying the land in question, but, so the Court concluded, they weren’t able or willing to make the best use of it. So, the only way the City could ensure the best economic use of the land in question was to use its eminent domain power of compulsory acquisition.[^3]

All of this relates back to the point I’ve raised before [^4], that the credibility of any Lockean theory defending established property rights from the state that established them depends on the existence of a frontier, beyond which lies boundless usable land. This in turn requires the erasure (mentally and usually in brutal reality) of the people already living beyond the frontier and drawing their sustenance from the land in question.

[^1]: In the course of looking for the right material, I found this piece by Samuel Goldman of The American Conservative very helpful. Goldman in turn links to a debate between Matt Yglesias and Bryan Caplan.

[^2]: The Lockean theory of expropriation was applied with even more force in Australia, with the central term in debate being the idea of terra nullius. It was only in the Mabo case, decided in 1992, that any land ownership rights predating European occupation were recognised.

[^3]: Granting the assumed facts, and addressing the issue in terms of the general status of property rights rather than the specifics of the US legal system, I think the principle on which the case was decided is correct. Governments create property rights and can change them or reallocate them if it is socially beneficial to do so. However, from long experience of cases in which monetary benefits are supposed to trump the real, if hard to measure, economic value of people’s attachment to their homes (whether or not they are the owners), I doubt that the asserted facts were correct, any more than it is generically true that the replacement of hunter-gatherers by agriculturalists is universally beneficial.

[^4]: And, rereading the comments thread for that post, I see that Chris already made the main point here, that Locke’s theory specifically favored agriculture. In that discussion, I assumed that Locke’s position was one of abstract theory, which formed part of the background to C19 expropriation, rather than a justification of an expropriation that was actually taking place.



JakeB 04.18.15 at 4:25 am

I don’t know off the top of my head what proportion of land that has been under continuous cultivation has survived it in any usable form (leaving aside of course all the effects of changing climate, invasive species and so on) but I wonder how that weighs against all the creatures that have been hunted to extinction . . . even if it’s not sort of obscene to try to make a purely economic calculation out of such things.

The other thing it brings to mind is that of course the notion that uncultivated land is valueless is flat out wrong. What proportion of medicines, for instance, come from plants more or less straight off the branch or purified (but purified only because we know about them from stumbling across them)? It’s hard to put into words, at least for me, but what proportion of value of things — say, different kinds of wood used for building — comes from all the opportunities nature has had to generate these different kinds of things — opportunities that continue to shrink quickly as more and more land comes under direct human control? Not that speciation of any large organisms occurs particularly rapidly, but most of us expect humanity to go on at least for a while yet.


js. 04.18.15 at 4:42 am

JQ, I really like this reading of Locke. (I’ll try to say something more substantive a bit later—on the one hand, I think you’re actually making his discussion of the Proviso more coherent than it actually is; on the other, it is supposed to be a limit on legitimate property rights, not a justification for all expropriation.)


Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 5:03 am

John, I think you would be interested in what William Forster Lloyd said on this in his 1836 lecture on the poor laws. His point is that the argument from *utility* assumes that the land is the common inheritance of all the inhabitants of the earth as the basis and foundation of its reasoning. In other words “utility” loses its argumentative force if that utility is solely and exclusively for the benefit of the appropriators of the land. It’s on pages 37 and 38 of his second lecture on the poor laws. I’ll see if I can scan and OCR the pages.


Randall Smith 04.18.15 at 5:07 am

Although this may seem to be a particularly mathematical response, your comment about the assumption of a “frontier” struck me powerfully as a comment about boundary conditions. We certainly do not know the differential equations that govern human behavior, but familiarity with the typical solutions suggests strongly that most solutions are governed not by the equations — the “rules” that dominate most Libertarian debates — but instead by the boundary conditions. If no-one has claimed the land, then one solution dominates. If someone, or some group, has — well, then, it is far from clear.


js. 04.18.15 at 5:08 am

Actually, I should clarify my last comment because what seems like a proto-objection in the parentheses is actually why I like this reading.

As you work through the Second Treatise, you could be forgiven for thinking that Locke’s discussion of the Proviso is a total muddle, and quite possibly hackish. You’ve got three incompatible criteria/explanations (“mixing labor”, “enough and as good left over”, “added value”—obviously satisfying any one of these may mean making the others unsatisfiable), all of which are given as accounts of the Proviso—without even any acknowledgement that they are different.

I think seeing two of those criteria as developing the view by responding to objections is a tad generous but also genuinely helpful. And I think situating the view historically helps show that, well, it is kind of hackish. What’s supposed to be a limit on genuine claims to property, i.e. the Proviso, is in fact a justification for fraud and expropriation.

(I’m going to hit ‘Submit’ but I think typing this out was more helpful for me than it’s going to be for anyone else. So, apologies.)


John Quiggin 04.18.15 at 5:27 am

@Sandwichman I’d be fascinated to read this. In my mental universe, Lloyd appears only as the progenitor of the fallacious “tragedy of the commons” argument propounded by Garret Hardin. Here’s the Southern Poverty Law Centre on Hardin



Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 5:44 am

Poor Lloyd gets a bad rap because of the misappropriation by Hardin of the parable of the pasture. Unfortunately, some critics of Hardin have back-casted Hardin’s views onto Lloyd, which is totally inappropriate. Lloyd had some very interesting and progressive ideas, especially for his time.

Here’s from pages 38-40 of Lloyd’s second lecture on the poor laws.

“Is the land to be considered as intended solely and absolutely for the use and benefit of a few appropriators, or are we to look upon it as the common inheritance of all the inhabitants of the earth? The individuals actually holding it as property are apt to maintain the former of these two positions. It is maintained, indeed, by practical men rather than by philosophers; but those philosophers, who deny the right of the poor to relief, in substance coincide with them. On the other hand, all the writers on the theory of property, so far as I have seen, virtually maintain the latter position, or perhaps I ought rather to say, they directly and unhesitatingly assume it, as the basis and foundation of all their reasonings. They defend the institution of property solely on the ground of its utility; estimating its utility by reference to the effect of the institution, not on the possessors of the property, but on the whole community. They treat it as something established conventionally for the general good. “If,” said the President Jefferson, “if there be any one natural right recognised by all, it is the right of each succeeding race to the earth and all its produce, and it is only held by particular individuals for the good of society” The prosecution of this principle into its consequences will establish the right of the poor to relief.”

“Throughout all this, I have still in view the imaginary state of things, to which I proposed in the first instance to confine the question. Let us now examine the grounds on which the appropriation of the land can be justified. Many of the reasons usually urged in is defence are wanting in this case. It is commonly said that the appropriation of the laud is necessary in order to insure its cultivation. But, here, by the hypothesis, cultivation is useless. It is said, again, that some rule is absolutely necessary for limiting and determining the persons who shall use and consume the natural products of the earth. For that, without such limitation practically enforced, there would arise perpetual strife between individuals anxious to use the same thing, the same fruit, for instance. It is also said that the same scarcity, which would thus lead to strife between individuals, would also lead to the consumption of the fruits of the earth in an immature state, and that, therefore, some limitation of the natural liberty of individuals is necessary, in order that the fruits of the earth may be preserved to maturity. These reasons, however, which would apply to my imaginary as well as to the actual state of things, though they may serve to justify some limitation, do not go to the extent of justifying the absolute appropriation of the soil and all its products to particular individuals. Provision is made by the laws of England for punishing offences against public property, and the expression involves no contradiction in terms. And in like manner, to the liberty of using and consuming at pleasure the natural products of the soil, it is possible to assign a sufficient limit, without proceeding to the extent of giving an exclusive right to particular individuals, and denying to the remainder any interest in those products.”


Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 5:53 am

If your university has Gale’s “Making of the Modern World” search there for “Lectures on population, value, poor-laws, and rent, delivered in the University of Oxford during the years 1832, 1833, 1834, 1835 and 1836.”

If not let me know and I’ll download and send you the lectures.


gianni 04.18.15 at 6:41 am

js. @5 –
please no need to apologize.

& fwiw I had a similar reaction to the op and found your comment quite interesting.


Chris Bertram 04.18.15 at 7:22 am

WRT the hunter-gatherers, Locke represents things slightly differently at sec. 37 of 2T, when he writes:

he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common.

Absent here are any ethnic or cultural differences (though I think John’s gloss very plausible) and the story is of one hunter-gatherer giving more land to the others by transforming himself into a farmer. The official story is thus one of Pareto improvement: everyone gains!


John Quiggin 04.18.15 at 8:53 am

@Chris That’s right. And, he who erects a new shopping precinct and apartment block where previously stood only a straggle of homes and small businesses benefits mankind in exactly the same way. The previous occupants should be grateful for their eviction.


t. gracchus 04.18.15 at 10:47 am

The Proviso (‘enough and as good left over’) can be read as a welfare provision. Acquisition is permitted only as long as the Proviso is met, i.e., private property depends on satisfaction of the Proviso. Enough and as good holds when all others (within the relevant circumstance) are at least as well off as they would be without the acquisition (or transfer). One could then get out a welfare dimension that rises over time.


ffrancis 04.18.15 at 10:48 am

If “the obvious example” is in fact European colonists arriving in North America, it doesn’t fit the reality. Almost all the land on the eastern seaboard – and for some distance inland – was occupied by agricultural communities, not by hunter-gatherers. The colonists brought with them a different style of agriculture which they sought to impose on (the best) land where Native farmers had been growing crops for many generations.


Jacob T. Levy 04.18.15 at 11:59 am

As to the point about Locke, I’ll note that this has been a central issue in the Locke scholarship of the last 30 years, with James Tully as the most important figure. There’s more disagreement on how to read Locke here than you might think.

In my own work on Madison and American Indian rights, I found Madison– in some respects an open Lockean– denying the legitimacy of the agriculturalists’ appropriation argument on the grounds that it left all property rights forever unstable to the next-more-efficient farmer to come along.

What Locke denies, of course, is that there can be any acts of original appropriation once civil society has been established. Once there’s a regular system of law identifying and protecting property rights (and maybe once there’s money), if you want to convert land to a more productive use, you buy it. In the idea that the establishment of the state flips a switch on the mode of property acquisition he follows Grotius. As far as I can see– though some people who know Locke much better than I do disagree here– he *doesn’t* follow Grotius’ apparent view that the indigenous peoples of North America counted as having civil societies.


Christ, Uhren, und Schmuck 04.18.15 at 12:09 pm

“This is a live issue when property rights are being created explicitly right now, as they are with various kinds of intellectual property.”

Here’s a good one:


Main Street Muse 04.18.15 at 12:15 pm

An interesting discussion, particularly in light of the fact that in America, all land was seized in a fraudulent manner (read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for examples of the fraudulent contracts, broken promises, etc.)

“Is the land to be considered as intended solely and absolutely for the use and benefit of a few appropriators, or are we to look upon it as the common inheritance of all the inhabitants of the earth?”

I know this is a discussion about Locke and land, but in reading this quote from Lloyd’s lecture on the poor laws (thank you Sandwichman @7!), I could only think about the Wall Street bankers and the mortgage fraud and the tranches and the CDOs and the synthetic CDOs created by bankers to enrich their bonus pool and the poor suckers who were stuck with underwater mortgages or foreclosed outright.

There is no “common inheritance” – there is only the sullied motivations of deeply flawed humans that determine such things as ownership.


Henry 04.18.15 at 12:45 pm

Sam Goldman is a colleague of mine at GWU, and every bit as great and as smart as his post suggests.


Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 3:57 pm

Locke’s “increase the common stock of mankind” is consistent with Lloyd’s interpretation that the argument from utility assumes land is a common inheritance of all humanity. The step from commonality to exclusivity involves a purported restriction of provisions from one hundred acres to ten.

Where Locke descends into incoherence is when he gets to money as the panacea for waste and spoilage — “his nuts for a piece of metal.” Setting aside liquidity issues (and counterfeiting), money cuts the bond between the utility and the restrictive assumptions. It solves the mundane physical problem of decay by elevating it to an ethereal, systemic level.


Marshall 04.18.15 at 4:12 pm

Here in rural Oregon, available marshland was converted to pasture a hundred years ago and is still used to raise beef cattle. These days the State is more environmentally sensitive and supports reclaiming the pasture as wetlands. The work is generally done and paid for by private organizations such as Ducks Unlimited or by developers doing required mitigation as well as by quasi-governmental entities such as the Sough Slough Marine Reserve, but there is public policy at work throughout explicitly enforced by e.g. the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission.

Reclamation, seen as the intrusion of the state, is generally opposed by local conservatives on the explicit grounds that pasture is valuable, marshland is not. Reclamation is opposed even in the case of willing seller/willing buyer on the grounds that pastureland is a store of value for the whole community … as, generating tax revenue, but the feeling is not primarily financial. More of a “raw vs. cooked” sort of vibe.

Of course the 19c. conversion to pasture involved expropriating previous hunting and gathering rights in the old-fashioned frontier way, but the present tension depends if anything on the available land being limited.


Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 4:14 pm

“He that gathered a hundred bushels of acorns or apples, had thereby a property in them, they were his goods as soon as gathered. He was only to look, that he used them before they spoiled, else he took more than his share, and robbed others.”

“Again, if he would give his nuts for a piece of metal, pleased with its colour; or exchange his sheep for shells, or wool for a sparkling pebble or a diamond, and keep those by him all his life he invaded not the right of others, he might heap up as much of these durable things as he pleased; the exceeding of the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in it.

“And thus came in the use of money… ”

And so, in lieu of robbing others of a few bushels of rotten apples, money enables the perishing of land’s status as the common inheritance of all the inhabitants of the earth.


RoyL 04.18.15 at 6:03 pm

I really don’t think you can look at Kelo without considering how poorly this sort of project has gone in the United States. New London condemned usable property to make a desert, not a wetland btw. Poletown was destroyed to build a car factory in a city that even in its hay day was filled with huge empty parcels and underutalized industrial areas.

Also this sort of transfer of property from one user to another has a justice problem in that it displaces the many, usually poor and always politically weak in favor of the wealthy and politically connected. In a capitalist order these will usually be one and the same.

The best argument for strong property rights is that it might stop things like this. This is the reason opposition to Kelo is one of the libertarian right’s most popular causes and why so many non libertarians objected to Kelo. Including many who would support use of eminant domain for genuine public projects.


RoyL 04.18.15 at 6:09 pm

I failed to add that Lockean arguments are really not what modern libertarians believe, or many of their fellow travellers. Just look at how frequently American indians are mentioned by nativists of the most libertarian stripe. Most Americans on the libertarian right have not lived in a society with any meaningful frontier in a century, they have already fully adapted their ideology.


Peter Dorman 04.18.15 at 6:39 pm

This is a great thread, and I like the way John kicked it off. Following on the lead of #13, I’d like to offer a hypothesis about idealized systems of land utilization and racial ideology.

Locke in his defense of the expropriation of indigenous people in the Americas makes a hard distinction between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists: the greater productivity of the latter justifies their expropriation of the former. He would be unlikely to make this same argument to justify the expropriation of less adept farmers by more adept ones. Yet we also know that (1) there is no clear separation between hunting-gathering and active management of the land, and (2) agriculture played an important economic role in many indigenous communities, especially on the eastern seaboard. Like many of you, my head was turned on this topic by Cronon’s Changes in the Land.

One could ask what Locke knew and when did he know it. Was he aware of the actual economies of the native peoples he wished to expropriate? Did he know that the land had previously supported vastly larger numbers prior to the horrific epidemics introduced by the first European colonizers? My hypothesis is that he never asked such questions because his map of land utilization was not empirical but racial. He assumed a racial hierarchy, one component of which was the progressive and efficient use of land by his people compared to the unchanging and wasteful use by the savages. (Assumptions about radical differences in governance are also part of this stew.)

If I’m right, and this is just a hypothesis, Locke’s argument from utility is a product of refracted racism.

This way of looking at the problem occurred to me when I read David Blackbourn’s wonderful The Conquest of Nature. It describes the environmental transformation of Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with special emphasis on the draining of the swamps along the eastern frontier. A number of important themes are pursued in this book, but one of the main ones is the racialized interpretation of land use systems. Slavic peoples were seen as lazy and unproductive, willing to live in swamps, while good German farmers, brought in to colonize the newly reclaimed lands, were hardworking and even closer to “true” nature. It was surprising to see how deeply embedded this racial narrative was and also how integrated with nature philosophy (Naturphilosophie).

All this, again, is hypothesis in the context of Locke. It might be interesting to read him from this perspective, however.


Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 7:50 pm

“Libertarian” is the new authoritarian.


Bernard Yomtov 04.18.15 at 7:59 pm


Locke in his defense of the expropriation of indigenous people in the Americas makes a hard distinction between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists: the greater productivity of the latter justifies their expropriation of the former. He would be unlikely to make this same argument to justify the expropriation of less adept farmers by more adept ones.

Indeed. And a few more questions:

1. What exactly is to become of those “less efficient” hunter-gatherers? They seem to disappear entirely in some of the discussion here. That can’t be right.

2. Why are the hunter-gatherers presumed not be making productive use of the land? If the land feeds game which can be hunted, and grows wild plants that can be gathered and eaten, and taking advantage of this requires some sorts of efforts, then surely they are making productive use of the land.

3. Why insist on essentially individual ownership? It seems to me that collective, say tribal, use of an area of land is also ownership.


Omega Centauri 04.18.15 at 9:05 pm

If we were trying to be quantitative scientific about things, the most important issue would be
the creation of metrics, by which valuation and comparison of different potential outcomes could be accomplished. A common (but I don’t think very good) metric is something like the total human population that the combined system/nature can support -perhaps modified by some assumptions about the quality of those lives. If you take this sort of metric and seek to maximize it, than the expropriation for more “productive” usage follows.

Now, if we add in something like a Pareto criteria, that all identifiable parties must benefit or at least don’t lose ground on any deal, then justification is more difficult, but not very much so. For instance take 1% of the land from hunter gathers. Now because they are in better contact with the civilized world they now have better opportunities to trade (for instance forest goods (including land rights), for industrial objects, such as metal knives, medicines, cloth, and so on), that they will be able to more than make up for the lost land by increased productivity (they can probably hunt and gather more efficiently because of their access to some modern technology). Obviously this leads to a slippery slope which usually ends up with the loss of culture and often absorption into the “superior” culture.


Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 9:23 pm

“Obviously this leads to a slippery slope…”

Obviously. Actually, it starts out on a slippery slope, too.


dsquared 04.18.15 at 9:53 pm

Roger Scruton, semi-seriously, suggested (in the context of the Middle East, but apparently with more general applicability) that land should be appropriated to the first person to plant it with vineyards. It’s kind of a version of Locke’s theory, plus a bit of gerrymandering to make sure that non-Europeans and cultures that don’t drink wine get the shaft. It also doesn’t work all that well for Ireland and Scotland, where presumably a different theory is needed.


dsquared 04.18.15 at 9:56 pm

However, from long experience of cases in which monetary benefits are supposed to trump the real, if hard to measure, economic value of people’s attachment to their homes

There definitely needs to be a link to “The Castle” here.


Bruce Wilder 04.18.15 at 9:57 pm

Potatoes, oats


Sandwichman 04.18.15 at 10:30 pm



Main Street Muse 04.18.15 at 11:23 pm

“Oats and beans and barley grow…”

Singing it now. Probably will be stuck in my head for a while. Thanks guys. ;-)


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 12:19 am


Robespierre 04.19.15 at 12:57 am

This thread needs way more Georgism.


Val 04.19.15 at 1:05 am

@ 29
Interesting that you refer to The Castle. In Victoria we have a situation where the recently elected State Government has just backed out of a dodgy proposed freeway deal entered into by its predecessor, leaving affected homeowners in a peculiar situation where they can have their compulsorily acquired homes back – if they still want them

Also note the dodgy Opposition spokesperson in the article. Having got the State into a secret deal which was set to lose public money for the foreseeable future, the conservatives are now extracting all possible political mileage from the costs of getting out of it. This would no doubt include fanning the belief that the freeway is inevitable and will happen eventually.

Poor old homeowners.


oldster 04.19.15 at 1:30 am

Jacob T. Levy @14:

“In my own work on Madison and American Indian rights, I found Madison– in some respects an open Lockean– denying the legitimacy of the agriculturalists’ appropriation argument on the grounds that it left all property rights forever unstable to the next-more-efficient farmer to come along.”

Good for Madison!

I wonder whether Lincoln was familiar with Madison’s move when he wrote the following:

Fragments on Slavery
Abraham Lincoln
April 01, 1854

“If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly? You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest; you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”


oldster 04.19.15 at 1:42 am

Locke and Kelo–

Do I understand, John, that part of your point in writing this is to argue that any libertarians who object to Kelo ought to object to Locke’s theory as well?

That may be right, but as a non-libertarian, I can see one reason for me to object more to Locke than (even) to Kelo:

the Kelo argument licenses the state in expropriating property for the benefit of the whole commonwealth. Locke licenses any old free agent (or freebooter) in expropriating property for their sole benefit.

Yes, the Lockean argument may turn on some vague appeal to Pareto optimality (though clearly that must be false, inasmuch as the dispossessed are clearly worse off). And yes, the Kelo argument is ripe for abuse by plutocrats who have captured the state and can pretend that what is good for Adelson Casinos is good for the people at large.

But at least the Kelo reasoning (if I understand it) allows us to challenge decisions one by one about whether they do, in fact, benefit the commonwealth. Whereas Locke (if I understand him) makes no such provision for the challenging of an individual expropriator. If a Lockean expropriator cannot show that their particular act of expropriation will concretely benefit anyone but themselves, this has no tendency to undermine their newly acquired property right.

So, if you are like me and think that one of the govt’s central roles is promoting the general welfare, but you are not keen on rapacious private acquisition, then you can endorse Kelo while rejecting Locke. (I think?)


Peter T 04.19.15 at 1:53 am

IIRC, Locke may have been thinking less of the Native Americans than the Irish, as he was an active participant in the expropriation of Irish land after 1688. And that expropriation was, of course, frequently justified by pointing to the inferior productivity of the native Irish.

I have always been confused by the notion of opportunity cost. If you do or have one thing you cannot simultaneously do or have another is an obvious piece of common sense. But how can you assign a cost to all the things you might be doing or having? So many arbitrary assumptions seem to me to be immediately required as to render the notion of a quantifiable cost very dubious indeed.


Main Street Muse 04.19.15 at 2:06 am

@33 – now I’m wondering if this song is a sly way of indoctrinating children into the happy duties of that come with a devotion to agriculture.


dilbert dogbert 04.19.15 at 2:21 am

“His real defence is that regardless of whether there is a lot or a little, uncultivated land is essentially valueless (Sec 37). All, or nearly all, the value, he says, comes from the efforts of the farmers who improve the land. Since God gave us the land to improve, it rightfully belongs to those who improve it (Sec 34).”
MMMMMM???? What about farmers who “improve” land to the point of it being valueless??? I am thinking of the growing of crops that deplete the soil. I think you all smart folks can come up with an almost endless list of “improvements” that are destructive.
As long as I get to define what “improve” means then I am all for Kelo.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 2:29 am

Peter T @ 38 “I have always been confused by the notion of opportunity cost…”

Does this help? J. A. Hobson on opportunity cost: “It reminds one of the famous definition of sugar as ‘the stuff which makes tea nasty when you don’t put any in.'”


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 2:31 am

“I’m wondering if this song is a sly way of indoctrinating children into the happy duties of that come with a devotion to agriculture.”



Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 2:37 am

“I think you all smart folks can come up with an almost endless list of “improvements” that are destructive.”

Yep. The analysis of “external” — or rather shifted — costs blows the improvement story out of the water. That’s why economists treat “market failure” as if it is something more like dandruff than pancreatic cancer.


John Quiggin 04.19.15 at 5:38 am

Chris @10: Actually, what Locke is talking about is a *potential* Pareto improvement; what is commonly, but misleadingly, called by economists an increase in efficiency.

Locke isn’t foolish enough to claim that farmers actually give their surplus to everyone else. Rather, his line, repeated by Kaldor and Hicks three centuries later, is that there is an increase in aggregate output, such that the losers from the farmers’ appropriation could, in principle, be compensated.

Locke may in fact be the first to put forward the idea of PPI/efficiency, although of course he didn’t use the term. It’s not the kind of thing that would have fitted into a pre-capitalist way of thinking about the world, so I doubt that it could have been thought of much earlier.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 6:06 am

“Locke isn’t foolish enough to claim that farmers actually give their surplus to everyone else. Rather, his line, repeated by Kaldor and Hicks three centuries later, is that there is an increase in aggregate output, such that the losers from the farmers’ appropriation could, in principle, be compensated.”

Except Kaldor-Hicks is “unacceptable nonsense” (I.M.D. Little). Really. For there to be an “increase” in aggregate output, there has to be some independent standard of value with which to measure the aggregate output to determine whether or not it is an “increase.” There is none. David Ellerman argues — convincingly, in my view — that the K-H efficiency/equity distinction is simply an artifact of the choice of numeraire. The supposed “efficiency” of a policy outcome measured in dollars is an illusion created by the fact that efficiency is being measured with the same money yardstick that was used to assign value in the first place to incommensurable things like human life, output of goods and services and damage to the environment. The catalog of repudiation of the Kaldor-Hicks nonsense is immense.



John Quiggin 04.19.15 at 6:19 am

@45 I didn’t intend to endorse Kaldor-Hicks. I’ve long planned a paper in which I extract something sensible from the large pile of nonsense, but I’ve never got around to it, and I’m not sure that the approach I have in mind (too long to fit in the margin) would work.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 6:44 am

No, I didn’t think you were endorsing Kaldor-Hicks. But I want to defend Locke from the suggestion that he, too, was trying to “make value judgments without making value judgments.” Locke makes explicit value judgments and they are compelling and enduring ones — up to a point. Locke ultimately succumbs to a money illusion but that is better than starting out with one, like K-H.

For all his faults, Locke was breaking new ground. The Kaldor piece was a knock-off. The take down began almost immediately. I haven’t been able to find anywhere that Nicholas Kaldor himself returns to the compensation criterion. Later in his career Hicks “virtually deserted” the criterion (Persky). How the K-H compensation criterion ever became a thing has to be a story in its own right. My hunch is it told some people in authority something they wanted to hear. End of story.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 6:46 am

“Locke was breaking new ground…” unintentional irony!


Chris Bertram 04.19.15 at 7:10 am

@John his line, repeated by Kaldor and Hicks three centuries later, is that there is an increase in aggregate output, such that the losers from the farmers’ appropriation could, in principle, be compensated.

That’s not the natural reading of the passage I quoted. According to Locke, the hunter-gatherer-turned-farmer in that passage doesn’t compensate in principle, but in practice. Since he no longer competes with the hunter gatherers for resources in the larger territory because he meets his needs from his small but efficient plot, he directly confers on them a benefit by making more resources available (a greater area of land) to them *as hunter gatherers* than were previously available. There are passages where he makes the more general claim about increased output, for example, sec 41 where he writes that “a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.” The day-labourer has been made better off despite not having access to land; the hunter gatherers in the earlier passage are being made better off because of lessened competition for the land they use for hunting and gathering.


John Quiggin 04.19.15 at 7:58 am

@49 Yes, I think that’s right. But given that the hunter-gatherers are inevitably dispossessed in the end, there’s definitely something wrong with the argument.


bad Jim 04.19.15 at 8:03 am

The characteristic vegetation of Southern California is deprecated as “scrub”, and generations of developers have thought it could only be improved by turning it into cookie-cutter suburban playgrounds. (Enough of my neighbors agreed that it was worth saving a bit of it that we’ve doubled our property values.) Intermittent wetlands have been considered nuisances and rivers treated as flood hazards, and in turning them into something tractable we have destroyed treasures.

The drought is drying up rivers, so fisheries, agriculture, and clean hydroelectric power contend for a vanishing resource. It’s a utilitarian nightmare. The regulatory environment, in its limited sway, is traditional, deontological, governed by seniority.

We don’t know how it used to work, we don’t know how it works now, and we don’t have an agreement how it ought to work now or in the near or distant future. But hey, maybe we’ll get a little rain next week.


Val 04.19.15 at 8:45 am

bad Jim @ 51
There are word descriptions of what parts of Melbourne looked like before white people came – the lagoon, the blue fringe lilies, the black swans – but how do you calculate the monetary value of that, now that it’s all been tidied up and concreted?


Val 04.19.15 at 8:55 am

Which – my @52 – is another way of saying, why do economists get it so wrong, and have so much power? For preventing confusion.


bad Jim 04.19.15 at 9:56 am

“Consider a spherical cow.”

Any sort of theory has to start with simple assumptions. The problem is deciding what’s important. Typically, a certain state of affairs is considered normal, perturbations of which are easily, even elegantly described. Abrupt changes to expected input are not. Adjustments are ugly. Unexpected parameters are as unwelcome as uninvited and unkempt guests to a formal affair. “Sea otters are not on the list.”

Except it turns out they’re a keystone species and affect the health of the kelp upon which many other species depend, some commercially valuable. (They’re also adorable.)

In theory we could sum all living things together and maximize their utility, though the outcome of that thought experiment would probably be The Last Flight of Doctor Ain. We could recognize that the pervasiveness of American poverty diminishes us all. We can’t. It’s too hard.


William Timberman 04.19.15 at 12:27 pm

This thread reminds me of a lot of the defenses of capitalism in general, and of so-called free trade agreements in particular which go something like this:

Never mind all the dead and impoverished people left in the wake of a history that stretches from enclosure to the dark satanic mills to colonialism to the iPhone. Look how many more of us there are now than there were then, and how much more to eat we all have now than we had then. We’ve been remarkably successful as a species! (And, incidentally, never mind about the downward pressure on wages in the capitalist economies of today, or global warming, or the mass die-off of species. Think how much better off the Chinese, Indian, etc. masses are. Why even Africa looks to be coming along nicely!)

I can’t argue about this any more, because I no longer have the power to imagine, let alone describe, where we’d be if we hadn’t convinced ourselves of the inevitability of the last two or three hundred years of our history. Nevertheless, I have a bad, bad feeling about convictions that have come to be so adept at avoiding unpleasant contradictory evidence.


david 04.19.15 at 12:40 pm

I like how we’ve moved from a largely social-democratic attack on libertarian absolutist propertarianism to zero-growth absolutist greenism.


dilbert dogbert 04.19.15 at 1:05 pm


Mdc 04.19.15 at 1:52 pm

Been a while since I read Locke, but the classic opposition between land uses in other writers is not farmer vs hunter-gatherer, but farmer vs nomadic shepherd. In the Bible, the farmer is always the bad guy, from Cain vs Abel on.


Omega Centauri 04.19.15 at 2:26 pm

49,50. Its not so hard to come up with reasons why the simple Pareto improvement logic fails. The most obvious is that temporal effects are not taken into account. Prior to the agricultural revolution, the human population was in a quasi-steady state. Now that some of the land is being farmed, the previous limit on human population has been altered, soon the number of mouths will grow, and the demands for more farmland will become inexorable. Of course there is also the fact that rarely is it the hunter gatherers who become the farmers, more often the farmers are outsiders moving into the territory.


Dean C. Rowan 04.19.15 at 3:58 pm

This post and comment thread is over my head in the best way. Thanks for it. I feel as if I’m reading a Not-So-Dummies Guide to Property Rights in Economics. I’ll just leave this as a fun illustration: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/nail-houses-stubborn-owners-re-88403


Watson Ladd 04.19.15 at 4:16 pm

I think we’re misreading Locke as an economist. Locke is defending expropriation as a political maneuver: replacing a world in which human sacrifice and hereditary kings existed by one that had democracy and freedom. Of course, when it comes to Ireland there is also the necessity to avoid giving the Pope a naval base just a few miles away from England.

Most right wing economists would argue against forcible transfer. If there really is a gain from a new use, compensation can be arranged and will be accepted. New London, in this picture, was a gang of thugs paid to steal because it was cheaper than the price of purchase. The wool-dropping picture of adequate compensation ignores the simple reality, that adequate compensation is that which gets people to sell.

Several people mentioned the ancient Near East as an example of these conflicts. I don’t think expansion of agriculture was benign: I think it was war from the very beginning, just as it was war in the US Southwest. It has not turned out very well for the losers of that war. But those who went and admitted defeat, and integrated into the US economy, did far better than those who stayed behind.

We aren’t going to overcome capital by going back to being hunter-gatherers or farmers, but only by changing who controls what.


magari 04.19.15 at 4:37 pm

^ This is smart. So too is the ole Locke switcharoo, which is to say if all land has been enclosed, then all private property can come under scrutiny as to whether it serves the public good. Why? Because of (a) the obvious “as much and as good” clause, which no longer is satisfiable, and (b) the fact that the clause speaks to the idea of the common wealth.


mattski 04.19.15 at 6:11 pm

@ 45

For there to be an “increase” in aggregate output, there has to be some independent standard of value with which to measure the aggregate output to determine whether or not it is an “increase.” There is none.

This seems clearly in error to me. Just because we can’t measure something precisely means it isn’t a useful concept? Aren’t you implying that it isn’t possible for standards of living to rise? After all, how can this be accurately measured?

Nor do I understand your complaints about money. Fwiw.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 6:41 pm

@63 “This seems clearly in error to me.”

Once upon a time, there was a concept of “marginal utility” and even “diminishing marginal utility” which suggested that a $100 payment would be subjectively “worth more” to an indigent person than to Bill Gates. The objection was raised that this was unscientific because who were we (the economists) to make interpersonal comparisons of utility?

The Pareto principle of making at least one person better off without making anyone worse of gets around this problem of interpersonal comparisons but leaves no room for economists to make policy prescriptions.

Kaldor-Hicks tries to have it both ways and fails colossally. What is the standard of value? Utility. How is that determined? Subjectively (see also “opportunity cost”). Who is THE SUBJECT? Uhm… somebody else, who could conceivably compensate the other guy whether or not the compensation actually happens?

So instead of unscientific interpersonal comparisons of utility, we are presented with pseudo-scientific transpersonal projections of utility. $100 is now worth more to Bill Gates because he could give it (whether or not he does) to the indigent person who it is subjectively worth more to!

Does that seem less clearly in error to you? It seems like a dog’s breakfast to me.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 7:07 pm

But of course $100 is worth exactly $100 measured in dollars. The bright butterfly of utility, having eluded the interpersonally incomparable subject, alights on the unit of measurement. And we all know that one util of utility is worth exactly one util of utility. How much is that in butterflies?


Rich Puchalsky 04.19.15 at 7:16 pm

Isn’t an economy denominated in solar energy units theoretically possible? I mean, you need a complex ecosystem to get full use out of the solar energy shining on any particular place, so degrading that ecosystem counts as a lessening of income. But isn’t that really the standard of value that has some kind of actual existence?


mattski 04.19.15 at 7:37 pm


I get that externalities are difficult to measure/account for. We don’t know what damage we’ve done to the planet via our wanton consumption of fossil fuels. Maybe it’s all a moot point because environmental armageddon is in our near future. Hard to say.

What isn’t hard to say is that standards of living actually do go up! People actually do like hot showers and cold beer and are generally willing to work for the privilege of enjoying them.

I don’t see where your sarcasm towards the profession of economics really adds much to our collective understanding.

Krugman, for instance, handles this sort of thing without resorting to eating dog food, istm.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 7:40 pm

“Isn’t an economy denominated in solar energy units theoretically possible?”


See Georgescu-Roegen, “the fallacy of the energy theory of economic value” in “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in Retrospect.” Eastern Economic Journal
Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1986), pp. 3-25.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 8:08 pm

“What isn’t hard to say is that standards of living actually do go up!”


I agree it isn’t hard to say. I might even agree (or not?) that living standards go “up”. But having an opinion is fundamentally different than having a measurement that objectively verifies that opinion.

You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.

What the Kaldor-Hicks episode was about was trying to circumvent the subjective, ethical dimension with a measurable, objective standard. Good luck with that. But their solution to the problem was, as Little described it, “unacceptable nonsense.”

Basically the “aggregate output” illusion relies on a perceptual trick, similar to an optical illusion. It starts out with some defined concepts — utility, output, money. But those things also have habitual connotations and associations. The argument slides imperceptibly from the defined meanings of the concepts to their popular connotations without noticing that they are two very different — and in some respects, contradictory — things. The result is often a dominance reaction (the habitual connotation dominates the definition) or a compromise rather than recognition of the incongruity between the definition and the habitual connotation. See Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman, “On the perception of incongruity: a paradigm” for a discussion and experimental demonstration of how this happens.

Sarcasm? Me?


James Wimberley 04.19.15 at 8:17 pm

Omega Centauri. #59: “Of course there is also the fact that rarely is it the hunter gatherers who become the farmers, more often the farmers are outsiders moving into the territory.”
Confirmed for Neolithic Europe by Cavalli-Sforza’s minute analysis of genetic differences in European populations. (Here, Figure 2, top chart)


Matt 04.19.15 at 9:03 pm

Isn’t an economy denominated in solar energy units theoretically possible?

I would give a slightly different answer from Sandwichman: it is possible, but only in the sense that an economy denominated in gold or wool is possible. You’re still just fooling yourself if you think you can choose one thing as a special denominator and compute meaningful “equivalents” of it for every other product and service.


Rich Puchalsky 04.19.15 at 9:23 pm

Last I looked at Georgescu-Roegen, I thought that his whole second law of thermodynamics approach didn’t really consider that the sun is continuously putting low-entropy energy into the system. That’s what everything depends on, and that’s why it’s not like denominating the economy in gold or wool: we could have zero gold or zero wool and everything wouldn’t collapse.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 9:35 pm

“Last I looked at Georgescu-Roegen, I thought that his whole second law of thermodynamics approach didn’t really consider that the sun is continuously putting low-entropy energy into the system.”

Have you ever considered the possibility, Rich, that you are underestimating Georgescu-Roegen?


Matt 04.19.15 at 9:53 pm

Sunlight is just one of many necessities. Without carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, chlorine, sodium, potassium, magnesium, iron, or calcium (at the very least — I am omitting many trace elements) plant growth, human life, and all associated economic activity would cease. And you really can’t turn sunlight into sulfur or vice versa, though you can ad-hoc your way to some equivalence analogously to how you can price everything in gold.

I am prejudiced against Georgescu-Roegen for his “Fourth Law of Thermodynamics” bunkum, though for all I know he has good insights otherwise.


mattski 04.19.15 at 9:56 pm


OK, but @ 45 you are attacking the idea that we could have an increase in output on the grounds that we have no ‘independant’ standard to measure this. I’m saying that’s silly. Last year my factory made 100 chairs. This year it made 200 chairs. (Sold out of course!) That’s an increase in output. Just because there are lots of different goods exchanged in the economy doesn’t mean we can’t have a reasonable though not precise knowledge of output levels. I’m sure you’ll howl but $$$ does give us a rough proxy for this.

You seem to me to be latching onto a lack of precision as an excuse to dismiss what genuine insights the discipline has to offer.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 10:04 pm

Sarcasm? Me?

No, really. The Sandwichman doesn’t deliberately do sarcasm. I suspect that what provokes that impression is that, in exasperation, I will sometimes try to explain things in grotesquely simplistic terms and use expressions like “once upon a time” to draw attention to the inescapable narrative features of the explanation.

Everyone makes mistakes (and hopefully learn from their mistakes) but when the same mistakes keeps being made, systematically, year after year and there doesn’t appear to be anything learned or effective transmission of what has been learned then something else is happening. Such mistakes are not just mistakes. They are clues to something much more fundamental going on.

What exasperates the Sandwichman is how little interest there is in finding out what is going on behind the systematic cognitive errors compared to the tireless effort being expended denying that the mistakes are mistakes. Call it cognitive dissonance, correlation heuristic or incongruity paradigm, this systematic mis-cognition — rather than rationality or irrationality — appears to be the human condition/comedy. Moliere might be a better guide than Locke.


Sandwichman 04.19.15 at 10:11 pm

“Last year my factory made 100 chairs. This year it made 200 chairs.”

Let’s stick with cold beer, please. Something I can understand and would give me utility at the moment. Would you rather have 100 cold beers and 200 hours to drink them in or 200 cold beers and 100 hours to drink them in? Isn’t that a subjective judgment? Do you suppose the value of beer in hours and the value of hours in beer is the same starting from each of the two conditions?


Omega Centauri 04.19.15 at 10:44 pm

Rich in 66. Much as the physicist in me (and the PV enthusuiast in me), wishes SEU (Solar Energy Units) could be implemented, it just don’t pass muster. Consider the difference between a forest, and ground totally covered in PV panels. The later is more than an order of magnitude more efficient at converted sunlight to “useable” energy. But obviously raw energy all by itself isn’t of much value. Or for a more extreme case, the embedded energy (solar or not) represented by a hydrogen bomb. Surely the H-bomb would be an extremely valuable form of exchange in the SEU economy?


Rich Puchalsky 04.19.15 at 11:12 pm

I’m not talking about units of energy as units of electricity — if you covered land in solar panels, you’d be producing human-useable electricity, but you’d be diverting that energy from the production of air, water, food, and ecosystem maintenance. I’m not really sure which process is more efficient.

I’ve mentioned that you need an ecosystem to convert the solar energy more or less efficiently, so I’d model shortages of various elements as differences in the conversion efficiency, and therefore of the production, of solar energy units in different places. It may be just as much a kludge as converting everything into gold, but you canmodify a human economy into producing more or less elemental gold. You can’t really do much for long about the supply of useable solar energy (other than decreasing it).


Val 04.20.15 at 12:07 am

A basic problem with mainstream economics is that it tries to convert everything into utility and exchange value (as at least some of you are doing again here). It does this because patriarchy – the assumption that there is a subordinate sphere of “women, cattle, slaves [and] scarce land” (as Weber succinctly put it) that does not have intrinsic value except in so far as it can be used, fought over or traded for exchange value and profit. That’s the intellectual origins of mainstream economics.

See eg Marilyn Waring ‘Policy and the measure of women: Revisiting UNSNA, ISEW, HDI and GPI’ pp 165-179 in Ariel Salleh (ed) ‘Eco-sufficiency & global justice : women write political ecology’:

The [mainstream economic assumptions expressed in the United Nations System of National Accounts {UNSNA}] are:
The economy is made up of production and consumption.
The units of the economy are “households and legal entities”.
“The defining characteristic of an institutional unit is that it is capable of owning goods and assets, incurring liabilities and engaging in economic activities and transactions with other units in its own right.” (UNSNA)

Units are grouped in five sectors:
“a. Non-financial corporations;
b. Financial corporations;
c. Government units, including social security funds;
d. NPIs serving households (NPISHs);
e. Households.”

The work that is done within households is not counted as production unless it is produced for sale outside the household ( including if it is produced for sale but some of it is used for the household eg in agriculture)

Subsistence economies are not counted at all obvs

Waring was writing about the 1993 UNSNA, but I have checked and the sections she cites are the same in the 2008 one.

I can’t expand on this right now, because I have to get on with my thesis, but if it isn’t clear please don’t assume that’s because I’m a fervent but not very bright feminist coming out with some dogma (because I’m not, and I shouldn’t have to say it, but experience tells me that it might be a good idea).


Val 04.20.15 at 12:11 am

The square brackets in this:
The [mainstream economic assumptions expressed in the United Nations System of National Accounts {UNSNA}] are:
aren’t needed – I got confused when I was cutting and pasting from my own notes on Waring, not from Waring herself
– so please ignore them


John Quiggin 04.20.15 at 1:02 am

mdc @58 Cain and Abel occurred to me also, but I didn’t have time and space to work this story in.

Reading Locke, he clearly wants to exclude “nomadic” herdsmen who move around a given territory, but presumably not graziers who move their herds around between fields on their own farms. This distinction is so tenuous, he might as well come and say that land belongs to the first European who grabs it.

I assume he wasn’t aware of swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture, but this would create even bigger problems for his theory, especially given the intermediate case of the three-field system.


Chris Warren 04.20.15 at 12:55 pm

The real point with Locke’s theory of property (ie taking from the commons into private hands) may appear to be his argument of how attaching labour to something that does not damage the rest, but, the real problem is a few pages later.

In Book 2, section 28, Locke then says that “… the turfs my servant has cut; … become my property”.

This means that Locke’s theory was really just an ideological rationalisation for the existing state of affairs of Lords and servants.

It is interesting on that account.


William Timberman 04.20.15 at 4:29 pm

The surface of Bruce Wilder’s argument changes, and often seduces us into engaging it at this or that point as our personal histories and personal tastes dictate. Getting to the core of it is more difficult. He asks us to take seriously the idea that human society as it exists, and as we experience it, is a complex organism perceptible in its parts, but difficult to comprehend as a whole. Even when we acknowledge all the bloody history we know about, and don’t know about, the reasons we’ve arrived here rather than some other place, however accidental they may be in part, are not trivial, nor can any particular force or event in that history explain the whole. No easy pickings here, no QEDs available even to the most erudite, let alone to the most passionate. Addressing his fellow liberals, he often maintains, as he does here, that our problems aren’t simply a result of ethical shortcomings, most especially not someone else’s ethical shortcomings.

This makes sense to me, but taken as a whole it seems too amorphous to serve as the foundation of a political program, much as my own thinking often does. Yes, the iPhone spies on us, but it also spies for us, as others have pointed out above. Can something be made of that by the hopeful sci-fi libertarians and capitalist cheerleaders who are so implacably fond of technological solutions to social and political problems? Maybe, but it seems a stretch. It appears we have an Archimedean difficulty. We can imagine a lever, we might even be able to construct one, but at the moment we can’t seem to find a place to stand, and the fulcrum point will depend on events which may not materialize, and which, in any case, we can’t predict. Not a lot of fun to be us in times like these, but at least we won’t be bored.


William Timberman 04.20.15 at 4:48 pm

Sorry, that was supposed to have been posted on the Pace Picante thread. I’ll go put it where it belongs.


mattski 04.20.15 at 4:57 pm

Let’s stick with cold beer, please.


Would you rather have 100 cold beers and 200 hours to drink them in or 200 cold beers and 100 hours to drink them in?

Can’t we cross that bridge when we get to it? *belch*

Do you suppose the value of beer in hours and the value of hours in beer is the same starting from each of the two conditions?

This sounds like a marvelous drinking game. I’m ready when you are.


mattski 04.20.15 at 4:58 pm

@ 85

I see William has a head start.


Trader Joe 04.20.15 at 7:24 pm

Perhaps its too late to comment…but a point I didn’t see mentioned is that the value of land is something that isn’t a constant and changes with circumstance and/or the ability to imagine a way to create value from it. Locke argues in the context of agrarian vs. gatherer, in more modern usage it might be extractive vs. passive.

For example land that has a mineable resource has a value while its being extracted but than after extraction the land is usually blighted until someone comes along and imagines, for example, using saltmines to contain natural gas, or to use fracking on lands thought to be spent from conventional extraction, or building call centers in decayed/idle factories etc.

To that extent, one MIGHT justify a Kelo in the context that as “frontiers” expand and contract the government has a role to play in abetting the realocation of resources towards best usage (for the record – I don’t that’s what happened in Kelo in the slightest, it was entirely taking from one party private party for the benefit of another, albeit at a supposedly fair transfer price).

Its the concept of an evolving frontier that applies in some circumstances which, while not obviously part of Locke, might at least provide some support for the position.


C Trombley 04.20.15 at 9:14 pm

One thing that always bothered me about Hazlitt is his easy movement between “the parable of the broken window” and “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. The first is pretty clearly in the right, it takes an extreme devotion to Nietzsche to believe that destruction is generically creative (not that there isn’t tons wrong with Bastiat, especially around his lack of proper understanding of an equilibrium). But robbing Peter to pay Paul is totally different. There ought to be three people in the parable/model/story: Peter the glass man, The Child who breaks/steals windows, Paul the banker. In the set-up the following is necessary but not exclusive: Peter has glass, The Child has a debt to Paul and Paul is owed a debt by The Child. One interesting case is when Peter is insured by Paul.

Anyway, it’s not nearly so clear that if the child stole windows from Peter to pay Paul that there is significant loss. By economic/libertarian principles, Peter’s desire to not be robbed is adequately covered by investment into security, right? (what’s that – moral hazard? The Market won’t take care of that? I wonder what happens if we look at, say, health insurance in that light…)

As an aside, this reasoning _can_ apply to real life. I knew a guy who owned the food court of a mall who made a fortune by stopping the use of cash registers – due to the way the contract was written, this meant he no longer had to pay the mall a percentage of his profits. Of course, his employees could pocket arbitrary amounts – but they took a lot less than the mall did!

So, back in the parable, Peter doesn’t care enough to pay more for security, so he isn’t much injured by the theft. Meanwhile, Paul is paid in full for his loan and The Child is free of debt. Is it so clear that something terrible has happened? It seems to be, at best, a morally ambiguous edge case that needs more specification.

In the case where Peter has insurance from Paul, then Paul can simply give his shiny new window to Peter, and all of society is better off! Peter and Paul are the same as before, but The Child’s liabilities are wiped clean, making the improvement Pareto. It’s possible that you could patch this by going to some non-Utilitarian system (which Hazlitt cannot, being that he was a Utilitarian in life and is now dead), but it’s going to be hard to get people to condemn things that make everyone better off and nobody worse as immoral…

To sum up, Hazlitt’s movement from an anti-war parable to an anti-redistribution parable robbed the ideas of sense.


M.J. Kelly 04.21.15 at 2:44 pm

Sorry to come late to the party, but a few additional notes. David Armitage once presented a paper in Chicago ca. 2005 in which he attempted to trace the pragmatic origins (as opposed to intellectual genealogy) of Locke’s theory. If I remember correctly, Armitage posited that Locke first deployed the theory while secretary to the Carolina Proprietors in order to refute challenges to the Proprietors’ claims to indigenous lands in the New World. From a pragmatic perspective, that became its primary value in the subsequent politics and jurisprudence of America’s territorial expansion. As to Mabo, while it may have recognized “[Australian] land ownership rights predating European occupation,” the fact remains that under U.S. law, American Indian tribes possess no aboriginal land ownership rights whatsoever, being stuck with a mere “right of occupancy” instead.


TM 04.21.15 at 6:25 pm

79: “I’m not really sure which process is more efficient.”

As always, depends on how you define efficient. According to the engineering definition – energy efficiency=usable energy output divided by energy input – photosynthesis is a relatively inefficient process and PV is much higher. That of course has nothing to do with ecosystem services and such. There is no meaningful metric for comparing an intact forest with the same area covered in PV cells. Any sane person would prefer the intact forest although its rate of solar energy conversion is much smaller.

On the other hand, a comparison of a solar farm with with corn fields grown for ethanol could be meaningful. The conversion efficiency of the former is orders of magnitude higher. (Math worked out here: http://www.slideshare.net/amenning/quantitative-problems-food-security).


TM 04.21.15 at 6:31 pm

For the sake of accuracy: PV efficiency is still not very high, about 8-15%. Solar heating is much more efficient. Luckily, even with that limited efficiency, a small fraction of the global surface area would in principle be enough to cover our current electricity needs from PV.


ragweed 04.21.15 at 7:21 pm


The role that Locke plays in justifying colonialism and expropriation of land from indigenous people is a topic that has been discussed in Native American studies and in post-colonial studies. You might want to take a look at:

Kathy Squadrito, “Locke and the Dispossession of the American Indian”, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 20:4.

Also, you might be interested in Barbara Arneil, if you haven’t read her already:

and this one too:
“John Locke, natural law and colonialism”
(paywalled, but I am sure your institutional connections can get around that)


clew 04.21.15 at 9:49 pm

91 still depends on where we recognize the boundaries. Forests produce replacement forests onsite; PV bookkeeping should include the factories, a proportion of the mines, water treatment, etc.


John Quiggin 04.22.15 at 5:15 am

MJK@90 and Ragweeed @92, also Jacob Levy and others upthread. Thanks very much for this. It’s one of the great things about CT that someone like me, writing on topics tangential to my field can raise issues like this and get such good pointers to the literature.


Roger 04.23.15 at 4:48 pm

Sorry to be so late to the discussion, but I do agree that the frontier (as expounded in the link) was an essential part of classical liberalism. The five hundred years from 1492 on provided unprecedented new territory for the expansion of states, colonies and territories. In addition, it was an unprecedented time of consolidation of Western states from approximately five hundred to less than fifty.

The combination of exit options, consolidations (which undermined monopolies, cartels and rent seeking) and competition ( both constructive and Darwinian) between states and potential states created an environment where the elite were less able than any era before to exploit the population. The fact that the new territory (seven times larger than Europe) devoid of population by germs and new crops also provided some relief to Malthusian pressures was icing on the cake.

With little or no new state formation, and little or no state consolidation, this era and the dynamic it presented is now past. Perhaps with technology new exit options are opening. Perhaps not.


Roger 04.23.15 at 5:03 pm

@ C Trombley

I must question your math or logic or both. In general theft of a window is a zero sum interaction. Zero sum interactions within an entropic world will result on net in losing ground. And this assumes the gain is valued the same as the loss. my reading on the literature is that people value losses approximately double gains, thus it is negative sum within a negative sum world.

But it gets worse! In a world where we need to worry about window stealing, we are expected to divert previous resources which could go to creating value to protecting our windows. Fences, insurance, law enforcement, etc. Now we are wasting resources. Again massively negative sum.

But it gets worse! Now window stealers need to up their game just to get the goods. So now we have them spending their lives specializing as a window stealer. Again we are diverting resources from positive to negative sum outcomes. An arms race develops of defense and offense, with no net gain but more and more resources flushed down the toilet.

And by the way, insurance has a cost, and failure to insure doesn’t mean there is no loss, it means the window owner viewed the cost of risk less than the cost of insurance.

Robbing one to pay another isn’t a usually a Pareto superior action. It is a massively self amplifying negative sum action. I am sure there are exceptions to the rule, but being Pareto superior they are also something which the parties would be expected to rationally voluntarily agree to.


t. Gracchus 04.23.15 at 5:08 pm

The Proviso is not a funny way of saying that acquisition or transaction is permitted if Pareto superior. The Proviso requires that action leaves others with as much and as good, and that ends up meaning that their welfare has to rise with the transaction or acquisition (in part because the actions that matter are those part of a society, not species membership).


Phil 04.24.15 at 2:52 pm

“the existence of a frontier, beyond which lies boundless usable land.”

I haven’t got a reference, but I Read Somewhere that Schmitt argued that it was this frontier that prevented the state system degenerating into anarchy: sovereign governments could afford to respect one another and live in peace (and accord recognition to the rights of one another’s citizens) because they had colonies where they could let primitive accumulation rip & be damned to the rights of the natives. Compare Kant, mumblety years earlier, arguing that we had to have peace because the world is round, and however far away we went we’d inevitably bump into each other eventually.

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