Locke’s Road to Serfdom

by John Q on October 18, 2015

The second instalment[^1] of my critique of Locke’s propertarian liberalism is up at Jacobin. I’m looking at an obvious (but, AFAICT, rarely asked) question about Locke’s theory: if land is acquired through agricultural labor, how is it that agricultural laborers have mostly been landless? The answer is simple: thanks to slavery and serfdom, it’s the owners of the laborers who acquire the property. To quote Locke

the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut … become my property

Locke’s political practice in the Americas was consistent with his theory. In his Constitution of the Carolinas, he suggested the creation of “leetmen” — a hereditary class of landless laborers, tied to specific areas, and bound to work for aristocratic landowners. As I observe (the point isn’t original)

Locke didn’t really need a new word for this institution. The founding figure of classical liberalism was proposing, literally rather than metaphorically, a Road to Serfdom.

[^1]: I’ve done with Locke, but I’m planning a third instalment on Jefferson, his most important successor.



Sandwichman 10.18.15 at 11:19 pm

“Locke’s Road to Serfdom”

Excellent, JQ!

I would speculate that the original object of private property was NOT land but human beings. Private property in land was a late development and would thus have been modeled on private property in slaves.

Unlike Locke’s fable of mixing labor with land to make property, slaves would have been acquired by not killing a defeated enemy or convicted criminal.


Roger Gathman 10.19.15 at 12:42 am

This is helpful, JQ. I am tired of Heidegger being the only philosopher who is examined with regard to his reactionary politics. It is as if slavery didn’t exist in Locke’s – or Hume’s – time, and as if the Anglo philosophers, friends of freedom all, weren’t advocates of the notion that Africans were inferior or subhuman and that Britons had a perfect right to slaughter as much of a native population as was needed to make room for their propertarian community.


maidhc 10.19.15 at 2:59 am

I don’t think agricultural laborers, in England anyway, were landless between the time of serfdom and the Enclosures.

There’s an interesting example in Lark Rise to Candleford of one couple who somehow managed to avoid having their land enclosed and live a life of relative comfort compared to the grinding poverty of the agricultural laborers who lost their land.


nvalvo 10.19.15 at 3:02 am

@1 Sandwichman. I’d recommend waiting a second before conceding the necropolitical argument that considers slavery as a kind of stayed death sentence. I think that’s another fable, akin to the land labor mixture; my understanding is that it doesn’t really square with the anthropological literature on slavery as it actually exists.


John Quiggin 10.19.15 at 3:20 am

@3 Gregory King’s 1688 estimate shows around half the population (2.5 million) as labourers, cottagers and paupers. In addition, there are 750 000 farmers (who would mostly be tenants rather than landowners), as against 1 million freeholders, and about 100 000 gentlemen and aristocrats.



Chris Bertram 10.19.15 at 6:41 am

@John I don’t see the basis for your apparent claim that Nozick believed existing holding were descended from an original just acquisition and that he was unbothered by this. Nozick is clear that he’s not making any such claim. Instead his claim is that unqual property holdings of a similar type to contemporary property would arise if we were to start with Lockean common ownership and then proceed by just steps only. So he’s defending a type, not this token. WRT to actual property holdings, Nozick is clear that they do no have an immaculate history and that’s why he invokes a principle of rectification to correct past injustice.


John Quiggin 10.19.15 at 8:39 am

@Chris Just to be clear, the meaning of my remark was that Nozick (like Locke) knew existing holdings were *not* descended from an original just acquisition and that he was unbothered by this, any more than Filmer cared that the Stuarts were not the true patrilineal heirs of Adam.

But it was only an aside, and I may well be wrong about Nozick. However, I’m not clear on the points that follow in your comment.

(a) Supposing that a distribution following from common ownership with just steps would resemble the current one (but presumably with different sets of rich and poor people), so what?
(b) “A type, not this token” I don’t understand what these words mean. Can you explicate?
(c) “A principle of rectification” My recollection is that he mentions this idea, but doesn’t do anything with it, and I can’t imagine how such a principle would work. Can you spell this out?


Chris Bertram 10.19.15 at 8:58 am

(a) and (b) He thinks his conjectural history argument justifies a property regime of a certain type (private property, “free” markets etc) but not the particular holdings that we have now. “Token” here is just philosophers’ jargon (a Ford Capri is a type of car, this particular one is a token of the type). I agree with your “so what”.

(c) Well one “solution” (costly and disruptive) would be to declare all holdings tainted by historic injustice and undertake a one-time egalitarian redistribution, after which all subsequent inequalities would be justified. I don’t think he seriously contemplates this. It would look like luck egalitarianism but with the crucial difference that later generations would end up with the results of other people’s previous choices rather than being entitled to have their unchosen circumstances considered.


T. Gracchus 10.19.15 at 10:05 am

Nozock’s Lockean Proviso entails a rising baseline of welfare. (Enough and as good left over.). That means reallocation will be something like generational, not a single corrective reallocation.


Don John 10.19.15 at 11:56 am

maidhe #3: An enclosure required an act of parliament, which wasn’t cheap, particularly if your politics or religion weren’t flavour of the month. Some landowners created ongoing tenancies (and tenant farmers could be very well off, even without freehold) but I think that the happy outcome that you refer to was relatively rare, and outright dispossession more common.


Chris Bertram 10.19.15 at 12:05 pm

@ T Gracchus – that doesn’t seem consistent with Nozick’s reply to Fourier at ASU 178 (note) “Fourier held that since the process of civilization had deprived the members of society of certain liberties (together, pasture, engage in the chase), a socially guaranteed minimum provision for persons was justified as compensation for the loss … But this puts the point too strongly. This compensation would be due those persons, if any, for whom the process of civilization was a net loss, for whom the benefits of civilization did not counterbalance being deprived of these particular liberties.”

It follows, surely, that for Nozick only those members of future generations who ended up worse off than that hunter-gatherer baseline would be due a corrective reallocation.


John Holbo 10.19.15 at 1:02 pm

“Which is essentially equivalent to their claiming all resources are their own property”

Suppose you see Smith rob Jones, Brett. You judge that Smith needs to give back what he took, because he acquired it unjustly. Does forming this type of judgment necessarily presuppose you thinking that all the property involved is yours? That is, neither Smith’s nor Jones’, after all? Your account implies this. (Would it therefore be just for you to demand that Smith give it to you, not Jones, since you judge he stole it from Jones? Ergo it’s yours, after all, since it’s your judgment?)


John Holbo 10.19.15 at 1:37 pm

Sorry, we’ll get to the Wilt Chamberlain argument presently. I just wanted to know whether YOU think that, in any case in which you judge that injustice has been done, distribution-wise, you think YOU can rightly claim all involved property as your own, personally. That seems an odd position.


steven johnson 10.19.15 at 3:33 pm

What is the conclusion to draw from this? Democracy is always the rule of this people, as opposed to those other people. A justification of property that permits this people to take land from those other people has always had a polemical use. If the point is to replace such notions of property, that is, to reform democracy, actually offering a replacement notion of property is an essential step. Or is the point to condemn democracy, specifically the American Revolution?


Sebastian H 10.19.15 at 4:01 pm

Ack. A huge part of the problem with property discussions is that like ‘love’ we use the term ‘property’ to cover a huge variety of things with enormous variation in justice claims and treatments even when considering just a single person’s views, much less trying to inventory and aggregate a whole community’s views or the whole world’s views.

Brett, you seem to want to treat most property on the money level–i.e. if it can be reduced to money at any point it counts as property, and that all such property deserves to be treated the same. But I’m pretty sure that even you will agree that if I steal a painting and sell it, I don’t deserve to keep the money (and the buyer might not deserve to keep the painting especially if he had any reason to think it were stolen, I’m not sure what you think about that). Your robbery analogy works multiple directions on the justice front. If taxation is a lot like theft, so are certain ‘working’ arrangements (see especially some old time mining company towns.) As much as I like contracts, some abuses of bargaining power mitigate their just enforcement claims. And we might want to admit that just because someone thinks they have a property right (say to pimp out his daughter and keep the proceeds) we don’t have to agree. The question is which things count.

But on the other side, investment really is a socially critical thing, and getting to keep a large portion of the fruits of good investments is an important way of incentivizing it. I tend to think that saying property was unjustly gained (especially for recent definitions of ‘gained’) is way more helpful than attacking the idea of property as a whole. You can get a lot of traction out of “bankster X basically robbed all the profits and stuck you with all the losses” that you can’t get out of “property is just a social construct so the government really has the right to take it all and do whatever it wants”. Hell you could probably even appeal to many of the Bretts of the world with those types of arguments.


Bartleby the Commenter 10.19.15 at 4:18 pm

I could point out that property is it self a violent system that is imposed on other people without their consent and talking about taxes as theft begs the question of whether the taxes paid ever “belonged” to the individual to begin with. I could point this out but I would prefer not to.


JanieM 10.19.15 at 4:22 pm

… talking about taxes as theft begs the question of whether the taxes paid ever “belonged” to the individual to begin with.



Sandwichman 10.19.15 at 4:28 pm

nvalvo @4 “my understanding is that it doesn’t really square with the anthropological literature on slavery as it actually exists”

What is your authority for that claim?


John Holbo 10.19.15 at 4:49 pm

“The problem, Sebastian, is that you want to expand the defintion of “theft” to include voluntary transactions you happen to not like. And that’s not what the word means.”

The problem, Brett, might be that you want to contract the phrase ‘what the word means’ to exclude anything you happen to wish it didn’t mean.


Sebastian H 10.19.15 at 4:54 pm

Justice is a fact bound thing! So how can you say that enforcing fact-insensitive property rights make sense?

There are lots of transactions that stretch the bounds of ‘voluntary’ at least as far as taxes stretch the bounds of ‘theft’.

It makes me crazy that these theoretical discussions seem to be between people who want to deny the idea of property altogether and those who think that putting the words ‘contract’ on something fixes everything. Contract theory is grounded on choices, including a realistic choice to walk away. If you don’t have a realistic choice to walk away, your choices are somewhat involuntary. That somewhat mitigates the seriousness with which we should take the contract. If you don’t believe that, you can’t argue the ‘tax is theft’ concept, as you could always make the ‘voluntary choice’ to go to jail rather than pay. Violence isn’t the only method of coercion.


Sandwichman 10.19.15 at 5:09 pm

“Being involuntary is pretty central to the definition of theft.”

There are lots of things that are involuntary but are not theft. Your birth was involuntary, as was who your parents were.

I’m guessing, though, that you wouldn’t define property inheritance as theft.


Sebastian H 10.19.15 at 5:09 pm

So painting example in 18 above? Sneaky non gun using thief keeps money? New buyer keeps painting?

Pimp one’s daughter example? Get to keep the proceeds?

Family is starving, only job available this week wants a life-time slavery contract. Enforceable? Warning, this is not actually hypothetical in the world.

“You’re trying to take what people think about being held up at gun point, and apply it to transactions that are ‘unjust’ only under heavily contested theories of justice.”

Again, this is what makes me crazy in this discussion. While I would tend to agree that theories which totally deny property rights categorically are heavily contested, I do not agree that all of the transactions you want to defend under ‘contract’ are in fact unjust only under the heavily contested theories. The idea of unjust contract goes back throughout the entire history of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu thought. It is perfectly possible that Quiggin over-discounts the importance of property rights AND that you over-weight it.


JW Mason 10.19.15 at 5:17 pm

I would speculate that the original object of private property was NOT land but human beings.

Sandwichman, have you read Graeber’s Debt? He makes exactly this argument:

The notion of absolute private property is really derived from slavery. One can imagine property not as a relation between people, but as a relation between a person and a thing, if one’s starting point is a relation between two people, one of whom is also a thing. … In creating a notion of dominium, then, and thus creating the modern principle of absolute private property, what Roman jurists were doing first of all was taking a principle of domestic authority, of absolute power over people, defining some of those people (slaves) as things, and then extending the logic that originally applied to slaves to geese, chariots, barns, jewelry boxes, and so forth-that is, to every other sort of thing that the law had anything to do with.


Matt 10.19.15 at 5:31 pm

If you don’t want to earn income in the United States, you don’t have to and nobody will try to collect income tax from you. If you do want to earn income in the United States, you have to agree to an unequally negotiated but otherwise fair bargain where the federal government collects some of that income. Even if you just stop paying taxes for a couple of years, there will be no brandishing of firearms. Nobody who has a gun will even visit you. The scariest things you’ll see are certified letters and notices that e.g. your wages are being garnished or your property can be seized.

You are free to live a life without income or property if you don’t like taxes. Every time I visit a big city the sidewalks are festooned with John Galts living in their cardboard and sleeping bag Gulches. If you think that the terms of the deal are unfair, may I suggest Remedial Education in Bargaining Without Power?

Or perhaps you explain why it’s theft when property taxes make housing more expensive but merely a hard bargain when private landlords hike rents. Nobody holds allodial title anymore, so if you already concede that unequal bargains are ok, if we rename “property tax” to “government rent” that should be all squared away.


Sandwichman 10.19.15 at 5:34 pm

“Sandwichman, have you read Graeber’s Debt?”

No. My sources are Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death and Frank Wilderson’s various essays that reference Patterson extensively. Given the prominence and influence of Patterson’s book, I would be very interested to hear more about “the anthropological literature on slavery as it actually exists” [nvalvo @4] that allegedly refutes the interpretation.

Patterson (1982) also examined the emergence in Roman law of the absolute principle of private property in relation to slavery.


Sandwichman 10.19.15 at 5:37 pm

“you get these defenses of income redistribution and the like, that aren’t fact bound…”

And “you get these” is fact bound?


JW Mason 10.19.15 at 5:46 pm

Graeber also starts with Patterson. Not sure how far he goes beyond him.


Sebastian H 10.19.15 at 5:49 pm

“Which is why a proper theory of justice has to be individual and fact bound, not dictating outcomes, but only how they may be arrived at. Procedural, not dictating the end state.”

Yes, I agree with you. But isn’t it possible that the current procedures are less than perfect? That the current procedures might be actively bad at the moment? How do we decide which procedures are working and which aren’t?


mds 10.19.15 at 6:13 pm

Or who are enthusiastic about transfering power to the most coercive institution in society, government.

This boot on my throat says Pinkerton’s, so at least I know I’m free.


Sandwichman 10.19.15 at 6:24 pm

“But I’d rather not take advice… from people… who are enthusiastic about transfering power to the most coercive institution in society, government.”

The State is indeed “the most coercive institution in society.” By definition, it has a monopoly on legitimate violence. So I am curious about this notion of people who are supposedly enthusiastic about “transferring power” to it. The state has the option of exercising some of its powers, withholding some and delegating others.

What Brett Bellmore appears to be saying is that he prefers a particular articulation of state power and therefore any other articulation is invalid. This is not a persuasive argument.


Collin Street 10.19.15 at 7:41 pm

The difference between just and unjust contracts is fact bound. But you get these defenses of income redistribution and the like, that aren’t fact bound, they just take it for granted that if one person’s got more than another person, injustice, and you’re justified in redistributing it.

“a specific redistribution is just” ~~ “a specific contract is just”. Fact-bound, inescapably.
[remember, non-enforcement[1] is the default: it’s not that contracts are not enforced if they are unjust, it’s that contracts are only enforced if they are just.]

“just and unjust contracts” ~~ “just and unjust redistributions”.
People are making an existence case for just redistributions, which — like all existence arguments — is unbound by fact. “Some redistributions are just” is something that people are arguing because you seem opposed; if you actually do think that some redistributions can be just, we can drop that and focus on the other area that’s being discussed, whether — fact-bound — certain proposed redistributions are just.

[1] Actually, courts never enforce english-style common-law contracts, as such. The underlying jurisprudence doesn’t work this way, and it has important consequences for your position. [so-called contractual enforcement is a compensation action for damages occasioned by breech.] You really need to be on top of this if you’re going to succeed in what you’re trying to do.


phenomenal cat 10.19.15 at 7:48 pm

“Which is why a proper theory of justice has to be individual and fact bound, not dictating outcomes, but only how they may be arrived at. Procedural, not dictating the end state.” Bellmore@ 30

Bellmore, you say some damn funny things, but the above has to be the damn funniest. It’s statements like this that make self-professed libertarians so fascinating. I mean, who can argue with the principle that justice ought to be individual and fact-based (and procedural)? It’s so rational and reasonable–and just.

It really is too bad you can’t just abolish the real world in favor of your imagined one.


Sandwichman 10.19.15 at 7:59 pm

Brett Bellmore @38: “I think our own state [presumably the U.S.A.] was founded with a quite different ideal in mind, the notion that sovereignty belonged to the people…”

Was that “notion” fact bound? That is, how did this ideal square with the brute fact of chattel slavery?

I realize that for your side what matters is lofty ideals while for the other side what matters is imputed coercive enthusiasms. So the foundational status of slavery dissipates into the ether of “heavily contested theories of justice,” while the proverbial ever-present threat of an armed mugging is a true fact.


John Quiggin 10.19.15 at 9:34 pm

Brett, you were banned some time ago. I don’t want my discussion threads derailed by debates with you. Could other commenters refrain from responding to Brett, please.


John Quiggin 10.19.15 at 10:24 pm

Nozick’s manoeuvres, first invoking a mythical just acquisition, then suggesting a rectification to deal with absence, then forgetting about that and claiming to have justified (his preferred subset of) existing property rights, reminds me of an absurdist version of the economist joke

Economist: Assume we have a can-opener
Physicist: But we don’t
Economist: OK then, assume we have a can-opener factory


Chip Daniels 10.19.15 at 11:20 pm

As an amateur interested in political philosophy, these are interesting discussions even if some of it is beyond my expertise.

I’ve recently run across an idea formed out of the religious left, where the claim to property decreases as wealth increases. That is, the claim over property at the sustenance level is very strong, but as wealth grows, the legitimacy of the claim grows weaker, making legitimate more and more of the community’s claim, e.g. taxation.

I don’t know the history of this idea, but it seems to have roots in Catholic social teaching. It seems to be a more nuanced view of property beyond “My ancestor claimed it”.
I would be curious if others here have run across this, or what the provenance of the idea is.

The other ideas floated, that once a legitimate claim is made, any outcome no matter how unequal, must be legitimate seems absurd in its view of labor. The moral case that Locke makes, the vision of a person mixing labor with virgin soil, is intuitively easy to grasp and agree with.

But the idea that several decades or generations later, after countless lucky moves mixed with political string pulling which results in fabulous fortunes, seems the very opposite. We see entire generations of wealthy who do no labor other than lend money, essentially gambling, yet we treat these gambling winnings as somehow morally on par with wealth which is created by sweat.

It seems like there is a broken link somewhere, that the nexus between labor and reward was snapped.


Peter T 10.19.15 at 11:50 pm

As those with legal expertise have noted, property is many things. It is a major mistake to put “my factory’ in the same category as “my handbag”. One is an arrangement to produce necessarily involving both many people and necessarily also obscuring the contribution (and therefore the reward (or “just” share of production) of any particular person. Who gets what from the factory/mine/farm is determined socially. Politics tinkers with distribution over time, some arrangements work better than others, and customary expectations – what people feel is just – play a large part. There is, quite simply, no way to get at some ideal distribution from first principles.

Note in passing that the state is the most coercive organisation because it can coerce everybody, not because it can coerce most.

On slavery, the historical record is fairly clear. Fist, slavery is a wide category. Second, slavery mostly seems to have evolved as a category for those at the bottom of the social heap (not from captives) and been extended from there.


JRLRC 10.20.15 at 1:39 am

That´s why the founder of classical (and true) liberalism is John Stuart Mill.


steven johnson 10.20.15 at 1:58 am

Wasn’t the founder of true liberalism Benjamin Constant?

But on reconsideration, es, Mill on East India I think brings out the character of true liberalism.


ccc 10.20.15 at 8:52 am

I think Quiggin’s quick stab at Nozick is all things considered pretty well deserved. Sure Nozick handwaves a little about how the real world property history deviates from the process Nozick thinks is ideal. But he does very little with that problem even though it is one of several massive obstacles to any practical use of the theory he favors. Nozick in effect continues the lockean tradition of just so historical justice make believe storytelling.

Chris: “(c) Well one “solution” (costly and disruptive) would be to declare all holdings tainted by historic injustice and undertake a one-time egalitarian redistribution, after which all subsequent inequalities would be justified. I don’t think he seriously contemplates this.”

Nozick handwave about a one-time egalitarian distribution also lack justification. Why not a one time utilitarian distribution? Or any other pattern? How should the historical justice adherent make a principled decision on that? The hunter-gatherer baseline is also not given a plausible defence. And so on. A house of cards!

Another thing worth repeating (this not in reply to Chris) is how Nozick straw mans the opposition. Nozick seem to think it is a big win to show that if we at time t1 make a distribution according to some competing patterned distributive justice view and then let certain market processes (including a background of state violence sanctioned coercive property rules) play out we will end up at t2 with a distribution pattern that deviates the t1 pattern and have resource inequality (Wilt Chamberlain case). That can only be a win for Nozick if all non-libertarian views assumed that there was a one time distribution that would achieve a perfect static state of justice or that just distribution was supposed to be a one time thing. But I know of no view that assumes that. Justice involves continual policy adjustment including distribution and redistribution of power and resources. Those ongoing policies are aimed to continually approach a complex set of social and resource equality outcomes in a real world social situation that is always in flux as technology and society advances. Changes in the world bring benefits but also new hierarchies and a just society should continually take steps to curb those hierarchies. In vague real world terms a just welfare state aims to improve the populations health, happiness, opportunities and so on and strive to make those goods widely diffused in the population. Ongoing policy here means general rules, taxation and such within a rule of law process. Quite a few libertarian “scary stories” about “state meddling” miss that last part.


Anarcho 10.20.15 at 3:53 pm

Proudhon’s “What is Property?” is still the key work — not only is it a case of “property is theft” it is also the case that “property is despotism” (extract available in my Proudhon anthology “Property is Theft!” — http://property-is-theft.org )

Also, Carole Pateman’s “The Sexual Contract” and “he problem of political obligation: a critique of liberal theory” should also be read. Her critique of Locke (and propertarianism in general) are well worth reading.

Finally, this may be of interest — my critique of Murray Rothbard’s ideology by means of the works of Rothbard himself:


Anyone who thinks Locke or classical liberalism is interested in freedom (for anyone other than the wealthy) has not been paying attention.


Bartleby the Commenter 10.20.15 at 4:56 pm

“Finally, this may be of interest — my critique of Murray Rothbard’s ideology by means of the works of Rothbard himself:”

I could say that any philosopher whose philosophy allows parents to starve their children to death because FREEDOM is a moral monster not worth engaging with.

I could say that but I would prefer not to.


Hey Skipper 10.21.15 at 12:01 am

Brett, you were banned some time ago. I don’t want my discussion threads derailed by debates with you. Could other commenters refrain from responding to Brett, please.

Why? It seems to me that he was making some very valid points.


js. 10.21.15 at 12:56 am

Chip Daniels @45:

If you’re not familiar with it, Locke’s Proviso is very much worth looking at. Locke’s Second Treatise is probably the classic work linking expenditure of labor and ownership rights, and the Proviso is the key bit in the theory that at least aims (at least in a certain light) to limit property rights to what can be productively used or consumed by the owner. This is a useful discussion, I think, that incorporates the Lockean Proviso, among other things.


John Quiggin 10.21.15 at 1:00 am

@52 This can serve as my response to Brett, who’s complained offline about this. As ought be clear, Crooked Timber is a privately run blog, with all the costs paid by the members. After long experience, we decided that Brett’s contributions were disruptive and unhelpful and asked him to leave. He has ignored this, and continued to post comments, putting us to further trouble.

Given this history, I don’t feel inclined to engage Brett’s claims about the sacred nature of private property. He’s welcome to set up his own blog and make them there.


Hey Skipper 10.21.15 at 1:08 pm

Wow, you sure do like your echo chamber, don’t you?


Anarcho 10.21.15 at 2:47 pm

“I could say that any philosopher whose philosophy allows parents to starve their children to death because FREEDOM is a moral monster not worth engaging with.”

How true — what is interesting is how he seems to be taken seriously as a “thinker”.

Still, you could spend all day listing Rothbard’s flaws and insanities.


Bartleby the Commenter 10.21.15 at 2:57 pm

“Still, you could spend all day listing Rothbard’s flaws and insanities.”

I could but, as I am sure comes as a surprise to no one, I would prefer not to.


t. gracchus 10.22.15 at 6:11 pm

re Chris@11:
I realize the conversation has moved on, but in the event:
My point was that the Lockean Proviso adopted by Nozick does not disappear. The requirement of “enough as good left over” applies throughout; at least Nozick has no argument showing that it has some natural cutoff. I think it was a mistake for Nozick to adopt the Proviso, but it is also pretty important to the surface plausibility of his story and to his account of property and property acquisition.

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