The Never-Ending Battle Between Public Good and Private Property

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In today’s American society, the battle between the public good vs. private rights manifests itself weekly, with reports of court cases and government regulations involving eminent domain, property rights, appropriate levels of taxation, and other disputes between individual freedom and society’s demands.

It’s no wonder. The argument over the exact balance between public and private has been going on for centuries.

In the second in a series of essays in the new volume, Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy, Peter B. Josephson explains how philosophers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, two kingpins of modern political thought, were in conflict over the tradeoffs between public good vs. private rights, though in the end they ended up coming to conclusions that were more alike than different.

As for the similarities, the two great philosophers spoke about the state of nature, and the notion of natural equality and liberty, wholly separate from the machinations of man, which created government and institutions. This natural world is where man is given his existence, his independence, which cannot be denied. Life is valued equally, and not to be decreed by one person or institution over another.

But is this state of nature good, or does it need to be contained? Josephson of Saint Anselm College explains how the two disagreed.

Hobbes famously explains that in the state of nature there is no ‘mine and thine,’ and ‘no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncer­tain, and consequently, no culture of the earth . . . no commodious building . . . no knowledge of the face of the earth.’ In Hobbes’ account, the condition of perfect liberty and equality—our natu­ral, ungoverned condition—is a state of war: a war of all against all that produces a condition that is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ On the other hand, Locke describes a state of nature that includes natural rights to property and therefore an account of natural justice. Locke carefully distinguishes the state of nature from the state of war and describes the state of nature initially as a state of ‘perfect freedom’ and ‘equality,’ governed by a ‘law of nature’ that teaches anyone ‘who will but consult it’ that ‘no one ought to harm another.‘ In describing the ‘plain difference’ between the state of nature and a state of war, Locke writes that they are ‘as far distant, as a State of Peace, Good Will, Mutual Assistance, and Preservation, and a State of Enmity, Malice, Violence, and Mutual Destruction are from one another.’

As a result, Hobbes believes an absolute sovereign is needed to save us from ourselves while at the same time, our need for self-preservation means we must establish for ourselves a system to protect us from the haphazard or overbearing nature of a sovereign who would kill us to keep us from killing each other.

On the other side, for Locke, individuals agree to be guided by a common set of rules and leaders, but we submit to them out of convenience because we seek to work in harmony. No sovereign can remove our good from within us by telling us how or what to be. Political power is established according to a set of laws by which we consent to be governed.

Unlike our liberty, the philosophers disagree on man’s natural rights to property, though they eventually lead to the same place. On the one hand,

Hobbes insists that prop­erty is not natural, that it is rather a creation of the sovereign, sub­ject to consent and political authority, and so readers should expect extensive exercise of government authority over the private property it has created. …
In contrast, Locke insists that property rights are natural, and that each individual naturally holds a property right that is not at all dependent on the consent of others. In other words, we need no one’s permission to build our own property, not even the per­mission of the government.

So how is it possible that these two men, opposite sides of the coin, collectively have created the ground game on which so much of modern-day political society operates? They are in a constant battle between what is of the public concern, and what is private. It is that battle that we contest over and over again in the partisan realms of American governance.

For Hobbes, “political authority is necessary for the very creation and security of property; order precedes prosperity.” The sovereign basically hands out the property, and the rights to it, while at the same time the sovereign does not have total ownership in the first place, and the means of production cannot be centralized because if something goes wrong, everyone suffers. He suggests taxation as a means to make sure no one runs away with too much of a good thing.

For Locke, personal industry results in public good by its very nature. At the same time, while labor is the manifestation of our natural right, not all labor will be equal, and the overabundance of one man’s accumulation can result in scarcity for another. Since it is the natural right of everyone to exist, as a result, man needs to smooth over the unevenness, but Locke asserts that can only occur with the consent of the property, or labor, owner to contribute to the public good.

So how do we get to flourish as humans if we’re constantly being clipped and groomed and subject to the rule of law? Are we decent enough to contribute on our own, without a push from a central authority? Are we too unruly to be left alone? Can we have both personal success and achieve the summum bonum, the highest good?

Josephson explains:

As a response to that natural state of war, so-called lib­eral government is asked to respect and secure private natural rights, and to moderate or regulate the assertion of those rights. That is, we demand liberty, and also a defense against the dominion of others. Property, broadly understood, grounds the rights of individuals to govern themselves, and those rights also help establish a limit on the claims of others or the authority of the government. …

Liberalism thus seems an instrumental political arrangement, one that makes possible the private pursuit of diverse good lives with­out imposing a particular telos on its citizens. An essential instru­ment of this liberty—and therefore of the opportunity for human flourishing—is protection of the rights of private property. Rights of private property can ensure a level of sustenance and even indepen­dence that is instrumentally necessary for any good life.
Though life in the liberal regime thus promises neutrality with respect to conceptions of the good, in practice the new liberal regime cannot help imposing its own conception of the good or the tolera­ble on its subjects. Liberalism is “not mere proceduralism, nor is it neutral with respect to ways of life or virtues.”95 While the regime permits private pursuits of diverse goods, it also largely consigns those pursuits to the private sphere. The public realm still insists on particular characteristic actions. The free individual who can make his own way or chart her own course in the world must have certain capacities. Such a person must be independent and hardworking. Because of the liberal foundation in natural equality and natural lib­erty, such a person must respect the independence and hard work of others. And so liberalism insists on certain modern virtues, includ­ing industriousness and self-reliance, and toleration and civility. It rewards innovation and pragmatism more than tradition and phil­osophic speculation. Goods of the soul may be pursued freely in private. Lives devoted to faith or philosophy, to heroic virtue, or to pleasure must be moderated in the service of peace, preservation, and prosperity.
No regime is truly neutral with respect to the good life. The instru­ments of liberal life become the ends in themselves, and these new good lives may lack the lofty allure or ambition of the old. Modern liberalism secures a realm of privacy that makes some human flour­ishing possible, but that may not incline us toward teleological con­ceptions of the good. In its elevation of the instruments of the good life, liberalism may even close our minds to conceptions of ultimate goods. Without a teleological account of human flourishing the idea of the greatest good becomes, for the philosophers of modern liberty, nothing more than a matter of taste, and taste is so much a matter of private judgment that we find it increasingly difficult to consider ultimate goods—and the common good—seriously. Thus egalitar­ian liberalism has a tendency toward relativism. And yet liberalism properly understood is not neutral; it asserts its own particular claim to the good. Taking liberalism’s particular claim seriously would be the first step toward a serious reappraisal of the alternatives—and especially of the claims of faith, philosophy, and heroic virtue.

Read Peter B. Josephson’s entire essay on Hobbes, Locke, and the Problems of Political Economy.

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