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Michael Schearer

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The concept of private property is a perplexing subject in the field of political theory. Mans common claim of property is often

traced to the beginning of biblical times, where God says, ...Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule...over all the earth,1 and further that ...I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.2 The ancient political philosophers Plato and Aristotle both speak about the role of property in the state, the former explaining how the acquisition of private property leads toward unwanted plutocracy: Once civil strife is born, the two parties begin to pull different and the ways: the breed of iron and brass towards money-making possession of house and land, silver and gold; while the

other two, wanting no other wealth than the gold and silver in the composition of their souls, try to draw them towards virtue and the the violence of their contention ends in a

ancient ways. But

compromise: they agree to distribute land and houses for private ownership; they enslave their own people who formerly lived as free men under their guardianship and gave them maintenance; and,

1 2

Genesis 1:26 NIV (New International Version). Genesis 1:29 NIV.

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holding them as serfs and menials, devote

themselves to war and

to keeping these subjects under watch and ward.3 However, it was modern political philosophers who placed a more important role on private property and the position it held in the formation and continuation of the state. Twentieth century American concepts of private property are often taken for granted, but it is these modern political philosophers who developed was has evolved into todays current understanding. A leading political philosopher

whose views on private property have translated into our current understanding is John Locke, an intellectual source for our own nations founding. Another less-understood philosopher whose important views on private property are seen as fundamental is the French political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseaus views on private property are often less well understood because of what appear to be inconsistencies in what he wrote. Kennedy F. Roche writes that many of Rousseaus references to property may prompt the belief that he was by no means consistent in his attitude toward it...4 Further,

controversy still exists as to the real interpretation of his views. Using our well-understood concepts of Lockes private property philosophy, we can compare and contrast it with the less-understood concepts of

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Oxford University Press: London, 1945. p.

270. Kennedy F. Roche. Rousseau: Stoic & Romantic. Methuen & Co., Ltd.: London, 1974. p. 87.
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Rousseaus private property philosophy, to gain a better, clearer picture of where both stand. Only then can the proper role of both philosophies be grasped. Let us first begin with the English political philosopher John Locke. He writes that: ...though the things of nature are given in common, yet man, by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, labour of it, had still in himself the great made up the great part of being...was Thus

and the actions or

foundation of property; and that, which

what he applied to the support or comfort of his

perfectly his own, and did not belong in common to others.

labour, in the beginning, gave a right of property...5 (Emphasis in original) Since...preservation and the means of subsistence, are discovered by natural reason, they are, ipso facto, derived from natural law.6 Further, this property did not require any express compact or social contract to be validated. The social contract only served to preserve property as a constitutional right. therefore, ...to secure The origin of government was, the translation into a

property...[and]

constitutional right of a fully validated right based on natural law.7


Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. ed. David Wootton. Second Treatise of Government. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.: Indianapolis, 1996. p. 325. 6 James Tully. A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his adversaries. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1980. p. 5. 7 Mario Einaudi. The Early Rousseau. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1967. p. 139-140.
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Locke believes the role of civil society is to guarantee and protect property rights, and further, that these property rights are natural rights. Lockes concept of governments role in protecting The

natural rights was shared by Americas founding fathers.

Declaration of Independence proclaims that Men ...are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men...8 Further, they placed an important emphasis on property by including it in the Bill of Rights.9 Our twentieth century concepts of private property are drawn directly from John Lockes influence. Lockes obvious influence on the founding fathers and the American system clearly demonstrates why his views on private property are so easily understood. It should be no surprise, then, that Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a problem because his views on private property deviate from the twentieth century notions we are so familiar with. In fact, Rousseaus views on private property are still being interpreted, and this debate further complicates our search for Rousseaus role as compared and contrasted with Lockes. A look at Rousseaus work finds an obvious socialist influence. In his Constitutional Project for Corsica, Rousseau ...preferred common ownership of all land...[and] arrangements for establishing some common land...Civil laws must constantly combat personal
Declaration of Independence. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads in part ...nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.
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acquisition that exceeds natural need.10 work, his Social Contract, declares that:

Rousseaus most notable

Each member of the community, at the moment of its formation, gives himself up to it just as he is: forces, of which his wealth forms a himself and all his fundamental

part...[This]

compact substitutes...a moral

and legal equality for that physical

inequality (in the form of property) which nature placed among men.11 Rousseau writes that no citizen shall be rich enough to buy another and none so poor as to be forced to sell himself. 12 Stephen Ellenburg observes that while possessions need not be absolutely identical for every citizen...[but] there is very little range for unequal possession.13 Ellenburg acknowledges that Rousseaus calculation does not leave much room to move in either direction, for any contract between two men violates Rousseaus rule. Rousseaus Social Contract goes on to explain that ...the right which each individual has over his own property is always subordinate to the right which the community has over all; without which there would be no solidity in the social bond, nor any real force in the exercise of sovereignty. 14 What this amounts to is Rousseaus

Stephen Ellenburg. Rousseaus Political Philosophy: An Interpretation from Within. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1976. p. 223. 11 Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract. Hafner Publishing Company, Inc.: New York, 1947. p. 19, 22. 12 Ellenburg, p. 224. 13 Ibid. 14 Rousseau, p. 22.
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assertion that private property is a civil right, but not a natural right. Kennedy F. Roche writes that: ...he (Rousseau) speaks of property as inviolable and sacred in so as soon as it is far as it remains a particular and individual right, but considered as common to all citizens, it is submitted and that will can material annihilate possessions, it...In the

to the General Will

surrendering to the Sovereign all his

individual alienates to it all those natural rights of such goods...15

to the possession

Thus, the distinctions between Locke and Rousseau become clearer. Both Locke and Rousseau agree that the foundation of

government exists to secure property rights. But the difference lies in what this means to each of them. Locke believes that ...men who entered into the social contract did already possess property by right; all that was required was that the extent of each individuals right should be made clear, and means found for defending his enjoyment of it.16 Private property is a natural right, Locke asserts, and

governments are instituted among men to secure those natural rights as constitutional rights. Rousseau, on the other hand, saw a social contract which embraced private property as the ...translation into tyrannical and temporary institutions of a usurpation by the few at the expense of
Roche, p. 90. John C. Hall. Rousseau: An Introduction to his Political Philosophy. Schenkman Publishing Company: Cambridge, 1973. p. 44.
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the many...a clever usurpation [changed] into an irrevocable right. 17 Rousseau rejects private property as a natural right, arguing that only the social contract gives legitimacy to private property. Further, he concluded in his Discours sur lIngalit: If we follow the progress of inequality in its different revolutions, we shall find that the

establishment of the law and of the right of property was its first term.18 To Rousseau, the social contract took mans unwarranted

claim to private property and legitimized that claim. In turn, mans natural equality is forever destroyed. Finally, the sovereignty of the state cannot be exercised with any degree of force unless the right of private property is subordinate to it. This presents a fundamental

disagreement with Lockes view that private property is a natural right, and therefore, unalienable in character. In conclusion, the concept of private property is a right that has its roots in the earliest origins of government. For, as we have seen, both Locke and Rousseau see the procurement of property as the purpose for the formation of civil government. However, the meaning of this formation allows us to see a clear distinction between the private property views of Locke and Rousseau. Likewise, Rousseaus once-confusing position becomes apparent. The social contract

solidifies Lockes natural right of property as a constitutional right,

17 18

Einaudi, p. 140. Rousseau. Ingalit, in Oeuvres, I, 108. Cited in Roche, p. 88.

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while the

same social contract, for

Rousseau, legitimizes the

usurpation of resources, ultimately leading to inequality. Finally, this important difference sets Locke and Rousseau apart as ideological rivals. While the two share some similarities, the divisions are distinct enough to establish an intellectual barrier. Lockes private property views, respecting their origin in natural law and defense by the social contract, are clearly liberal in the classic sense. Rousseau social contract theory, on the other hand, borders on the authoritarian, similar to those of Thomas Hobbes. These differences, once clouded by uncertainty, now show themselves to be an substantial division in the private property debate.