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Rousseau and Locke on Property and the State

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke each explore the origins of the state, seeking its essential purpose and the source of its legitimacy. Their inquiry diverges over the question of property, specifically over whether property proceeds the state. For Locke, property rights arise prior to the state as an element of natural law, whereas for Rousseau, a social contract is a necessary precondition for the creation and legitimacy of property rights. This subtle distinction metastasizes into a salient difference between Rousseau’s vision of the general will and Locke’s view of supreme power. The essential purpose of the state differs between them: the Rousseauvian contract fostering civil equality and Lockean compact preserving natural inequality.

Locke asserts that private property precedes the state; legitimate ownership is not created by contract, but derived instead from a natural right. For Locke, the origins of property can be traced to one’s undeniable ownership over their physical body: “every Man has a Property in his own Person” (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 287). From this original ownership over the body, the Lockean understanding of property unfolds. Labor, the physical actions that constitute “the Work of [one’s own] hands,” mixes the sole thing that man can claim legitimate ownership over, his corporeal body, with raw, natural material that is common to all (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 288). This exertion removes the object of his labor from the “common state Nature placed it in,” annexing it as his own and excluding it from other men (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 288). By mixing his labor with some common resource, man ‘fixes’ within it something that is unequivocally his and thus “makes it his Property” (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 288). Notably, this conversion occurs without the “assignation or consent of any body” (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 289). Locke’s conception of a right to property directly relies on the axiomatic belief that man has incontrovertible possession over his own body. By exercising this sole object over which he has complete ownership, man can plant the same seed of ownership in other resources that are external to him and common to all. He affixes part of himself within them and thus can rightfully claim them as his own. For Locke, no collective agreement is necessary for the creation of private property as reason itself vindicates and affirms this right. Labor endows property with its legitimacy.

Rousseau, on the other hand, finds nothing natural in the institution of private ownership. Property is a right that cannot exist before contract. It is not the product of reason or natural law, but rather the culmination of the “most thought-out project that ever entered the human mind,” carried out by a few ambitious men for their own profit (Second Discourse, Part II, 79). Property, for Rousseau, is merely the name given to “adroit usurpation” that gain state sanctioned and thereby was converted into an “irrevocable right” (Second Discourse, Part II, 79). While Rousseau sketches out a familiar process by which the idea of property emerges—from the cultivation of land to its division, labor conferring the appearance of ownership—he refrains from granting this right any manner of true legitimacy. Rousseau splits the mere act of possession from any moral right. In the state of nature, each can lay claim to physical control over their holdings, yet given the constant specter of expropriation, this form of ownership is tenuous. One can state the empirical fact that they control their property, yet these grounds are insufficient. Possession is decried as a “precarious and abusive right” and as lacking any justification beyond an appeal to brute force (Second Discourse, Part II, 78). As the right to property in the state of nature is derived through force alone, it could justifiably be superseded and appropriated by any greater power. Though individual labor coupled with continued possession provides an explanation for the idea of property, any right was implicitly sustained by strength.

For Locke, property is a natural right that proceeds any collective agreement; thus, the creation of the state occurs later. Rousseau rejects this view, attributing the creation of property to “convention and human institution,” so necessarily following the formation of society (Second Discourse, Part II, 84). This subtle difference in sequencing dramatically alters each philosopher’s conception of the legitimate role of the civil state. The contours of the process by which a new state is formed are strikingly similar; however the essential purpose of the state is distinct. Locke envisions a right secured by the state; Rousseau, a right created.

Locke sees “the preservation of Property being the end of Government”; that goal provides the impetus that drives men to join together and enter society (Second Treatise, Ch. XI, 360). For Locke, it is “obvious” that legitimate property exists before the state, yet “the Enjoyment of it is very uncertain” (Second Treatise, Ch. IX, 350). So, on Locke’s account, man joins society for the preservation of a preexisting right rather than the creation of a new one. As property rights originate in natural law, something which is innate and inalienable, the state’s ability to expropriate must be curtailed. Locke emphasizes the protection of property when enumerating the limits of the sovereign: “Supream power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his consent” (Second Treatise, Ch. XI, 360). The prominence given to this argument makes sense as it would be an “absurdity” for men to submit themselves to the restrictions that society imposes without at least gaining the security over their holdings that was promised in the initial contract. However, if property is sacrosanct, then the differences that result from natural inequalities — as “different degrees of Industry were apt to give Men Possessions in different Proportions” — are legitimized by the state (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 301).

Rousseau believes that “it is utterly on the basis of … common interest that society ought to be governed” (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. I, 170). The sovereign should rule, in other words, in accordance with the general will, which favors equality. The general will can be ascertained by summing up all the individual wills and cancelling out any particular differences. While “the private will tends towards giving advantages to some and not others, … the general will will tend towards equality,” as it refuses to prioritize any one individual’s perspective (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. I, 170). For Rousseau, the needs of the community are always elevated above the preferences of individuals. For example, “[e]ach private individual’s right to his own land is always subordinate to the community’s right to all” (Social Contract, Book I, Ch. IX, 169). As Rousseau believes that property derives its standing solely from the authority of the collective, the collective is therefore empowered to determine how these rights should be allocated. Society acts with a “universal compulsory force to move and arrange each part in the manner best suited to the whole” (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. IV, 173). The goal of the social contract is not to preserve property but to create a new equality upon the substrate of an unequal reality. The social contract “substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have been able to impose upon men” (Social Contract, Book I, Ch. IX, 169). Men are made equal by society; the state is advantageous to men only insofar as they all have something and none of them has too much.

At a cursory reading, the respective societies proposed by Locke and Rousseau appear quite similar in structure; one can find many homologies between the two. However, in essential role, they could not be more different. For Locke, men converge on society for the simple purpose of protecting existing rights; this is the central function of the state. As the source of these rights is outside of the purview of (and prior to) the state, the government is limited by them; there is a higher authority to which men can appeal. In contrast, there are no limitations on the power of the general will: “the social contract gives … an absolute power over all of its members” (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. IV, 173). All rights are constructed by the community and come from within it. As rights for Rousseau are a social creation, he is willing to grant society the power to transfigure itself radically in order to attain a new civil equality. For Locke, the preservation of existing rights is paramount which, in effect, maintains natural inequalities.

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