Gene Callahan and Lockean Homesteading

In a brief post, Gene Callahan continues his pious and hard-fought crusade against John Locke and his “juvenile philosophy.” The poor philosopher’s ghost would respond, but he is too busy homesteading land in Gehenna, and so the task has been outsourced to me.

Inasmuch as Dr. Callahan merely means to point out that few modern land titles can be legitimated on purely Lockean grounds, I see little to cavil at. But from this he draws the conclusion that any homesteading theorist should endorse land redistribution, which is a non sequitur. Surely one can accept the Lockean homesteading principle without making it the sole means of legitimization. On this view, the theft itself was clearly wrong (as it violated the homesteading principle), but certain other factors might still justify the present owner’s retention of it. (Was there a clear heir? How many times has the property changed hands, and what did the various buyers know? Did the heirs long ago abandon any claim to the land? Etc.) Indeed, how is the Lockean in a different position from any other property theorist who is not willing (say) to justify the theft of land from the American Indians, but is equally unwilling to terminate long-standing land titles?

Ultimately, the significance of the homesteading principle is not that it justifies most modern land titles (it doesn’t). Its significance lies in several other things that it does show: 1. A monarch cannot legitimately claim “property” in all the land located within his territory. 2. More broadly, unhomesteaded resources remain in the common possession of humanity until homesteaded. 3. Inasmuch as governments are not the source of property rights, it is coherent (though not necessarily correct) to argue that they were established for the purpose of securing pre-existing property rights.

6 comments on “Gene Callahan and Lockean Homesteading

  1. PSH, you are continually missing my point, which is that no current property has this pristine Lockean past, and, AS YOU POINT OUT, instead it is owned by a pragmatic compromise that decides that social order and prosperity should trump redress for far distant crimes. THEREFORE, the libertarian claims of injustice at the slightest encroachment upon property rights is rubbish. ALL of our current property rights are social creations, therefore society may adjust them without any injustice.

    As far as your point 3 goes, property rights and governments arose together out of already existing tribal social arrangements, and neither out of Lockean homesteading or Hobbesian bargaining by individuals who appeared on the scene mysteriously, with no social ties or context.

  2. Thanks for the reply.

    I agree that anyone who uses the raw Lockean homesteading principle to argue in favor of absolute property rights for the modern era is way off base. (Locke himself certainly never used it for that purpose.) But all the libertarian theorist has to say is that the natural law itself (that “brooding omnipresence in the sky,” to borrow a charming Holmesian line) contains this built-in “statute of limitations” we’re talking about. In that case, the property devolves upon the latest, rather than the first, person to invest his labor in the land.

  3. “But all the libertarian theorist has to say is that the natural law itself (that “brooding omnipresence in the sky,” to borrow a charming Holmesian line) contains this built-in “statute of limitations” we’re talking about.”

    Isn’t that convenient for the libertarian theorist?

  4. Well, in strictness, the premises are always convenient for the conclusion, no? (If not, there’s something wrong with the argument.) But I guess what you’re getting at is that it has something of an ad hoc flavor to it. Maybe; but to me it seems at least as intuitive as the homesteading principle itself.

    Ultimately, isn’t even the pragmatist appealing to intuitions about justice? I don’t think he wants to say, “It is monstrously unjust for us to hold on to this land; but it sounds like a bad idea to turn it over, so let’s just pretend nothing is wrong and hope St. Peter doesn’t sic the archangels on us.” What he wants to say is, “To steal this land was monstrously unjust; but taking into account all that has come to pass since then, to transfer possession of it once again would itself be unjust.”

  5. “To steal this land was monstrously unjust; but taking into account all that has come to pass since then, to transfer possession of it once again would itself be unjust.”

    Yes this is fine, but now the Nozickian case for how it is unjust to impose any restrictions on these property rights vanishes. While it might be unjust to take it, to levy a property tax that would set up a fund for the descendants of the victims of the theft doesn’t really seem unjust, does it?

  6. That specific proposal? Perhaps not, though it does raise some sensitive issues. (For example, if the present owner purchased the land, and had no knowledge of what went on in the past, should he be singled out—or should the burden fall on other, or at least a larger number of, shoulders?) But as we know, the typical property regulation has nothing to do with helping American Indians or other victimized classes.

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