August 6, 2010

The Lockean Proviso and Federally Managed Lands

On my recent vacation, I visited a number of national parks (specifically: Crater Lake, Redwood, and Yosemite). This got me thinking about the moral and political aspects of federal land management, including the National Park System. Libertarians are often skeptical of government ownership of anything. However, in this post I want to argue that the Lockean Proviso actually demands such a system of government land management, and so such a system should be supported by libertarians of the Nozickian/Neo-Lockean sort, such as myself.

Let's start at the beginning. Locke holds that initially all of earth's natural resources were held in common by human beings, meaning that we all had an equal right to them. Locke appeals to God's gift of the world to Adam and Eve, but we don't need theology to get this to work: we'll just note that if two people come upon an apple tree in a previously uninhabited region of the earth, each person has just as much right as the other to eat the apples. However, the resources can't just continue in common ownership. When I pick an apple and begin to eat it, I make an exclusive claim to that apple; if I'm going to eat it, then no one else can. This is why Locke believes in a natural right to private property: if we cannot make exclusive claims to anything we will all starve. Furthermore, in the case envisioned, I don't need anyone's consent to claim the apple; I can just take it. But, of course, anyone else has this same right, and that means that I can't claim the whole tree just because I saw it first, or got there first, or whatever. I can only claim as many apples as I can eat.

Now, suppose I am planning for the future. I want to make sure I will have plenty of apples next year. So I begin to prune, water, and fertilize the apple tree. This sort of thing is merely an extension of my original act of picking the apple. It is a more sophisticated way of using assets held in common to meet my material needs. However, in order to meet my needs in this way, I have to claim the whole tree. Again, though, the ability to make this sort of claim is a necessary part of the human condition. Next year, the weather conditions might not be good enough for apples to grow wild, but my apple tree, having been well cared for, might still produce fruit. If anyone complains that I have monopolized the whole tree for myself, I will simply tell him to get his own tree.

What I do to the tree is called 'Lockean Acquisition'; this sort of thing is what Locke means when he talks about 'mixing my labor' with natural resources. Now when Locke formulates his principle of acquisition, he writes:

Whatsoever, then, [someone] removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others. (Second Treatise, sect. 27)

Robert Nozick has dubbed the clause I have italicized the Lockean Proviso (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 174-182). Now, what the Lockean Proviso does, whether in Locke's original form or Nozick's reconstruction, is to recognize that the standard picture of Lockean Acquisition works only in conditions of abundance. If there's only one apple tree, I can't very well just tell you to go get your own. The result is that, in conditions of scarcity, I do require everyone's consent to my use of the scarce resources. In the case where there is only one apple tree, if we want to cultivate the apple tree to ensure a good crop, the only way to do this is to let all of the interested parties (everyone who wants to eat apples) have a say in the use of the tree, and this requires the formation of a social contract and some sort of representative government which will be responsible for determining the use of the scarce resource.

It should be noted, however, that in the Lockean scheme, this only applies to initial acquisition. The fact that a resource becomes scarce does not undermine a previously established property right. So while the Lockean proviso does not justify the use of eminent domain to seize scarce resources for government management, it does justify preventing private acquisition of previously unowned scarce resources. This won't justify the entire National Park System and Bureau of Land Management. Much of that land was unjustly seized from private parties (mostly Native Americans, though I think some of the land might have been taken later by eminent domain). However, it certainly does justify, and indeed demand, the existence of such a system, whereby decisions about the use of scarce resources is made through a representative government.

Posted by Kenny at August 6, 2010 11:33 AM
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