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Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets

April 30th, 2009


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[Readings come from Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Part II, Sections I & II]

Locke’s Theory of Acquisition

Nozick’s goal in this section of AS&U is to, in his words, “introduce an additional bit of complexity into the structure of the entitlement theory. ” To do this, he uses as a starting point Locke’s approach to justice in property acquisition—namely, that ownership of an object originates in one’s mixing of labor with that object. Nozick then proceeds to ask the standard gamut of questions calling attention to some difficulties in Locke’s theory of acquisition, like whether dumping a can of tomato juice in the ocean constitutes “mixing one’s labor” with the ocean. Essentially, the questions seek the strict boundary between what constitutes a mixing of labor sufficient for just acquisition and what does not. Under the Lockean notion of acquisition, it seems that one naïve interpretation would say that improving upon an object entails full ownership of the object. Of course, as Nozick points out, if the stock of improvable unowned objects is limited, this view is unfeasible. He uses the appropriation of a grain of sand as an example of one’s appropriation removing another’s liberty (as Hohfeld uses the word) to act on a previously unowned object, but intuitively suggests that this particular removal is not problematic. The central concern, he says, “is whether appropriation of an unowned object worsens the situation of others. ”

Here, Nozick introduces a principle aimed at addressing that notion, which he terms “Locke’s proviso”: that an appropriation must leave ‘enough and as good left in common for others. One version of the proviso, if applied consistently, would make all past appropriations disallowed under Locke’s proviso once a single person’s situation were worsened by an appropriation. Nozick interjects that this argument actually depends on how stringently the proviso is interpreted. Further, he asks whether persons in a world where there are no more “accessible and useful unowned” objects are indeed worsened, citing numerous empirical considerations favoring private property vis-à-vis its satisfaction of the proviso. The difficulty of the argument, however, lies in answering the question “Lockean appropriation makes people no worse off than they would be how? ” Nozick says answering this question lies beyond the scope of his work; he suggests that discovering the baseline could begin by estimating the general economic importance of original appropriation (say, by the percentage of income based on natural resources rather than human action). He closes with a note that these questions not only must be faced by advocates of private property; all theories of property (like collective property) must still, too, provide a theory of property rights legitimately originate.

The Proviso

Nozick starts off by assuming that any reasonable theory of justice must have some sort of proviso similar to a weak version of Locke’s. In short, if the position of others no longer at liberty to use an appropriated thing is worsened, a permanent bequeathable right to that thing can not be conferred by any valid process. The emphasis on the mode of worsening is important here, as the proviso does not encompass other modes of worsening, like worsening due to more limited opportunities to appropriate or “worsening” of one seller by another due to an appropriation leading to more market competition. Nozick also suggests that compensation of the appropriator to those whom he is worsening can satisfy the proviso.

Nozick then shifts the focus to justice in transfer, asserting that any theory of just acquisition must account for justice in transfer. Quite centrally, he posits, “If my appropriating all of a certain substance violates the Lockean proviso, then so does my appropriating some and purchasing all the rest from others who obtained it without otherwise violating the Lockean proviso. ” Unlike the earlier argument in which the original appropriation violated the proviso as well as the appropriation which actually left a person worse off, it is only the combination of the original appropriation and the later transfers that is sufficient to violate the Lockean proviso.

Next, Nozick argues that one’s title to his holding includes the “historical shadow” of the proviso; namely, the title-holder may not transfer it into an agglomeration that violates the proviso, nor may he use it in a way that violates the proviso by making others worse than their baseline situation.

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