The 17th Century English philosopher John Locke is arguably the most influential philosopher on American political and economic thinking and practice. His understanding of political thought and his views on private property were foundational among the founders of the United States. The upside of this influence is Locke’s emphasis on all persons being created equal with a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or as Locke put it in his Second Treatise on Government, “life, health, Liberty, or possessions.” Many of the checks and balances that we have in relation to political power can be traced back to Locke’s thought about the proper role of power in government and the need to protect basic rights of the individual. Locke also understood that personal freedom must be balanced with responsibility in the context of society.
The downside of Locke’s influence on the American ethos is his emphasis on individualism and his emphasis on the value of private property over the value of nature. This influence is still prevalent today and is one of the many factors in contemporary American thought that makes it difficult for us to address the pressing challenges of the 21st Century that require us to understand ourselves as persons in ecological community rather than as individuals focused on the pursuit of possessions taken from nature seen as having little value of its own. Locke placed limitations on the extent of private property persons should have, noting that persons should not labor for more than they can make use of, but in our contemporary economic systems such limitations have long been ignored.
Locke’s notion of private property is perhaps the idea with the most pernicious influence on American history and on contemporary American experience. Locke believed that nature or wilderness is basically devoid of value, and the only way to infuse nature with value is through human labor. Once persons infuse their labor into nature, it then becomes their property owing to the value they have created with their labor. It was with this understanding of nature, value, and private property that Locke justified the taking away of wilderness from indigenous persons because in his mind they were letting wilderness go to waste because they were not mixing enough human labor with it as to create value. According to Locke, it was the right and in some sense the duty of Europeans to not let the land go to waste, and when they did mix their labor with the land, it became rightfully theirs instead of being the land of the indigenous people who had lived there for centuries.
Locke’s thought contributed to a mindset and worldview that made the conquest and genocide of native people seem acceptable rather than being seen as one of the most horrific experiences of our collective history. In contemporary American life, Locke’s notion of private property as the foundational principle upon which political and economic relationships are based contributes to a mindset and worldview in which private property is more highly valued than the common good and the good of the ecological community. I am not arguing that there is no value in private property, but it should not always trump the values of the common good for all life. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the health and happiness of persons is dependent on the overall health and stability of the ecological community. As we attempt to transform our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with the ecological community to move towards a more sustainable future for all life, we continue to be haunted by the influence of John Locke. Some of his contributions led to improvements in our political life together, but his views concerning the primacy of private property over the value of nature and the ecological community do not represent the way forward to a more sustainable future.