Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thanks to John Locke and Karl Marx, we've spent hundreds of years arguing about how we can achieve freedom and justice through perfecting our relationship with property.

Locke was actually following Hobbs, who realized that if kings ruled by divine right, Europe's religious divisions would tear it apart: People would not accept the divine right of a king not of their faith. He looked to the value system associated with property to shift the legitimacy of the state away from religious authority. When he said, "The ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another," he was not just applying this system of value to tradesmen, where it had been applied as long as money or barter had existed. He was saying that sovereigns were to be valued because we needed their services to prevent people from killing each other. It is significant that he said this after the Thirty Years War, at the end of which Germany had about two-thirds the population it had when the war started, and the German states were still divided into Catholic and Protestant sects.

It's easy to see why Locke continued Hobbes' concern  with property. You had to have property to be a full citizen in Locke's England, so to argue for wider voting rights, he had to argue that we all possess property in our persons. Even long after his death, it was still quite normal for nations to restrict the voting franchise to those with sufficient property. Hobbes used the value system of property to give us a secular way of legitimizing government. Locke adopted the system of rights associated with property to argue that we all have rights, and no one can buy them off you; that is, your property right to yourself is inalienable.

Locke was radical enough to put his freedom and possibly his life in peril had he stayed in England, but his philosophy was based on the ideas already existing in his homeland's political culture. Even marriage and family could be viewed through the lens of property, with women as chattel and children as part of their parents' property until they came of age. Thus, Abraham Lincoln's father could rent him out for labor, the money going to his father as if Abraham Lincoln were a slave, leading to his statement, "I have been a slave." It was the simple truth, and likely had a strong effect on how Lincoln viewed slavery.

Locke was eager to expand our understanding of what qualified as property, but he never really defined property. If you've ever tried to take a chew toy from a dog, you've seen the instinct to possession that makes the institution of property necessary. But that emotional need is not itself property, any more than love is marriage.

Property is the institution that regulates our emotional attachment to objects, and defines the rights, privileges and obligations people have to things they possess or use. And when I say defines, I'm using the term more literally than you might think.

Locke maintained that society was formed to protect property, but a moment's reflection will reveal that such a system of rights can only exist once symbolic thought exists. Language gives us the categories we use to think in the symbolic manner that allows us to have such an abstract thing as a system of rights. And language, as Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out in The Course in General Linguistics about a century ago, is a social enterprise.

The categories of thought that I referred to earlier are what we wish to communicate. They are, in Saussure's terms, the signified. We use words to signify them, and the sounds we choose to represent the signified are arbitrary. Call it water if you are English, call it eau if you are French, as long as your society agrees that the sound you use signs the meaning you intend, it doesn't matter what sound your society has chosen.

The fact that the signs are arbitrary, and must be agreed upon within a society, is why we have different languages for different groups of people. In fact, changing the signs so that only the "in" group understands them, as with slang, is a way of defining a group. Should a language lose a word, if for example we were to lose the world "vast," the meaning that word signifies collapses into other, existing words and the meanings they covey (so "vast" must be conveyed with terms such as "big" and "huge"), and our thought would become a little more vague. Should a new meaning come into the world, it must either have a new sign or adopt a sign already in use, as when computer programmers adopted the word "cookie" for a type of code given to a visitor to a web site, while bakers continued to use the word for something yummy, handy, and fattening.

The dog's chew toy is a concrete object (well, rubber), its willingness to defend its toy is the desire for possession, and the owner's desire to stop the damned thing from squeaking so he can get a little rest, for God's sake, gives you the conflict that needs to be regulated. In the animal world, a conflict over possession of a carcase, for example, can produce a conflict red in tooth and claw. When the pack of hyenas take the lion's game, this has occurred because of the lack of such an institution. If the lion could communicate to a higher authority that it had applied its labor to nature (the zebra, late of the Serengeti) to make the zebra its property, it could have the sheriff come and evict the hyenas from the kill.

Then, the zebra's family could sue.

In Locke's view, that's what the state was there for; to protect our property, including our lives.

But remember, prior to Hobbes, the state did not rely on such secular concepts of its purpose. Faith and force ruled mankind from time immemorial. And faith, and the ecclesiastical authority derived from it, needed symbolic thought as much or more than property did. So did kinship, another source of legitimacy for hereditary kings.

These competing systems of rights, privileges and obligations were part of the network of meaning that enabled us to have the concepts of property and the system of authority needed to enforce it. I cannot tell you which of these came first, or even whether that matters, but all are part of the structure of symbolic thought that Saussure described in the posthumously published Course in General Linguistics.

Language had to come first, and it defined the group that spoke each version of it. Language allows cultures to contain more knowledge than any one mind can contain. Language, and the world of symbolic thought it makes possible, is the most distinct attribute of human society. Language makes it possible to cooperate with members of our species not closely related to us by blood, which is very different from the world of other mammals.

So perhaps human society is not a compact to protect property, but a conspiracy to create meaning, a thing of whispers, sighs, and cries instead of inventories and bank accounts.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy


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