Property and freedom: Why language is the proper basis for the social contract (Rethinking liberal theory 8)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I keep finding myself writing about two books, Leviathan and The Second Treatise of Government. I hope I may be excused for this tendency, because I think these two books are among the most important in shaping our way of life.

Today, I'm writing about the relationship between property and freedom. It's an argument that echoes down the years from the Civil War to the current day, between those who say the first freedom resides in our ability to use and dispose of our property as we see fit, and those who argue that the rights of people matter more than the rights of property.

It's a conflict that was present at the creation of liberalism. John Locke famously founded the social contract on property, and said that we are all born with property, because we own ourselves. As we've discussed before, in Locke's day you had to have property in order to vote. In saying we are born owning ourselves, he was taking a radical position that everyone should have full citizenship.

Objectively, many people did not own themselves in his day. One of my own ancestors was kidnapped from the streets of Glasgow and taken to the new world, were she was sold to an old man as an indentured servant, to care for him in his declining years. This was in a Quaker community, and after the old man's death she married a Quaker preacher. Not all forms of slavery are equally pernicious.

One of the most pernicious was race slavery as practiced in the Old South. Slavery is the ultimate extractive institution; all the fruits of the slave's labor belong to the slave's owner. White indentured servants like my ancestor were cheaper than African slaves, but they were genetically inferior as slaves in Dixie. They lacked the resistance to malaria, a disease which devastated whites nearly as badly as native Americans. Black slaves cost more because they were worth more.

But Locke's notion that all people hold property in their own person was a ticking time bomb under the institution of slavery. That institution had probably been with mankind as long as war and property, and yet, if the ownership of ourselves is, as Locke suggested, an inalienable right -- one we cannot sell or transfer to another -- slavery is an unthinkable evil.

The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus was born a slave; the name his parents gave him is unknown, and Epictetus means "acquired.". He was not so different from his master, a freedman who was a secretary to Nero. Consider how different this is from the situation of the slave in the antebellum South. The racial divide helped make it possible to dehumanize slaves, and the rules provided few legal protections to them from the whims of their masters. As recently as 1968, the striking Selma, Alabama, sanitation workers carried signs saying "I am a man." History can change quickly, but culture changes slowly.

There was a contradiction in Locke's philosophy and his own life. He taught that we are born owning ourselves, but he was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which bought slaves in Africa and sold them in the new world, and wrote a constitution for Carolina that gave slaveholders complete power over their slaves.

That conflict still reverberates in our society. The Republican Party, which started out as the Northern, abolitionist party, but because it was the Northern party, also became the party of industrialists and financiers, has now dropped its northern liberal wing and joined the business interests to the people who used to be represented by Dixicrats. And the argument that freedom to dispose of your property however you will is the most basic freedom still rings true to the conservatives of the South. It's an argument the leading men of the secessionists states made forcefully in the various declarations of secession issued as the left the union.

Consider these words from the Georgia  Declaration of the Causes of Secession:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war.

From the South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession:

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
The cries of "constitution" and "property" were central to the grievances of the slave states. Even the claim that the North has tried to "arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people" seems familiar to the modern ear, because these arguments are the language of the Tea Party.

Property is woven into our system of thought, our social order, and our language. It is not objects, or the desire for objects; those are conditions that call out for the institution of property.

Property is the system of rights, obligations and rules regarding the human use of things. One might say that it is the meaning and the grammar of desired objects. It encompasses a universe of categories of thought that make it possible for us to peaceably make and use things.

And, of course, meanings, and the rules governing how we use meanings together in discourse, originate in language. Language does not just express our thoughts, it makes  symbolic thought possible; one might even say, as Ferdinand de Saussure did, that language gives us the categories we use to think. The notion of property, and the rules of property, are not just expressed in language, they are based on language. Property is just one galaxy in the universe of meaning.

It is language that gives us the structure of though that makes the strange, symbolic world of humanity possible, and property is only one part of that world. Property cannot, therefore, be the basis for the social contract.

Language is a social enterprise. As de Saussure noted, we have signs -- the words we use to express meaning -- and the signed -- the meaning we express with the word. The signs are arbitrary. It does not matter whether a culture refers to a substance as eau or water, as long as all agree that the word used refers to the meaning of that wet stuff we like so well we have it piped right into the house.

Before symbolic thought can give us the concept and vocabulary of property, symbolic thought must exists, so language must come first. The most distinctive feature of human society, this weird web of meanings in which we live our lives, so unlike the world of other animals, is the thing which makes a society human. We do not form a society to protect our lives (even wolves do that) or to protect our property. We form a society to imbue the world with meaning.

The freedom to participate in that conversation, to have a say in what the world means, is the most basic freedom, and it belongs to anyone who possesses language. Locke persuaded us that we were born owning ourselves, even though it was not objectively true in his day, and in so doing, he changed the meaning of the lives of slaves and slave owners. We had presidents who owned slaves, that's how respectable the institution once was, but now consider slavery unspeakably evil.

That Locke could change the nature of property with language is a dead giveaway to the fact that property is a product of the system of meaning language gives us. It is a secret that has been laying in the laps of mankind for a century and a half, at least, invisible the way air is, because language is the symbolic world we live in.

The Selma strikers carried signs saying "I am a man" because they wanted to write the meaning of their own lives, rather than be told their lives were meaningless or have the meaning of their lives dictated to them. The were reaching for the most basic human freedom, to have a say in who they were.

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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