John Locke & Freedom: Do We Have a Fundamental Human Right to Property?

Jacobin has an interesting article by John Quiggin on the inegalitarian aspects of John Locke's political theory: John Locke Against Freedom.

Quiggin's main claims are in the sub-title - 'John Locke’s classical liberalism isn’t a doctrine of freedom. It’s a defense of expropriation and enslavement' - and my initial thoughts were that, of course, Locke's justifying a form of inequality. He's working within the social contract tradition which is characterized by starting with an account of all persons as equal in some respect (capacity to kill, dignity, noble savages) and then explaining and justifying a political system that gives some person or groups greater power and authority over others. 

Quiggin makes a valuable contribution, however, by linking Locke's political theory to his expressed political and economic interests. He describes Locke as an American theorist to the extent that he invested in the slave trade and was involved in drafting the founding documents of the state of Carolina. In light of this, Quiggin argues, we shouldn't see Locke's remarks on terra nullius or the inferiority of native and African peoples as some abstract claim to make his theory work, but instead as a fundamental necessity of his worldview if he is to continue to justify his political ventures. 

That being said, I can't help but think Quiggin's claims in the following paragraph move too quickly:

If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.

To be sure, we might conclude that Locke's argument for the fundamental right to property is flawed, but that doesn't mean that therefore all are flawed. I don't have particularly strong sentiments on this matter, but I'm pre-reflectively inclined to think that some minimal level of private (non-productive) property, that is one's own, and free from the intervention of others might be central to living a fully flourishing human life. 

I remember vividly an interview with this young homeless man who'd saved enough money to buy a couple of cassette tapes, and he was so proud and happy that they were his, that he was responsible for bringing them into his possession, and that because of this he could listen to them when he wanted. On his telling, the ability to control this part of his life made him more human, in a sense.

Of course, this is an anecdote, rather than a set of robust arguments, but I think it speaks to a broader truth about human nature and human needs. This doesn't mean that we should support expropriation and enslavement as the article says of Locke, and it doesn't mean that we should endorse an unlimited ability to accumulate wealth. But, it might mean that we can and we should endorse some minimal sphere of freedom to order and dispose of ones private possessions as - perhaps - an embodiment and reflection of a fundamental human agency free from the intrusion of others. On this view, we wouldn't endorse (some minimal level of) property rights because they're useful, as Quiggin suggests at the end of his paper, but because they (in some forms at least) protect and reflect some deeper feature of humanity and human dignity.

How Far is Marriage Equality from Equality Tout Court?

Today the front page of the New York Times bears the heading “Equal Dignity” after the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to legalize and recognize marriage between people of the same sex throughout the entire 50 states. Andrew Sullivan has a piece in The New Republic explaining the remarkable change in public opinion and political progress since he began discussing this issue decades ago, and was laughed at during his first TV debate for suggesting that gay people should be able to get married. In order to get from there to here, a significant social and political movement was put into place, including the Human Rights Campaign with their recognizable ‘equals sign’ logo that spread throughout people's news feeds on Facebook a few years ago. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that the ‘gay marriage’ movement has had success by (appropriately) casting this issue in terms of equality - marriage equality - as is reflected in the fact that the majority of the Supreme Court based its decision in large part on the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

Of course, marriage wasn’t always an institution synonymous with the idea of equality...

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Abortions, Pudding, and Propaganda: How should we think about justifications of TRAP laws?

In 2013, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 2, which placed severe restrictions on abortions in the state. Led by Governor Rick Perry’s call to make abortion a “thing of the past,” HB2 banned abortions after 20 weeks and placed numerous new regulations on abortion providers. Primarily amongst these new regulations, abortion providers must now have admitting privileges to hospitals, which can be impossible when the clinics are rural and therefore too far from the local hospital. Additionally, admitting privileges are often rejected by religious hospitals who object to abortion, thereby requiring that the clinic close or move to the vicinity of other hospitals. 

The HB2 law was struck down by a Federal district judge, but on Tuesday June 9th, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed that decision. Without any further legal challenges, HB2 will be enacted in Texas. The predicted effect of this new requirement will be to condense abortion providers to only the main cities in Texas, like Austin and Houston, leaving - by one estimate -  “17 percent of women of childbearing age in Texas more than 150 miles from a clinic.”

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Voting on Britain's EU Membership

A couple of days ago, MPs in England voted 544-53 in favor of a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU. A public referendum on the Europe Question has been part of the Conservative Party’s platform for some time, but the overwhelming numbers in favor of a referendum come from the fact that, following its defeat in the General Election last month, the Labour party has also come to endorse a vote on EU membership. 

In defending the need for a referendum the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said,

“…an entire generation of British voters has been denied the chance to have a say on our relationship with the European Union. And Mr Speaker, today we are putting that right."

Now, my unreflective sympathies towards the European project and my antipathy towards the Conservative Party initially led me to dismiss this claim as poppycock...

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Hillary Clinton's Mobilization Mistake?

David Brooks has a column today in which he claims that Hillary Clinton is running a campaign designed to mobilize her Democratic base, rather than expand the reach of the party by trying to pick up the votes of undecided, centrist, and Republican voters. This approach entails energizing the Obama coalition of “African-Americans, Latinos, single women and highly educated progressives” through the adoption of left-leaning policy positions. Brooks laments this approach as good politicians - in contrast to Clinton - bring the country together by “refram[ing] debates” and building center-out alliances, which has the effect of leading to legislative change as only a “bipartisan governing majority” will be able to pass laws through congress.

This claim seems credible if we assume, as Brooks argued in a recent piece, that the world is currently experiencing a “center-right shift” due to the reasonableness of the policy platforms of the right-leaning parties, while the left is engaged in a leftward lurch to “redistributionist progressivism”. If conservative electoral victories in the UK and Israel are due to a globally generalizable “public skepticism about the left,” then Clinton’s purported attempt to squeek into the White House on the minimal number votes from an energized democratic base seems doomed to fail to galvanize the popular support necessary to govern effectively over four years.

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Finding Your Views

In From Student to Scholar (Columbia), Steven M. Cahn (CUNY) advises new professors to,

…express your views, lest others consider you uninformed or unconcerned. But be circumspect. Don’t engage in personal attacks, don’t fight unnecessary battles, and don’t aggressively lead a campaign for an idea that is possibly anathema to several tenured members.

The book itself is a piece of “general guidance” to help aspiring academics “along the sometimes hazardous journey from student to scholar,” but it also also reflects Cahn’s belief that the life of the academic is a good one. In light of this, the text balances the pragmatic against the ideal; on the one hand professors have to work within the confines of the academy and alongside others with whom they may conflict, but on the other hand they want the academic freedom to pursue the truth on the topics that inspire them, and the politics of the university can be damned. Where does the quotation above fall on the scale from pragmatic advice to an ideal to be pursued? 

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