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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Most Convenient Philosophical Discovery Ever

Think about it: At the very time the English gentry were grabbing the British peasantry's land through enclosures, and the Native Americans land through thrashing the crap out of them, along comes John Locke, and works out, purely philosophically -- nothing to do with his class interests involved at all, mind you! -- that the Indians and the peasants had never really owned that land in the first place! That they had been using it for hundreds or thousands of years meant nothing: they hadn't mixed their labour with it, you see, like the gentry did. (Or really, the labour of some hired hand, because you know the gentry sure as shinola weren't out there fencing those pastures themselves.)

It just happened to work out so nicely that it was actually OK to take these people's land.

21 comments:

  1. Right up there with the Chinese Communist Party intellectuals' "discovery" that they could not achieve true Communism without going through a Capitalist phase first.

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  2. Gene,

    I understand your criticism here. Yet I also think that this was a very difficult problem. Now at least up to now I think Lockes theory is the best approximation of how you can try to solve land conflicts with the least amount of conflict. Of course that only works if all parties agree to Locke’s theorie in the first place. This was of course not the case for the Indians, and it is also comprehensible given their way of life. Of course they are not free to be shot automatically because they reject Locke.

    Now what would be the ideal solution in such a case. E.g. a small native Indian tribe occupies a vast area, which if you don’t want to have a conflict with them means you cannot cultivate even a tiny piece of land etc, because then you would have to exclude them from this land (if you want to do this successfully), which they don’t like. So how do you solve this? Do you think it would have been possible to buy/barter land or at least their claim on it off of them to avoid bloody conflict? I would assume that due to their low living standard that should have been possible. Or is there any alternative, except don’t set one foot on that soil or at least don’t cultivate anything there?

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  3. Gene, it gets worse! Do you know the evil genius of "tomahawk improvements?"

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  4. @skylien: This isn't really hard.

    1. We can say for damn sure to whom the land didn't belong: the European colonists.
    2. We can easily assimilate the tribes' own land claims in familiar terms: a kind of public, or if you prefer, corporate ownership.
    3. There actually isn't a clear moral case to take someone else's "unimproved" land. There's a lot of living one can get out of "unimproved" land, via hunting, fishing, forage.
    4. Scholars know now, and if you look at the record, settlers knew then, that this was not, in fact, "unimproved land." The trans-Appalachian tribes did quite a lot with, among other things, controlled fires to arrange things to their liking.
    5. You can see what good it did against the ardent alien Lockeans who settled the eastern seaboard to actually mix your tribal labor with the tribal land in a way intelligible to Englishmen. There are of course the "Five Civilized Tribes" to consider. But everyone from the Penobscot to the Piscataway built houses and practiced agriculture. And what good did it do them against ardent alien Lockeans?

    Also, why do you assume the tribes had a "low living standard?" Are you aware that the early New Englanders (the real ones) reported that, from shore, they could smell the stench of Englishmen from their ships, and were repulsed by it? The eastern tribes had it all over the colonists for cleanliness. They weren't the ones starving in droves, either.

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  5. "E.g. a small native Indian tribe occupies a vast area, which if you don’t want to have a conflict with them means you cannot cultivate even a tiny piece of land etc, because then you would have to exclude them from this land (if you want to do this successfully), which they don’t like."

    Skylien, I'd like to occupy just a tiny piece of your house, but for some reason, I suspect you will object.

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  6. Gene,

    What kind of answer is that? So you obviously think if there lived only one person in country as big as North America, it can claim rightfully the whole continent and restrict anyone else from making a corn field on it?

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    1. Yes. To do otherwise is to undermine the whole concept of ownership. Not that I'd be against such a thing per se'.

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  7. It's also pretty convenient for new republicans (such as Pettit) to discover that political activity is center stage for "the good life." Must be nice to be a political philosopher and then make this discovery.

    It's pretty convenient that the Pope discovered...

    It's pretty convenient that Plato discovered that contemplation was the highest of all callings...

    It's pretty convenient that Marx discovered ... (Engels to pay his bills) ...

    If you are trying to make a point about a philosophical doctrine, you are obviously guilty of the genetic fallacy. If you are trying to attack Locke as a person, good for you. Although it's odd that Locke was oh, I dont know, a *real* philosopher who made significant contributions to philosophy in areas outside of a theory of property.

    You sound like a South Park, college know-it-all hippie just back from your first semester at college.

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  8. @ Jim

    I didn’t doubt that for the overwhelming most part the Europeans where the aggressors here. I also didn’t object that it is ridiculous to justify land grabs, and mass deportations with Lockean natural rights arguments. Of course the only right thing to do was to negotiate with the Indians and respect their claims as far as they were made clear. If that really meant that everything in America was occupied so be it. It might very well be that I have wrong impression of the real population at that time and how it was spread...

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  9. " So you obviously think if there lived only one person in country as big as North America, it can claim rightfully the whole continent and restrict anyone else from making a corn field on it?"

    I obviously think that, do I? Watch it: responses that dumb usually get deleted.

    How about this: go find some land no Indians actually used to make their living, and that is free for the claiming. But, of course, that would have been land no European wanted to live on, either!

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  10. @Skylien: As far as the history, there are two ways to quickly improve your understanding of pre-invasion North America - one very quick, the other somewhat slower:

    1. Assume anything Ayn Rand said about American tribal practices is wrong. Not a priori in an "if Ayn Rand said it, I'm against it" way." But a posteriori, a la "people whose business it is to know these things have determined that she had her facts wrong."

    This principle extends to all Objectivist discourse on tribal America, and for all I know, all Rothbardian discourse.

    2. Read Charles C. Mann's 1491. (And probably 1492 also, though I haven't gotten to that one yet.) Bonus: it's fascinating.

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  11. @Hume: Of course, this move is only valid *once* we know an idea is incoherent. Then we may ask, "Why did this thinker hold it nonetheless?" Here a class interest analysis may help.

    "Although it's odd that Locke was oh, I dont know, a *real* philosopher who made significant contributions to philosophy in areas outside of a theory of property."

    I can't think of one. And here is Voegelin on Locke:

    "A study of Locke as a thinker would have to explore the vast shadowy field of half thought that sur­rounds the rather small nucleus that in itself is not too clear. His mode of philosophizing was characterized by a good deal of whim.

    "Spurts of irritation by contemporary evils would push his thought in a direction he would not have moved, could he have seen the end of the road. And he could follow the road with complacency because the energy of the push gave out long before the end came into view. It is an interesting mental constitution. The men who have the happy gift can indulge in irresponsible boutades of thought, can pro­duce considerable havoc and misery, and can nevertheless sincerely protest that their intentions have been misunderstood when the mischievousness of their indulgence is held up to them.

    "Speaking less metaphorically: Locke's spiritual gifts and intellectual abilities were no match for the problems he tried to solve, and his ethos as a thinker was deplorably weak."

    **************

    "You sound like a South Park, college know-it-all hippie just back from your first semester at college."

    And you sound like a five-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. So that gives me about 15 years on you.

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  12. In what way is Locke's theory of property "incoherent"?

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  13. It is strange then that Locke, known be financially involved in the African slave trade, nevertheless begins the First Treatise with the following words: “Slavery is so vile and miserable and Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Court of our Nation; that ‘tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for it.” So it would seem that it is possible to keep one's philosophical commitments separate from one's day-to-day financial interests.

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  14. “[D]espite the healthy industry throughout this century in the production of articles, chapters, and books on Locke’s political philosophy, much in that philosophy remains, in my view, badly misunderstood and hence underappreciated. Fundamental concepts in Locke’s program are still discussed (and often dismissed) without paying careful attention either to the texts themselves or to the philosophical problems towards hose solution those concepts were introduced by Locke. Sometimes these misunderstandings seem willful. Some of them flow from unsympathetic caricatures of a great philosopher’s work, as in George H. Sabine’s exceedingly shallow analysis, which permits him to conclude that Locke’s political philosophy is just “a series of compromises” between “really opposed philosophical positions,” with “no logical structure”; or in John Plamenatz’s anemic versions of Locke, a Locke whose work is so “spoiled” by “ambiguities and false reasonings” … that his political philosophy … makes no “major contribution at all to political or social theory. … I will argue, by contrast, that Locke has much to say to the contemporary theorist … When the basic concepts of Locke’s political philosophy are clarified and analyzed, we can see the structure of a powerful and coherent voluntarist program in political philosophy, which must at least be taken seriously by contemporary theorists. We can see this, of course, only if we surrender the predisposition to find in Locke’s writings primarily code or dogma, only if we stop trying so hard to see all of Locke’s arguments as simply … desperate rationalizations in support of some (obvious or hidden) political agenda, only if we instead look carefully at his work as a body of sincerely philosophical theory. … A serious philosopher’s work surely deserves no less attention and regard than this. And none can deny that Locke merits the title of “serious philosopher.” -A. John Simmons

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  15. That's fantastic, Hume. First, Simmons quotes a whole bunch of people who deny that Locke merits the title of "serious philosopher," and who list the good reasons why he does not merit that title. Then, he declares that NO ONE can deny he merits that title!

    Truly a thinker of the same stature as Locke!

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  16. "or to the philosophical problems towards hose solution"

    And the dude wants to solve philosophical problems with a hose!

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  17. What makes you think that Locke's theory of property rights is incoherent?

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    1. Huff, Hume here got me a little ticked off with his name-calling, and I probably chose the wrong word. The move from "God owns us all" to "We own ourselves" is certainly incoherent, but mostly the theory is irrelevant (since very few property titles came about that way) and ignores the way people actually settle virgin land, which is as a group, with the group assigning property rights.

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  18. David Gordon stumbles upon the same problem, and doesn't like it.

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