Apart from its original connection with the universal franchise (severed by now), the ownership concept, especially when restricted to fruits of one’s labor, is relatively uncontroversial. Once we extend the idea to cover self-ownership, particularly ownership of one’s labor and landed property, conceptual problems arise.
Commodification, turning everything into a commodity to be traded in the marketplace, is the expected result. And it carries with it the entire gamut of unanticipated problems which seem to undercut the olden, traditional ways of humans relating. Of particular importance here is the commodification of labor, the basis of Marx’s concept of alienation, but more on that later. Meanwhile, let’s turn our attention to the kind of difficulties that crop up in connection with an unlimited accumulation of landed property and all that it entails – in short, the capitalist system per se.
Originally, Locke’s formulation was far more sensible than that. Accumulation of property was subject to restrictions due to spoilage and other concerns. The main idea was to appropriate just enough to sustain life and livelihood, nothing more, making sure the same considerations apply to each and everyone: no one was to be left wanting. However, once land ownership and all that it entails was reconceived as capital, the spark behind all productive activity, Locke’s mercantile instincts took over. The advent of money – not the advent, strictly speaking, because money has been around long before Locke, but more likely, making “money” part of the equation (since gold and silver, even copper, weren’t subject to spoilage) – unleashed the beast within. And with spoilage no longer a factor, all bets were off.
No question, Locke was guided here by the phenomenal success of mercantile England and its use of capital, in whatever form, to her best possible advantage, to enrich herself and her people at the expense of all others. In this respect, Locke was right but only to a point. Once fierce competition developed, as a result of other nation-states catching up with the idea, England’s superiority had waned. Soon enough, it was back to dog-eat-dog.
Locke assumed that ceaseless appropriation of land and capital was, in the long run, more beneficial to the interests of all, in terms of increased productivity, general prosperity, what else have you, even if it meant excluding a great many from being able to participate in the process.
In this respect, he was modern, but his cardinal mistake was to assume that macro events guaranteed similar results for persons.