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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Don’t be a burke – here’s the key to Locke

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I saw the picture below on political reporter Latika Bourke’s Twitter last week:

Abolish Money OWS protest

This picture from one of the occupy protests seems silly, as Ms Bourke was sure to point out with her caption “um”, but there is actually a legitimate philosophical grounding for the sign’s statement that goes to the core of US political organisation.

To see it we have to go back to 17th and 18th century England and the wealthy political philosopher John Locke. Locke was one of the founders of liberalism; in his ideal world all people are free and equal, the government has little to no intervention in daily life and taxes require the direct consent of the people.

Locke’s ideas of property rights were also ground-breaking; he argued that each person should only take as much as they needed and leave as much and as good for everyone else. In other words, only take what you can take without waste and always leave something for everyone else. (It’s actually a little more complex than that but I want to keep the word count down!)

Lovely idea! Except that Locke’s wealth got in the way of his philosophy.

That rule that you can only take as much as you need is called the (rule) of spoilage. The example of this rule given to my first year political philosophy class was picking apples – take as many as you can eat so long as you don’t take so many that some rot. Locke argued that because money does not rot, (and a few other logistical reasons that allowed this concession to fit with his theory,) money should be exempt from this rule.

So according to Locke you can only have as much of anything as you need, except for money which you can have unlimited quantities of. This means that in Locke’s world the wealthy can remain wealthy.

You might be asking what a 17th century English philosopher has to do with 21st century America, but there is a direct link: The libertarian principals of Locke’s works are cited the major philosophical base of the American Revolution.

So America is a country founded on the principals of the man who validated unlimited money in a free and equal society. The sign doesn’t seem so silly now, hey!

I admit that I don’t know if the sign was intentionally a deep political statement or coincidental hippy mumbo jumbo, but the suggestion is surprisingly well grounded. Maybe Ms Bourke is just being too Burkean to see that.

FOLLOW me on Twitter: @onecuckoosnest

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