John Locke is best known for his political ideas. Namely, his defence of religious pluralism, of government by consent, and more controversially, that each person has a right to property. Invariably, Locke is invoked to justify and defend private property in particular, however kinds of reasons he gives for supporting an individuals’ right to private property are equally strong in supporting rights to common property in some circumstances. Restoring rights to the urban residential commons offers a feasible route out of the housing crisis in a way that is respectful to property rights – properly conceived. Giving local residents rights over their shared space, including those shared aspects of their private property such as façades, would enable development to happen in a morally legitimate
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John Locke is best known for his political ideas. Namely, his defence of religious pluralism, of government by consent, and more controversially, that each person has a right to property. Invariably, Locke is invoked to justify and defend private property in particular, however kinds of reasons he gives for supporting an individuals’ right to private property are equally strong in supporting rights to common property in some circumstances. Restoring rights to the urban residential commons offers a feasible route out of the housing crisis in a way that is respectful to property rights – properly conceived. Giving local residents rights over their shared space, including those shared aspects of their private property such as façades, would enable development to happen in a morally legitimate way that benefits those most closely affected by it, and therefore generate popular support for a policy that will generate enormous wealth, and benefit the worst off by giving them access to affordable, beautiful housing in existing communities.
An important premise of Locke’s defence of property is equality. No person is born in a natural position of superiority to anyone else. Robert Filmer, an ardent defender of the natural authority of kings, with whom Locke bitterly disagreed, argued that kings have a natural right to rule because they own the territories upon which their subjects dwell. Subjects are therefore guests of the king, and must do as he wills whilst on his property. Locke’s rejection of the natural authority of monarchs meant a rejection of the idea that anyone came into the world with any special particular claim over territory. The Earth is not owned by the heirs to royal estates, but rather is owned commonly by all of humanity. Locke, a Christian, believed that God gave the Earth to humankind. If we are equals, then why would God favour some having special claims over certain parts? Equality meant the Earth is our common patrimony, for Locke. However, equality also meant that we are sovereign over ourselves – “self-owners” as many neo-Lockeans put it – and this means that those parts of the Earth that we bring into our personal projects, leave a stamp of our personality on, or what have you, become our own property:
“Though the Earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. […] The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath thereby mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by his labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others.” (Two Treatise of Government, II §V.27)
Labour mixing is a metaphor for how our lives are not lived merely inside our own bodies, but also outside them in the physical environment. When we act and leave our imprint on the world, subjecting it to our purposes, we make it part of ourselves. To Locke, this is how personal property is born – through unilateral action by sovereign individuals. We need not seek the consent of the community before we do this, because this would undermine equality. If we must constantly seek approval from someone else before we exercise our rights, then it looks more like our rights are privileges granted to us at the pleasure of superiors. If we cannot act without leave from others, we cannot truly be said to be free, and when we act, we make things our own.
The idea of literally mixing your labour with external resources turns out not to make much practical sense. As David Hume would later tell us, labour cannot be the subject of physical admixture, but is rather presupposed by it. Nonetheless, tilling soil or the like would have been the primary way people would have brought hitherto unused resources into their personal, ongoing projects at the time Locke was writing. It is hard to argue against this general idea; hard to argue that among equals, individuals should not be regarded as the rightful owners of that which they make an extension of their person, particularly when the proviso that enough and as good is left over for others. It is hard to deny the basic appeal of this claim. After all, who has a better claim to the soil than the one who tilled it; soil that no one knew existed until it was so tilled?
Locke’s argument about the moral importance of property is invariably only taken to apply to private property. Everyone who thinks seriously about property has a little Garret Hardin inside their head reminding them that common property will only result in a tragedy of commons. But the overgrazed common pasture that Hardin so famously analysed in his article in Science is now recognised not to be a particularly realistic model for how common property systems often work in practice. As Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom recognised, only if we assume that users of common-pool resources cannot communicate with each other, cannot socially sanction one another, and are unable to nominate third parties to enforce agreements among one another, must the commons necessarily be tragic. Where we do not assume away the social fabric that would likely be generated by those who have every incentive and capability of cooperating with one another in a sustainable way, the commons can be a comedy, not a tragedy. We should not a priori think that an argument for some kind of property necessarily means it must be individual private property. We should consider how common property can sometimes answer the needs of freedom and equality, just as we do private property.
External resources are often brought into the ongoing projects of groups. Individuals do not always act alone in their interactions with the external world. Where our projects are shared, so too must be the property. Our ownership of the physical resources and spaces that constitute those projects. Of course, we need to be able to exclude third parties, hence it is common property, not a free-for-all.
There is no reason to think that such social projects should not be granted the protection of property, especially where there is the institutional fabric in place to ensure it doesn’t result in social and ecological ruin. Whilst Locke missed this important part of the story in considering the question of lands on the American frontier, he did note that the common lands in his home country of England could not be privatised, because this would violate the rights of those who have established use-based rights to them.
As it stands, we don’t really have any common property rights of this sort, at least not in urban areas where the majority of us live. We have private property rights, and then property owned by the council or the government, or some other agency that administers it with a vague eye to the public interest. However, resources and spaces that are the common property of the particular social groups that leave their imprint on them, that use them, that subsume them into their meaningful life plans should be administered by those people directly – unless they choose to outsource the job. Of course, no one ever asked us if we were happy for the government to take over management of our local streets, parks, and views. If the government cannot take your private property without your consent and administer it in your name, then neither can it take our common property. Yet it has.
It may appear to be hopelessly unworkable to give control of local streets to those who live on them. However, London YIMBY has proposed a comprehensive set of policies which in my view would restore much of the urban commons to those to whom it rightly belongs – the local residents; those in whose ongoing activities the relevant spaces are enveloped within.
The unaffordability of housing in London is a function of the difficulty of acquiring permission from the relevant authorities to build more housing. These authorities make it very difficult to build more housing because the average person does not want more housing in their local community. In a sense, then, the common space in which new housing would be placed is being administered with an eye on the interests of those affected. However, this is only natural when one recognises that adding units of housing to any given neighbourhood is almost all loss for those who already live there. It means more crowded streets and local public transport links, it may mean the obstruction of natural light or of attractive views, it may mean some change to the aesthetic and cultural character of the area, and it threatens their property values. These are things that, to some extent, the local community have some right to. In many ways, they have created (or more likely, paid for) a local physical environment of a certain kind. The YIMBY solution recognises this, and proposes that planning rights be purchased directly from local residents themselves as property rights, rather than being sought bureaucratically or politically from the authorities with no benefit flowing to those affected.
Under the proposal, residents of a given street would be given voting rights on the nature of their street. This would include a design code for new buildings or extensions. By a two-thirds majority, a group of residents can develop their street as they see fit, or if they choose to sell these rights to professional developers to be used in line with the design code and terms determined by the residents. Of course, this does not extend to violating the private rights of other residents, such as overshadowing another’s house. It would also mean that street -communities which do not want any further development are free to not have any – and rest in the assurance that none will be thrust onto them. Sometimes, the most valuable part of a property right can be that it gives a person or group the right to simply say “no”. As Professor David Schmidtz often says, “knowing I have the right to walk away makes it safe for me to turn up at all.” Of course, those who remain steadfastly Not In My Back Yard will be within their rights, it is just that now they would be aware of the cost of this decision, because they will be sitting on valuable voting rights (or, what can be understood as their share of the common property rights). Other times, the most valuable thing a property right can give a person or group is its cash-value. Those who under the current system are against further development because of the costs it would impose upon them have the opportunity to actually be made better off by others buying out their rights.
Restoring the urban residential commons to those who truly hold the rights to them not only gives greater reality to our sovereignty as embodied persons living in a physical environment, but it will help us overcome the housing crisis in a way that does not run rough-shod over any affected party’s interests. Agreeing on a design code means that new developments can be beautiful, and augment surrounding property values. The YIMBY proposals would mean development took place in a way that benefits those closest to it, and not only that diffuse group of persons who would benefit by having more affordable housing.
Dr Billy Christmas is the Lecturer in Political Theory and director of the PPE programme at King’s College London, in the Department of Political Economy
The Adam Smith Institute. and London YIMBY, have released our submission, written by London YIMBY founder John Myers, to the Government’s Planning for the future White Paper
If you would like to submit to the consultation, you can click here to Give Streets a Say.
My work on the commons has been supported by a grant from the Templeton Foundation under the Ideal of Self-Governance project, and forms the groundwork of my forthcoming book Property and Justice: A Liberal Theory of Natural Rights. If you are interested in the ideas discussed here, please check out London YIMBY’s website, and my recent article published in Economics and Philosophy, “Ambidextrous Lockeanism”.
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