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Political theory and molecular biology

February 17th, 2004

I just got an invitation to a Brisbane conference on the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke (Interested readers can email [email protected], there are also events at Yale and Oxford).

I was first introduced to Locke through his demolition of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia in which the divine right of kings is derived from the supposed natural rights of fathers, beginning with Adam. Locke has great fun with this, pointing out that if Filmer is right, there is a single rightful monarch for the entire planet, namely the man most directly descended from Adam under the rules of primogeniture – by implication, all existing monarchs (except perhaps one) are usurpers who can justly be overthrown.

I was very disappointed then, to discover that Locke’s own analysis of property rights was no better than Filmer’s theory of divine right; in fact worse. Rights to property are supposed to be obtained by the first productive user and then passed on by inheritance and voluntary transfer. So, if we could locate the Garden of Eden, where Adam delved, his lineal descendent, if not king of the world, would be the rightful owner of Eden. To determine a rightful allocation of property, we would need to repeat the same exercise for every hectare on the planet. The Domesday Book wouldn’t even get you started on this task.

That was thirty years ago or so, and science has advanced a lot since then, to the point where we can award victory to (a modified version of) Filmer. By careful analysis of DNA, we can now postulate a mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam from whom we are all descended (of course, there’s no reason to suppose the two were contemporaneous). Suppose, following the practice of various hereditary monarchies, we identify the rightful heir of Y-chromosomal Adam as the man with the smallest number of accumulated mutations (defects from the point of view of a strongly hereditary principle). In principle, this man could be identified uniquely. In practice, I imagine it would be possible to identify the ethnic group to which this man belongs, probably somewhere in Africa, and crown some prominent member of that group. A feminist version, with descent on matriarchal lines, is equally reasonable and, on the current state of scientific knowledge, a litte more practical.

Of course, for those of us who don’t buy patriarchal/matriarchal arguments in the first place, this isn’t at all compelling. But I don’t find Locke’s theory of property any more compelling and, unlike Filmer, his theory is no closer to implementability than it was 300 years ago.
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  1. Jim Birch
    February 18th, 2004 at 14:41 | #1

    And the company that patents the relevant adam genes could collect rent on everything.

  2. observa
    February 18th, 2004 at 14:43 | #2

    Well I am willing to turn over my properties to this Adam heir apparent, upon Court determined proof of identity, as well as upon payment of Court determined compensation for my counterclaim for all accrued rates, improvements, etc since the Garden of Eden. I will also be willing to front the Court for past claims of contribution to this latter amount which has been awarded me. Now where’s Ken Parish’s number? On second thoughts I’d better attend to the Land Tax bill.

  3. Don
    February 18th, 2004 at 15:00 | #3

    Try reading Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He takes Locke’s theory of property very seriously.

    The game seems to go like this:

    1. You and your friends have a lot of private property. This seems like a good idea.

    2. People who are not your friends find a philosophical theory that says that obtaining property through free trade in the marketplace does DOES NOT give you a right to it.

    3. You find a respectable philosophical theory that says that (under certain well-defined circumstances) obtaining property through free trade in the market place DOES give you a right to it.

    4. You ignore the ‘under certain well-defined circumstances’ bit of the theory since virtually nobody with a lot of property can meet the conditions.

    5. You refer to the theory whenever your property rights are challenged philosophically.

    6. Since your opponents disagree with the conclusions of the theory so vehemently they never bother to read or understand it. As a result they never twig that your own theory says you are not entitled to your property.

  4. gordon
    February 22nd, 2004 at 12:41 | #4

    This reminds me of the difference between a free-market economist and a political economist. The free-market economist doesn’t believe that ownership of assets matters very much, since any owner will be subject to the same market forces as any other, and so will tend to manage the assets in the same way. A poor manager will not manage in this optimal way, will suffer bankruptcy or takeover, and a better manager will take his/her place. A political economist is very concerned about who owns assets, because he/she isn’t convinced, in most cases, that a free market exists. This means that the asset owner is likely to be an oligopolist or monopolist or crony capitalist or outright criminal, whose use of the asset will be determined by all sorts of non-economic aspirations towards personal advantage. JKGalbraith approached this view in one of the essays in “Economics, Peace and Laughter”, in describing the economic mismanagement of many South American countries. So one’s reaction to a Lockean claim to asset ownership should be a touchstone of one’s economic beliefs – free-market economists would be horrified, because it would imply taking ownership from the current (by definition optimal) owner, and political economists would be more sympathetic on the ground that reallocation of assets in a non-free-market might not do much harm and could do a lot of good.

  5. Observa
    February 23rd, 2004 at 09:19 | #5

    I guess a discussion about Zimbabwe would quickly bring out the differences in types of economists Gordon.

  6. gordon
    February 24th, 2004 at 10:51 | #6

    Sorry, Observa, don’t know much about Zimbabwe so not sure of your point.

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