The philosopher John Locke is arguably one of the most influential thinkers in Western thought. Locke’s crowning achievement of political philosophy would have to be his theory on property. A theory of property rights that has become the focal point of liberal democracy. The king does not have possession of the estate you inherited from your father. Even if the land is within the jurisdiction of his kingdom. This powerful distinction provides the precedent to legally codify the natural right to property in positive law.
Protection of property is one of the few legitimate ends that government serves. In Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government, he goes so far to claim that the main reason why humans form governments is the “preservation of their property” (p.66). If a government fails to protect the rights of its citizens it has abdicated its main duty. Thus, it is illegitimate. Especially, when the government is supposed to operate as the mediator between burglar and homeowner. We depart the state of nature and handover the authority to distribute restraint and reparation to the government (p.10). In exchange, we refrain from enacting justice as we would in state of nature because the government has promised to justly addressing transgressions such as theft. The question becomes why do we delegate the responsibility of defending property to the state? Per Locke, we surrender the right to punishment so that it is applied justly and isn’t influenced by bias (p.66). Harm can even come of the individual who had their property taken or defiled.
They who by any injustice offended will seldom fail, where they are able, by force to make good their injustice; the resistance many times makes the punishment dangerous, and frequently destructive, to those who attempt it. (Locke, 1690, P.66. Ed. Macpherson, 1980).
Making for good justification for why we allow the government to determine the means and magnitude of the consequences (p.67). It is safer for society than allowing individuals to act upon their passions. Beyond the concern of general well being, it provides standardization of repercussions for property crimes. Uneven or inconsistent consequences is a haphazard application of force defended on the grounds of fickle passions. This is nothing more an individualized form of tyranny.
That does not mean that every government policy implemented since the publishing of Locke’s magnum opus has secured the property rights of the citizens. Even in the contemporary world, there are many autocratic and despotic regimes. One of the more notable luminaries of the illiberal regimes in 2020 would be North Korea. Even in the United States, a country founded on Lockean principles, there are policies antithetical to property rights. One such embarrassing example is civil asset forfeiture. By a loose definition is a legal doctrine that allows law enforcement to seize property that is suspected of being used in the commission of a crime. Since 2014, approximately 35 states have reformed their civil forfeiture laws, 15 states require a conviction.
Reform isn’t enough to right the wrong of civil asset forfeiture. The only time property should be taken from an individual who violated the law would be in the instances of property crime. Only under the condition of restoration. For example, my car was stolen and then found in the driveway of an individual that lives two towns over. It is permissible for law enforcement then to seize the car and return it to the rightful owner. If I am trafficking black tar heroin in my car, it is wrong for the police to seize my car. Even if my car was purchased with the proceeds of drug sales. My transgression of transporting illegal drugs for sale is mutually exclusive from my conveyance. Yes, the conveyance did help assist in transporting the drugs. It was rightfully paid for. I did not steal the car. Paid for the car through engaging in the victimless crime of drug sales.
By self-ownership, I utilized my labor by selling drugs to purchase the car (p.19). Therefore it is my car and the government does not have the right to take it. At least from a philosophical standpoint rather than a legally positive standpoint. In the same vein (no pun intended), selling drugs to others is a victimless crime. As free individuals, who own their bodies, they are electing to ingest the drugs I sell. This an authority they cannot be transferred to anyone else. Especially not the leader of the Corrections Officer’s unions who frequently lobby against drug legalization (a shining example of rent-seeking).
Civil asset forfeiture is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the state violating our right to property. Other policies such as eminent domain present other examples of the government treading upon our property rights. I can only picture John Locke rolling over in his grave every time we justify these egregious crimes against our property. Every example is a direct violation of our social contract. The deal being we relinquish our right to individualized punishment for an assurance that our property is protected through legal means. It is a horrifying juxtaposition when the government becomes the burglar. The same institutions that were designed to protect our property are then used to commandeer it. That runs contrary to the philosophical core of the United States. The first country founded on the right to secure property.