Beyond Frontier Town: Do Early Modern Theories of Property Apply to Capitalist Economies?

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22 (4):909-923 (2019)
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Abstract
The theories of Locke, Hume and Kant dominate contemporary philosophical discourse on property rights. This is particularly true of applied ethics, where they are used to settle issues from biotech patents to managerial obligations. Within these theories, however, the usual criticisms of private property aren’t even as much as intelligible. Locke, Hume and Kant, I argue, develop claims about property on a model economy that I call “Frontier Town.” They and contemporary authors then apply these claims to capitalist economies. There are two problems with this application: First, we’ll be considering the wrong kind of property: The only property in Frontier Town are means of life. Critics, however, object to property in concentrated capital because they associate only this kind of property with economic coercion and political power. Second, the two economies differ in central features, so that very different claims about empirical consequences and hence about fairness and merit will be plausible for each. This second problem, I argue, is a consequence of the first. I conclude that Frontier Town theories are more likely to distort than to illuminate property issues in capitalist economies.
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Archival date: 2019-08-04
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