Carol M. Rose


Many of our modern views about property, and indeed about political and economic matters generally, come from the works of seventeenth and eighteenth century theorists who hoped to find a firmly scientific basis for the study of "political economy." Their systematic approach suggests that these theorists' accounts of property might be purely analytic - "synchronic" as the linguists call it. An account of this sort would treat the subject as if all its parts occur at once, in an interlocking whole whose various aspects can be inferred logically and verified empirically, without reference to origins or to transformative changes over time. On such an account, one might indeed perceive that things change as time passes, but if one has a proper grip on the overall analytic framework, any changes would occur according to set patterns, so that future states are predictable from past states. This would be, more or less, a scientific approach: all changes in a given system are predictable from a proper synchronic analysis of the system itself.

But however much these early modern theorists hoped to ground political economy as a science, one notices that their discussions of property at some point take a striking turn towards a narrative or "diachronic" explanatory mode, treating property regimes as if they had origins and as if they developed over time. Locke is undoubtedly the most influential of the classic property theorists, and Locke used this narrative approach in his famous discussion of property in the Second Treatise of Government. Although the parts are somewhat scattered, the Treatise clearly unfolds a story line, beginning in a plenteous state of nature, carrying through the growing individual appropriation of goods, then proceeding to the development of a trading money economy, and culminating in the creation of government to safeguard property. Indeed Locke's choice of a narrative mode is all the more striking because he appears to have been indifferent to the factual accuracy of the story as a genuine history.