Aidan Beatty
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The invention of a new world
in Private property and the fear of social chaos
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This chapter studies John Locke’s conception of private property, mainly drawing from his two Treatises of Government. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of Locke’s thinking about private property; his influence can be seen in perhaps all subsequent Anglophone writings on the topic. Locke understood private property as a source of stability in society and as the sole preserve of men. But he also saw it as something artificial; God created nature but man privatised it over the course of human history. Thus, Locke imagined America as a massive cornucopia, a natural space – before private property and civilisation – in which English men could all own private property and create an ideal social order; this would act as a safety valve for an England perceived as overcrowded and overrun with dangerous ‘masterless men’. Moreover, Locke thought Native Americans did not use the land productively and therefore had no real right to it. How he perceived the unprivatised New World would have a huge influence on American political culture, and a determining impact on the later intellectual history of private property, with its emphasis on individualistic male authority and exclusion of non-white races from the rights and privileges of property-ownership.

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