Is Private Property Compatible with Climate Action?

18 April 2020

This entry was a finalist in our inaugural Blogging Democracy Contest. University of Chicago undergraduates were asked, “Does climate crisis demand a new social contract?” Below is Caleb Weis’s reply.


Locke’s theory of the role of property ownership in forming the social contract and establishing the extent of state power helped to inspire both the American and French Revolutions, and many of the forms of liberal governance that have survived to this day. However, the climate crisis—like the current coronavirus pandemic—has shown that, when faced with truly dire circumstances, we must allow our understanding of these theories to evolve. Namely, we must confront the question of whether, in our response to this crisis, other values must take precedence over individual property rights. In order to protect the planet, for example, we may have to relinquish or modify the right to own and operate carbon-emitting vehicles, the most prevalent of which being cars. As a result, we may need to reinterpret aspects of Locke’s social contract theory. However, the necessity of climate action does not imply a need to abandon the central arguments of Locke’s theory altogether.


In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke theorized that the main purpose of government is to protect the property of its citizens. The social contracts in the age of climate crisis can continue to honor this commitment, but with modifications. The first fundamental change to our car ownership rights which we must allow is a far higher excise tax on gasoline. Locke’s political philosophy, of course, did allow for taxation, so long as it was levied with the “consent of the majority,” and by implication in the people’s best interests. While Locke questioned the ability of a government to levy taxes “when [it] pleases,” he acknowledged that governments operate under changing circumstances, and that everyone who enjoys the protection of the government has the responsibility to pay a proportional share of its expenses. Therefore, an increased tax on gasoline would represent a reasonable, and vital, adaptation to the changing circumstances of the global climate, and would not take from citizens any more than they owed for the “maintenance” of the government, so long as it affected each citizen equally. Furthermore, Locke generally opposed taxation that was not levied with the “consent of the Majority,” but he did defend taxation that was imposed out of necessity. An increased gasoline tax fits that description perfectly, given the need for urgent action. The global community must do everything possible to reduce gasoline-powered transportation immediately, and a gasoline tax could instantly change consumer behavior. We don’t have a moment to lose, as, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, automobiles are responsible for a staggering 20 percent of the globe’s total carbon emissions.


However, a gasoline tax is not the most efficient way to reduce the number of traditional cars on the roads, as it merely incentivizes consumer behavior rather than demand specific or systematic action. A more effective change to property rights could be to outlaw the use of gasoline-powered cars altogether. Such a measure would be drastic, certainly, but it would still not violate the social contract initially outlined by John Locke. Locke made it very clear that a government is beholden absolutely to the defense of the Law of Nature, which has as its fundamental aim the preservation of mankind, and this aim necessarily preempts the protection of the ownership of non-essential goods. While a ban on petroleum-powered cars would infringe upon the property rights of their owners, it would only do so as a necessary measure in the preservation of mankind. Such a restriction would begin by outlawing the production and sale of gasoline-powered vehicles—as legislation introduced in the United Kingdom and the European Union has already proposed—and would then slowly evolve into a ban on the use of such vehicles altogether. One could imagine a ban on fossil fuel-powered cars resembling current prohibitions on speeding, punishable by fines and tickets. It is important for us to begin to challenge our understanding of what governments can regulate in the interest of public safety: emitting carbon may in the long run pose a much greater danger to human safety than driving over the speed limit.


Ultimately, a ban on the use of traditional cars would serve to protect far more property than it took away, including valuable assets such as coastal real estate and climate-dependent businesses within the tourism industry, such as ski resorts. Furthermore, although public goods like clean air and water are not included in Locke’s definition of strictly private property, it is essential that they be accessible to all in order for us to reap the full benefits of those goods that are included within that definition. Therefore, if the role of government is to do all that it can to preserve the property of the majority, then surely it must protect the world itself before ensuring the preservation of mankind’s right to drive carbon-emitting vehicles. As Locke explained, mankind had no reason to enter into regulated society, and thus “part with their freedom,” unless doing so helped to ensure that preservation of their property, and the renunciation of the use of gas-powered cars is a perfect example of this difficult yet collectively beneficial tradeoff.


Many city and national governments around the world have indeed reached this conclusion, and have begun to implement or prepare for extensive car bans. Numerous city governments, for example, have banned cars permanently from certain streets, and from entire sections of the city on certain days of the week. (Madrid, Oslo, Mexico City, and even New York are just a few of these cities.) And some national governments, as mentioned earlier, have alerted citizens of their intentions to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars outright by certain temporal targets, 2035 in the United Kingdom and 2030 for much of the European Union. Even in the United States, there is precedent for outright bans of goods whose use is detrimental to the climate. Plastic bag restrictions are the most common example, and these have been around for years in certain municipalities and states, including California, New York, Vermont, Los Angeles, and Chicago. These bans are restrictive, imposing controls on the nature of the goods that citizens can own, but no less in accordance with Locke’s social contract as a result. While private property rights were essential to Locke’s social contract theory, they did not usurp the overall good of society, the preservation of which was the most important role of any social contract. Therefore, a government has every right to implement positive limitations on the property that its citizens can own, so long as this limitation is motivated by a proposed benefit to the public good.


It is no secret that climate change presents a pressing and potentially devastating threat to life on this planet, and that our excessive use of gasoline-powered vehicles contributes significantly to this threat. Rethinking the right to car ownership is imperative to the protection of this most essential home of all other human property.

However, the changes arising from this reconsideration will not fundamentally change the underlying stipulations of John Locke’s social contract itself, as they are in accordance with Locke’s criteria for the protection of human property and the preservation of mankind. Therefore, they are in fact essential to the continued adherence to Locke’s social contract, and this agreement makes it clear that the regulation of car ownership is just one of the major legislative changes that our society must consider in order to combat climate change. In the coming years, we will need to accept further emissions regulation, and ultimately, we must recognize the need to strictly regulate the use of fossil fuels in any setting, from power plants to Fortune 500 businesses to individual households.


Photo Credit: Xavier Gonzalez, via Unsplash.


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