Robert Nozick, on Locke’s theory of acquisition, in 1974:
Why does mixing one’s labor with something make one the owner of it? Perhaps because one owns own’s labor, and so one comes to own a previously unowned thing that becomes permeated with what one owns. Ownership seeps into the rest. But why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t?…Perhaps the idea, instead, is that laboring on something improves it and makes it more valuable; and anyone is untitled to own a thing whose value he has created….Ignore the fact that laboring on something may make it less valuable (spraying pink enamel paint on a piece of driftwood you have found). Why should one’s entitlement extend to the whole object rather than just to the added value one’s labor has produced? (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 174-75).
From an article in The New York Times on the judgment in the 5Pointz graffiti case a few days ago:
Ruling that graffiti — a typically transient form of art — was of sufficient stature to be protected by the law, a federal judge in Brooklyn awarded a judgment of $6.7 million on Monday to 21 graffiti artists whose works were destroyed in 2013 at the 5Pointz complex in Long Island City, Queens.
In November, a landmark trial came to a close in Federal District Court in Brooklyn when a civil jury decided that Jerry Wolkoff, a real estate developer who owned 5Pointz, broke the law when he whitewashed dozens of swirling murals at the complex, obliterating what a lawyer for the artists had called “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum.”
Though Mr. Wolkoff’s lawyers had argued that the buildings were his to treat as he pleased, the jury found he violated the Visual Artists Rights Act, or V.A.R.A., which has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on someone’s else property.
So whatever the added value of pink enamel paint, the added value of multicolored enamel paint turns out to have a pretty specific dollar amount.
The case illustrates something that has always seemed obvious to me, but apparently isn’t obvious to everyone else: it’s either difficult or impossible to espouse a Lockean form of liberalism while insisting on neutrality about moral and aesthetic value; meanwhile, it’s relatively easy to combine a Lockean-liberal politics with a commitment either to perfectionism about the good and the aesthetic, or to a rather judgment-positive (i.e., willing-to-make-and-rely-on-judgments) form of objectivism about both ethics and aesthetics. In other words, non-neutralist objectivism/perfectionism coheres with Lockean liberalism more easily than so-called “liberal neutrality.”
I take a commitment to Lockean liberalism to entail a commitment to a Lockean theory of property, but as I see it, the latter commitment entails that the rightful boundaries of individuals’ property holdings are determined, in part, by objectivist-type judgments about the moral and aesthetic value of the things (persons, objects, actions, etc.) protected by the right. You can’t get a “value added” scheme of the sort to which Nozick alludes without an objectivist account of value, and you can’t give determinate content to the Lockean proviso (“appropriation of resource R is legitimate just in case it leaves enough and as good for others”) without being committed to something similar.
Nozick assumed that graffiti-like additions to a surface subtracted from the prior value of the relevant surface; apparently, when it came to the walls in the 5Pointz case, the federal judge disagreed. The larger point is that adjudication of such cases turns on judgments about what counts as an addition or subtraction of value in the first place (along with whether such mathematical metaphors are the right way of putting things). As far as I can see, liberal neutralism constitutes an obstacle to the relevant task of adjudication, rather than a feasible means of resolution. If I’m right about that, one option is to give up on Lockean politics; another is to give up on liberal neutralism. Both commitments have their pros and cons, but personally, I’d opt for the first over the second.