Intellectual Heritage B (Spring 2008) - Paper #1 - Comments

Here are a few general comments on the papers.

There were several common problems:

1. Many of the papers lack a clear thesis. Your introduction should tell me exactly what you intend to argue. For shorter single page test answers a full-blown introduction is not necessary. But for a three page paper, you need a succinct introduction. The papers lacking a clear thesis often contained rambling paragraphs chained together with no clear purpose.

2. There were many problems at the sentence and word choice level as well. I found too many awkward sentences. I should not have to read any sentence more than once. Please make sure that your writing is transparent. Read your papers out loud to make sure that they sound natural. The sentences should flow. See my writing tip sheet for more details on common word choice issues.

3. The biggest problem with the papers is that they contain too much summary and not enough evaluation. The paper topics ask you to evaluate an argument, not to summarize an article.

Topic #1 Locke

Locke is not trying to explain how to get property. He is trying to explain what makes private property just. These are far different projects.

The purpose of the paper is to evaluate one of Locke's arguments. You need to explain the argument and then assess it. To assess an argument you need to raise objections. If you think the argument is good, then you need to say how Locke could reply to the strongest objection that you can think of. You don't even need to come up with any new problems. We covered numerous objections in class.

A. The Value Added Argument

A good paper would need to address one of these problems:

1. Land has value before anyone gets there. Locke thinks that at least 1/10th of the value is there apart from labor. Even if you could rightfully keep value added from cultivation, this would not entitle you to the rest. Assuming that you have a right to the value you add, you might be entitled to the fruits of cultivation, but not the land. What would give you the right to the 1/10th that pre-existed your efforts? It seems that you need the labor mixing argument to keep the land as well as the fruits. However, the labor mixing argument is extremely problematic. It contains a dubious premise: What you mix with your own is your own. But remember the radioactive tomato juice mixed into the ocean?

2. Ignoring the problems with labor mixing, it's not clear that cultivated land is more valuable. The land might be tapped and need to lie fallow. How is sterile land more valuable than fertile land? It's not. In many cases, land is clearly less valuable after cultivation.

B. The Argument from Desert

The problems facing the argument from desert are similar to those facing the value added argument. Although you might deserve the fruits of your labor, why would you deserve the land? It's not a fruit of your labor. Perhaps you might deserve a temporary title, but why a permanent right of ownership?

Neither argument seems to justify acquiring land by gift. In addition, the second proviso (enough and as good) cannot be met today. So neither argument can justify contemporary property acquisition without supplementation.

Topic # 2 - Madison

This topic asks you to evaluate Madison's reasons for thinking that republics are better than democracies at limiting the harmful effects of factions. Many of you simply summarized Federalist #10. That was not the assignment.

You were asked to evaluate his argument. To do this, you need to explain his reasons and then consider objections. Simply saying that Madison's argument is good or strong tells me nothing. Many of you simply repeated places where Madison says that republics are better. But this does not tell us why he thinks that republics are better. We do not so much care what Madison thinks but why he thinks it. We want to know if he is right. To do this we need to assess his reasons.

We raised several objections to Madison in class.

For instance, Madison thinks that republics are better because the average elected official will be better than your average voter. But this isn't clear. A good paper might note that, in fact, the opposite seems to be the case. The popular perception of politicians is that they are untrustworthy scoundrels that will say anything to get elected.

Madison claims that large republics are better than small democracies because they contain more diverse interests and diversity helps prevent the tyranny of the majority. A good paper might note that the same goes for large democracies. They can contain more diverse interests. This does not show that republics are better, only that bigger states are better than small, if they contain a wide array of interests. Madison might reply that republics are more scalable—that is, republics can grow larger. It might be too hard to have 300 million people vote for every bill. Well, maybe in Madison's day, but this is a sheer technological limitation. A good paper could have explored this issue.