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The logical fallacies within Stuart Reges' take on land acknowledgement

Examining the argument that prompted a UW lawsuit over free speech

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The logical fallacies within Stuart Reges take on land acknowledgement

In 2020, UW sent out a call to action, encouraging its affiliates to participate in a land acknowledgement of the Coast Salish people. Stuart Reges, computer science professor, took a different approach to addressing this call to action than most professors. 

“I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington,” Reges wrote in his syllabus

This statement by Reges resulted in UW attempting to make accommodations for students who may have been uncomfortable by creating alternative instructors and class options, as well as forming a committee to consider disciplining him.

Reges then sued, arguing that his free speech rights had been violated. 

Although a UW administrator has taken steps to retract these statements from Reges’ online syllabus, they have not terminated him based on these statements. UW has certainly not made it a mystery as to how they feel about Reges’ statements, but whether the university directly infringed on his right to free speech remains unclear. 

Nevermind the argument of whether or not his freedom of speech has been infringed upon, let’s discuss the actual argument Reges makes and its disrespectful misrepresentation of Indigenous communities. 

Reges’ case is based on John Locke’s labor theory of property. If you are fairly unfamiliar with this theory, don’t worry. The relatively obscure theory states that the right to property is obtained through mixing your labor with and cultivating land. 

This interpretation by Reges is essentially saying that, because colonizers took the land that was first occupied by Native Americans and “cultivated” it through labor — or in some people’s opinions, abused it and gave rise to the Industrial Revolution — the land was rightfully the colonizer’s  property. 

Indigenous people, however, did in fact cultivate land and mix their labor with it before their land was stolen by colonizers.

Although this cultivation may not be to the ruthless extent that colonizers thought appropriate, there is still a very strong argument that by Locke’s theory, Indigenous people have always had ownership over their land. 

Nonetheless, laissez faire capitalists have continued to use Locke’s theories to justify colonization and capitalism for decades. 

While his argument is compelling, what Reges actively avoids in his use of Locke is that this theorist lived in a time before the Industrial Revolution, and ultimately had no perspective on what modern day capitalism would entail. 

If Locke was alive in present day America, he would not only condemn the statements made by Reges, but also the way in which modern day capitalism has unfolded. 

While, yes, Locke states that our right to property is obtained through labor, in the following lines of his  “Two Treatises of Government,” Locke makes a disclaimer that is being excluded from this conversation, and one that perhaps Reges has failed to properly consider. 

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“For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others,” Locke wrote.

A popular interpretation of what Locke meant by this statement is that anyone can accumulate as much property as they would like — they have a right to this through labor — but only as long as there is enough property left for others. 

Let us examine the current state of wealth and property distribution in the United States. Around 38 million people are food insecure, over half a million people are experiencing homelessness, and the top 5% of earners hold 65% of the total wealth in the United States.

By no means could Locke argue that there is enough left for others. 

Capitalists and Reges have a point, but only if you can find it in yourself to excuse the negative consequences we have seen from capitalism in the United States caused by European colonization, especially in regard to the land and the climate crisis.

Indigenous people have historically held sustainable practices of cultivation and respect for land that would not have led to these inequalities we see today. 

Although Reges makes a thought-provoking argument, his reasoning is based upon an outdated theory by a political theorist who could only loosely speculate what modern-day capitalism would look like. 

In opting to spur controversy and garner attention, Reges does not consider the fact that Locke would have found faults both within the process of colonization and the fact that we have not sustainably habited our land. 

Reges must come to terms with the fact that we have not only strayed away from Locke’s vision for the United States’ land, but we have also exploited it.

The argument made in his syllabus is not only weak, but also shows his lack of understanding as it has to do with the history of Indigenous people. Making a claim this large about colonization completely undermines all of the suffering Indigenous people endured.

Whether or not the land of UW was “rightfully” taken from Native Americans, Reges is taking multiple steps back in the progress we have made in listening to Indigenous voices by making these arguments. 

Reach writer Mary Murphy at Twitter: @marymurphy301

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(4) comments


I appreciate that you're trying to dispel Reges's claims, which of course are incorrect and racist and perpetuate the Indigenous genocide our country is founded on. However, John Locke actually created his labor theory of property in order to justify colonization of Indigenous peoples, which was occurring during his time. We shouldn't assume that thinkers that are venerated in our society are automatically correct and base our arguments on their beliefs - instead we should question them and how their thoughts were useful to oppression. Here are a few resources about how John Locke's writings justified Indigenous dispossession:


It turns out Professor Reges had already thought this part of the argument through:

In the part where he says that he is a Georgist, and that one can disagree that labor theory of property applies here, and how there have been debates over whether labor theory of property applies to Native Americans. The detail is that he claims that the Coast Salish did not have productive use of the land. If the Coast Salish were able to mix labor with that the land that the UW is currently on, then they would have owned it. The historical context around Locke sounds plausible, but needs more investigation.

However, Locke would actually say that the Native Americans had property rights (most of the time):

You may disagree with him, but I think Reges may be very close to a genius if he calculated all of this through.

I read the part about applying Locke to the I/P conflict, and that was a bunch of academic fraud. Jews were indigenous to Israel, the Pals never owned the land, and the settlements continue to force a 2SS NOT because of theological reasons.


Eugene Volokh, aka Mr. First Amendment, explains how Reges how UW did violate free speech rights in these two blog posts:

It will be unclear how the court will decide on disruption.

Taking the poverty statistics at face value shows that there is wealth inequality, but overlooks how quality of life has vastly improved over time. There were no mobile devices or high speed internet 100 years ago, but now it is practically ubiquitous.

Capitalism has contributed positively to the climate and land crises as well. There have been significant strides in nuclear and renewable energy, as well as agritech.


Reges also shares his thoughts on Georgism here:

The land value tax (LVT) is an old idea, and is used to justify a universal basic income. Proponents say that such a tax would reduce economic equality.

The number given in the essay for revenue from the LVT is 1.15 trillion dollars, and he cites Alaska as an example who has already implemented some version of this idea.

It is unconvincing that 1.15 trillion dollars would be enough to sustain UBI. The government has recently tried that with stimulus checks which was provided with printed money. The result was rampant inflation, and people didn't refuse the money if they didn't need it. Social security could be another version of a basic income, but it's dead too after the government borrowed and bankrupted the welfare program.

The closest thing to Georgism today is the Norwegian nationalization of oil. Norway's population is much smaller than the states, and they didn't have to worry about defense as much until the Russian invasion.

You don't have to be an economist to see that there is a limit to UBI, and Georgism doesn't provide compensation for existing landowners.

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