Locke on property Notes for March 26

Main points

We talked about the question Locke was trying to answer about property and how he tried to answer it.

The problem

The problem is to say how humanity moved from common ownership of the earth to private ownership without everyone’s consent. Locke agreed with figure such as Hugo Grotius and John Selden that, historically speaking, common ownership preceded private ownership.

But Locke also joined Robert Filmer in rejecting Grotius and Selden’s claim that we moved from common to private ownership through universal consent.

Filmer denied that there were any natural property rights, meaning property rights that exist outside of the state. Locke insisted that there are natural property rights. So his task was to show how this was possible, given that the earth was owned in common and there was no universal consent to establish private property.

Locke’s answer

I distinguished between general and specific arguments in Locke. The general arguments hold that there has to be some way of legitimately acquiring private property. The specific arguments hold that private property is legitimately acquired in a specific way, by laboring.

The idea is that everyone owns his ability to labor. When this is mixed with material goods, those material goods contain part of something the person who labored on them owns: the labor. So anyone else who takes those material goods would take something that the laborer owns. That means that laborers acquire the material goods on which they labor as things they own, or, their property.

I criticized the specific arguments as being either too strong or too weak. If mixing your labor with something is sufficient to make it your own, regardless of whether anyone else owns it, then nothing can be owned as property. I can mix my labor with whatever you own, thereby making it mine. But a property right ought to prevent me from doing that.

A more likely story is that you can acquire things as your property by mixing your labor with something that is not otherwise owned.

But wasn’t the earth owned in common?

Why don’t you just lose what was previously yours, before you mixed it with something else? If I drop my ice cream cone in the swimming pool, I don’t gain the pool, I lose the cone. Does Locke think that we can ever lose our labor power like this? If not, why is labor different from other things, like ice cream cones?

Is it just history?

Rob suggested that I was reading too much into it. Locke just meant that, as a historical fact, people acquired things by laboring on them. That’s how they took them or consumed them.

I think Locke was saying more. I think he was trying to show that people acquired rights to things by laboring on them. That goes beyond just having things in one’s own control. It means that others have duties to leave them alone.

So Rob is certainly right to say that, as a matter of historical fact, people used their labor power to take things out of common use. But Locke needs to show that others have to respect the claims to ownership. Why can’t the second person use labor to take things away from the first?

That’s the question that Locke’s theory of property rights was supposed to answer. I don’t think it would do so if it were a purely historical story.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted April 23, 2008.
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