Locke and Gibbard Notes for September 6

Main points

We had a wide-ranging discussion of Locke’s views on property. Some of our questions were about how to extend Locke’s ideas to problems that he would have found quite unfamiliar.

We did not discuss Gibbard’s distinction between hard libertarianism and Locke’s libertarianism. For the record, Gibbard believes that neither one can move from premises about equal liberty to the conclusion that there are unencumbered property rights.

Two questions about Locke

We began with a question about goods with the following feature: someone other than the owner can use them without any cost to the owner. Looking at my watch to see the time, for instance, doesn’t cost me anything. The question was whether Locke would have thought I have a right to prevent Prof. Brown from doing that.

Locke himself didn’t address such a case directly. I said that I thought that on Gibbard’s interpretation of Locke, my ownership of the watch would give me the right to prevent Prof. Brown from looking at my watch, if I wanted to.

A second question concerned scarcity. Locke allows individuals to take things as their private property only if doing so leaves “enough and as good” for others and as long as the things taken as property do not spoil. But what are the goods that have to available?

If they are physical things, like land, then Locke’s argument for individual property rights doesn’t establish much. As Daniel pointed out, everything interesting to economics concerns scarce goods. And, as Gibbard pointed out, things can become scarce over time, eroding any intial property rights.

But if, as Prof. Brown suggested, we take Locke to mean that the ability to meet your material needs is preserved along with private appropriation, then things might be different. It would be OK for the descendants of those who appropriated resources to keep them, for instance, so long as there is enough wage labor for others to earn enough to meet their needs.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2010. It was posted September 6, 2010.
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