Locke on property rights Notes for March 8

Main points

I tried to identify what Locke was saying about property rights in two ways. First, of course, I tried to say what I thought his view was. Second, I tried to identify closely related things that are suggested by what he said but that either were not his view or fell short in various ways.

On reflection, this way of going about it is too complicated. It developed out of responding to discussion in past classes. But instead of getting ahead of the discussion, as I tried to do, I think it would be wiser to hold some of the extraneous material back. Sorry about that!

What is “property?”

If you look at §123, you’ll see that Locke says he means the rights to preserve one’s life, liberty, and estate by the general term “property.” (It’s a very similar list to Hobbes’s “propriety.” That included “life, and limbs; … conjugal affection; and … riches and means of living.” ** Leviathan, ch. 30, par. 12.

Chapter V, though, concerns a narrower meaning of “property.” It’s about how people come to have exclusive rights to parts of the material world. In that way, it’s closer to our use of the term “property rights.”

This has some bearing on the paper topics. I had the second, narrower meaning in mind when when I referred to property rights in the first and fourth topics. It probably doesn’t make much difference for the first topic. But it’s hard to see how to go about answering the fourth if you don’t have the narrower meaning in mind.

What’s this stuff about general and specific?

This is the bit I regret. It’s not wrong, just overly fussy. Here’s what I had in mind.

The specific argument

The official argument for property rights in Locke is what I called the specific argument. It is spelled out in §27. This argument moves from a premise that we own our labor and a premise about how laboring involves mixing this thing that we own with material things to a conclusion that laboring on something is a way of gaining property rights to it, without the consent of the “commons.”

There are stronger and weaker versions of this argument. The stronger version holds that laboring is sufficient to transfer ownership from one owner to another.

The weak version says that laboring is sufficient to generate property rights over things that were previously unowned.

There were some stout defenses of Locke that, I think, were really defenses of the weak version. So, for instance, when Michael said that laboring was a way of coming to own things that were unused or going to waste, he was implicitly relying on an assuming that things that are unused or going to waste are not owned (even if an absent person claims ownership).

Incidentally, I withdraw my arched eyebrows in response to what Michael said about squatting. Andrew said that it’s true: if someone occupies your land for a long enough time and you don’t take some steps to chase them off, they can gain the right to stay. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything for Locke’s law of nature, but it’s a fact about American law that I had not appreciated.

The general argument

Some of what Locke says is independent of this specific argument. For instance, he points out that common ownership of the earth would be ridiculous if you couldn’t use things. Must I starve while waiting for everyone on earth to give me permission to eat an acorn that we own in common?

I asked whether this style of argument could explain property rights. Those involve a right to exclude other people from things they could otherwise do. So Dayne’s property right to the field would exclude the rest of us from doing something we’re capable of doing: taking his wheat.

That’s more than is involved in the acorn story. Once you’ve eaten the acorn, there’s no need to exclude anyone else from trying to get it. It’s gone. So there’s little point in talking about property rights to partly digested acorns.

The last point

I said something at the end that went too fast. Here it is again, in slow motion.

Locke clearly thought that the property rights were limited, regardless of how much labor a would-be owner mixed with the stuff the would-be owner hoped to own.

There are several qualifications to property rights that leave room for:

  1. the needs of others (see the last section of the handout, for instance),
  2. forbidding spoilage,
  3. and requiring that “enough and as good” be left over for others.

All of these limits mean that those who are needy, those who want to take what would otherwise spoil, or those who want to take enough so that they will have access to enough and as good can do so. And they can do so even though that means taking the bits of my labor that the would-be owner mixed with them.

This led me to ask whether people in need can take my labor more directly, by forcing me to work to meet their needs. After all, they can take the labor that I’ve mixed with stuff. Why can’t they just take the labor?

If they can do that, then Locke’s account of property rights offers much less support for libertarianism than many people think. (We’ll talk more about what exactly libertarianism is when we talk about Mill and especially Nozick. Basically, it’s the view that the government should minimize infringements on individual liberty, even if they are for the good of society as a whole.)

If other people can’t take my labor directly by forcing me to work to meet their needs, why are they allowed to commandeer the material goods that I have mixed my labor with?

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted March 9, 2010.
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