Locke on rights and property Notes for October 17

Main points

We started by comparing Locke’s views on rights with Hobbes’s. Then we discussed two issues with Locke’s celebrated discussion of property:

  1. Can he solve the problem that he posed for himself of showing how common ownership could be converted to private property without the consent of the common owners?
  2. Are the provisos limiting property rights consistent with his account of how private property rights are acquired?

Hobbes vs. Locke

Hobbes and Locke both recognize what they called natural rights. But the rights in question are different. Hobbes regarded them as liberties, meaning the person with the right lacks obligations. Locke regarded them as claims, meaning the person with the right can demand that others fulfill their obligations corresponding to the right.

Locke’s chief advantage is that his account of natural rights is much closer to what we regard as common sense.

Hobbes’s chief advantage is that he has a non-theological explanation of at least some rights (the “proprietary” ones).

What’s the problem for property?

Here’s how Locke introduced the problem he intended to solve.

“I shall endeavour to show, how Men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to Mankind in common, and that without any express Compact of all the commoners.” (Second Treatise, §25)

A lot turns on what it means for God to have given the earth to mankind “in common.” On its face, it means that humanity as a whole owns the earth. That’s how Selden, Grotius, and Pufendorf understood it, for instance.

But if that’s so, Locke faced a tough challenge. Suppose laboring on part of the earth is sufficient to transfer ownership from humanity to a private individual. Why wouldn’t additional labor be sufficient to transfer ownership from one private individual to another? That doesn’t look like a property right.

Locke’s view is more plausible as an account of how previously unowned things come to be owned as private property. But that appears to conflict with the problem he set for himself. But it might be good enough for someone who doesn’t think that the earth was ever owned in common.

Limits to property rights

Locke put two limits on property rights: I can acquire a property right in a thing only if “enough and as good” are left for others (§27, §33) and I cannot allow anything I take as my property to spoil (§31). The first limit is sometimes referred to as the “Lockean proviso.”

I pointed to two questions about these limits. First, there are questions about their relationship with his story about the acquisition of property. If laboring makes something mine by mixing my rights into it, how can another person’s needs trump my rights? Locke didn’t think the needy could force someone to work for them. Why would he think they could take the product of someone’s labor?

Second, there are questions about whether the requirement that enough and as good be left over renders the labor story irrelevant. The question is whether laboring could ever generate a property right given the scarcity of resources we now face.

Our discussion

Our discussion began with Lucas raising an objection to Locke’s theory. Typically, when you mix something you own with something you don’t own, you lose your property. If I drop my glass of water in the ocean, I don’t become owner of the ocean. Rather, I lost my water.

Jackie, Naomi, and Sarah all pointed out various ways that Locke might avoid this problem. For instance, it wouldn’t meet the proviso of leaving enough and as good for others: there’s no way to sail from California to Japan if I own the Pacific.

In other words, our discussion brought in the proviso to answer objections to the attempt to explain the origin of property rights in labor.

Hobbes on property

Dylan wanted to make a Hobbesian point but we didn’t have time to get to it. I don’t know what he had in mind, but this is what I would have said. Hobbes held that property rights can’t exist without enforcement. This is so as both a practical and a moral matter.

Locke agreed that property rights in the state of nature are “very unsafe, very insecure” (Second Treatise of Government, §123). But he nonetheless thought that property rights are something that people bring to the social contract: the purpose of the state, according to him, was to protect property rights (broadly construed to include rights to personal safety).

Hobbes, of course, disagreed. He thought there were no individual property rights against the state. So if things are like Locke thought, there would be stronger barriers against taxation. People would have to be persuaded to give their property to the state since they come to the state with property rights.

Key concepts

  1. The problem Locke tried to solve with his account of property rights.
  2. How labor creates property rights, according to Locke.
  3. What the limits to property rights are, according to Locke.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted October 18, 2012.
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