Locke on property

Notes for September 5

Main points

We talked about Locke’s theory of property rights, as presented in the fifth chapter of the Second Treatise of Government. Specifically, Professor Brown noted the presence of some concepts that economists would later develop more fully. Professor Green tried to show how some of the moral ideas in the chapter potentially conflict with one another. We ended with a really tricky problem raised by Zach.

Outline of Chapter 5

Speaking for myself, I like to make shallow outlines, especially with older texts. Writing out the broad points that an author is raising helps to keep me oriented and keeps me from getting lost in the details. Here is what the fifth chapter looked like to me.

  1. The problem he will address. Show how private property came about given two things: (a) God gave the world to everyone in common and (b) the common owners (everyone) did not consent to allow particular people to take particular parts of the world for themselves. (§§25–26)In my political philosophy class, I show how Locke was responding to his contemporaries (PDF).
  2. Labor theory: people come to own parts of the earth’s resources by mixing them with something else that they own, their power to labor. (§§27-30, 32)
  3. Objection: someone could come to own too much. Answers: (a) Limit in natural law: no spoilage allowed. Also, there is a literal natural limit: people can only acquire so much by labor; so in the initial stages of human society, there will not be much inequality as a matter of fact. (§31) (b) Labor improves land, improving the position of others even after it is appropriated as private property (§§32-7).
  4. Conclusion: he’s solved the problem set out in the first section (§39).
  5. Wait, we’re still going? Is this another argument? Labor adds most of the value to any resource, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it “over-balances” the community of land (§40). (§§40-44)
  6. Invention of money, inequality. How some people could come to own much more than others in spite of the prohibition on spoilage. They do so by converting goods that might otherwise spoil into something that won’t: money (gold, e.g.). (§§45–51)

Locke and inequality

I think the reason why Locke kept returning to inequality, especially at the end of the chapter, is that he wanted to explain how inequality in property could be compatible with the kind of moral equality that he insisted on. See the reference to Hooker on how we ought to love one another as equals in ch. 2, §5.

I also referred to what I called the legal excuse of necessity. This allowed the poor to take what they need even if it is someone else’s property. Here’s an example of this doctrine in Locke himself.

“But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it. And therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat, offer his death or slavery.” Locke, First Treatise of Government, §42.

I also said that this doctrine was being eroded in the seventeenth century. For example, Matthew Hale had argued that the poor laws should be suspended because otherwise “men’s properties would be under a strange insecurity, being laid open to other men’s necessities, whereof no man can possibly judge, but the party himself.” … Some “very bad use hath been made of this concession by some Jesuitical casuists in France, who have thereupon advised apprentices and servants to rob their masters, when they have judged themselves in want of necessities … and by this means let loose … all the ligaments of property and civil society.”Historia Placitorum Coronae … as quoted in Keith Thomas, “The Social Origins of Hobbes's Political Thought,” in Hobbes Studies, ed. K.C. Brown (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1965), 225–26. More generally,

“The doctrine of necessity had been upheld in the works of continental writers like Covarruvias and Grotius and was at first sympathetically received by English moralists. During the course of the seventeenth century, however, the general attitude visibly hardened and the concessions to the poor were whittled down until Richard Baxter in his Christian Directory (1673) could assert that ‘ordinarily it is a duty, rather to dye, than take another man’s goods against his will’, on the ground that ‘in ordinary cases, the saving of a man’s life will not do so much good as his stealing will do hurt. Because the lives of ordinary persons are of no great concernment to the common good. And the violation of the laws may encourage the poor to turn thieves, to the loss of the estates and lives of others.’”Thomas, “The Social Origins of Hobbes's Political Thought,” 226.

It seems to me that Locke stood at an interesting point in this historical transition. On the one hand, he insisted that one person’s property rights could not come at the expense of another’s needs. On the other hand, it is not obvious how to reconcile his conception of property rights with this view.

Points from our discussion

Professor Brown noted a three-way distinction between consumption goods, productive goods, and money. The first two cannot be wasted or left to unproductive use (with the possible exception of labor). Locke’s reason for saying that is half moral and half factual. He didn’t think the law of nature permitted spoilage. He also maintained that there are various factual checks on spoilage: people who rely on their own labor would not acquire more than they could use and others would take any excess in any event. But, of course, people do not rely on their own labor in more sophisticated societies and property rights protect unequal ownership. Once we move beyond a very primitive social structure, inequality and spoilage are possible. Money squares our actual practices with the natural law. Money is invented because it has no use: there is no problem with letting it pile up because it has no alternative use and so can’t be wasted or spoiled.

Madeline and Professor Green kicked around an apparent problem. Locke starts with the assumption that the earth’s resources are owned in common. He says that labor transfers some of the commonly owned goods to private ownership “without any express compact of the commoners” (ch. 5, §25). But labor cannot, presumably, transfer privately owned goods to another private owner: I can’t make your house mine by painting it. (If I could, you wouldn’t have much of a property right.) What’s the difference?

Zach left us with a puzzle. He noted that people lose their property rights over goods that spoil. So why, he asked, would anyone buy produce from a productive farmer? Since it’s going to spoil, they can take it. Ian correctly noted that this is perverse: farmers who can’t charge a price won’t grow anything. I left scratching my head about how a society governed by Locke’s rules would work. Maybe a remark Ian made earlier is the answer: we institute government to stipulate some rules. Locke himself didn’t say that, but the answer might be there.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted September 5, 2013.
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