Gibbard on Locke

Notes for September 10

Main points

Gibbard considers two versions of libertarianism: hard libertarianism and Locke’s version. He argues that neither can support what he calls “widespread unencumbered ownership.”

Hard libertarianism

Hard libertarianism is the view that rights can only be given up by consent (or forfeiture). Assuming we start with the liberty to use everything, exclusive property rights can only be established by universal consent.

Of course, everyone will want to establish a system of property rights. Without it, they will live in a horribly unproductive society. No one will make anything if others can take what they make.

Gibbard notes that this gives the unproductive a strong bargaining position: they can hold up the system of property rights unless they are given a share of the society’s wealth. That’s surprising.

He also notes that hard libertarianism faces an intractable problem with generations. If each generation is free to take what it wants, the earlier generations wouldn’t produce as much. They would be reluctant to do so when the youngsters can take what they make.


Locke is not a hard libertarian. He thought one person’s labor could have the result that others lose their rights without their consent (or wicked behavior that would warrant forfeiture of rights): labor generates property rights and property rights limit liberty.

I said that I thought there was some funny business in section 28. Locke slides from the proposition that everyone has the right to use the earth’s natural resources to the conclusion that they can establish property rights. I think Gibbard is right to say that the issue is how others lose their rights. Whatever establishes property rights has to show that others are morally obliged to leave things that they could take alone. The point about the right to use things like acorns doesn’t get that far, in my opinion. Among other things, there is no need for obligations: no one wants a digested acorn.

Madeline looked at the list Locke gave in section 28 and said she thought his selection of labor was arbitrary. Why not digesting, eating, boiling, bringing them home, or picking them up? Rebecca said she was more sympathetic to the utilitarian side of Locke, according to which labor is significant because it makes land and other resources significantly more productive.

Professor Brown picked up on Gibbard’s remarks about time-limited ownership. (The idea is that land that is plentiful in, say, 1876, may be scarce in 1976. So property rights acquired in 1876 may lapse in 1976 when there is no longer enough and as good.) She introduced a variety of other distinctions concerning ownership.

At the end of class, I quickly added a bit from Robert Nozick, a contemporary libertarian who sought to update Locke’s views. Nozick believed that the productivity brought about due to introducing property rights would mean that the proviso about leaving enough and as good would never be violated. He also made some remarks about patents that I found debatable. I used some remarks about patents to present an alternative view of property rights.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted September 10, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being