Locke on property and equality

Notes for Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Main points

We discussed Locke’s chapter on property, putting more emphasis on the end of the chapter and less on the labor theory of property rights than is usual.

Locke on money

Prof. Brown noted that one thing interesting about Locke to an economist was his tacit distinction between three kinds of goods:

  1. consumption goods
  2. the means of production
  3. money, a medium of exchange

We start with a simple story about using the things that God has left to humanity in common. Production comes with the introduction of property rights, as people are willing to improve natural resources if, but only if, they have rights to the product of their labor. Money, like gold, cannot be consumed or used to produce anything else. So it is an excellent way of storing and exchanging value. In particular, it enables Locke to explain why inequality in wealth is compatible with his restrictions on the acquisition of natural resources: it can’t spoil and it does not take away from anyone else’s access to natural resources.

Prof. Green explained how appreciating these points, especially the one about money, led him to see that Locke was more interested in questions about equality, and less interested in the labor theory of property, than he had previously appreciated. Score a point for interdisciplinary work!


Peter started us off by asking questions about how the labor theory would apply in cases where there is more than one person laboring. We talked about how this might work in a cooperative enterprise but never got back to his original question about a competitive one. Suppose Able and Baker were not working together to hunt the boar but were rather in a winner-take-all competition. Here is one thought. It might be that such competitions are ruled out by Locke’s theory: a loser who labors has a claim to a share, so maybe there can’t be a winner take all competition.

But maybe they both agree that it’s winner take all, in which case the loser gave up the claim. Or maybe the loser’s efforts don’t contribute to the final product, in which case the loser has simply lost the labor expended on it.


Dani asked about slavery. I said that I thought Locke could only have said that slavery is justified if he could show that slaves had forfeited their rights, much as he thought criminals do.

Locke began the First Treatise by writing that “Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that ‘tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” (§1). That’s the sort of thing that we would expect him to say.

However, Locke was also financially involved in the African slave trade and did nothing to oppose it when he was close to people with political power. Scholars who have looked into the matter have speculated that he might have held that Africans taken into slavery were guilty of unjustly resisting the Europeans’ use of common lands (see Simmons 1993, 48–49). I have a hard time believing that he really thought that. But if it were true, then they would have forfeited their rights under Locke’s scheme, like criminals do.

Enough and as good

Scott brought up the environment. This led to some quick musing about climate change as a case where some people might not be leaving “enough and as good” for others. (Enough and as good of what? That’s not easy to say. Use of the atmosphere? Use of the atmosphere without causing catastrophic harm?)

Patrick reminded us that it’s not straightforward. As long as those who are using the climate are producing greater value for everyone else, it appears that, by Locke’s standards, their behavior is legitimate.

Outline of Chapter 5

This is an outline of Locke’s chapter on property rights (chapter 5). 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)

  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)

A note on 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. Here, for example, is how he began the second chapter.

§4. To understand political power, right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit …

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection; unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

§5. This equality of men by nature, the judicious Hooker looks upon as so evident in itself, and beyond all question, that he makes it the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men, on which he builds the duties we owe one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity. His words are, “The like natural inducement hath brought men to know, that it is no less their duty to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature? To have any thing offered them repugnant to this desire, must needs in all respects grieve them as much as me; so that if I do harm, I must look to suffer, there being no reason that others should shew greater measure of love to me, than they have by me shewed unto them: my desire therefore to be loved of my equals in nature, as much as possibly may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to them-ward fully the like affection: From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn, for direction of life, no man is ignorant.” The quotation is from Richard Hooker, 1554–1600, an Anglican theologian. (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, §§4-5.)

This also comes out when Locke refers to 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 from Locke’s First Treatise.

“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.)


Simmons, A. John. 1993. On the Edge of Anarchy. Princeton University Press.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted September 4, 2014 and updated September 9, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being