Locke on property

Notes for March 6

Main points

Locke believed four things.

  1. Individuals have natural rights to own private property.
  2. Property could be unequal; inequality is not immoral or wrong.
  3. God gave the Earth’s resources to everyone in common.
  4. We are all equal.

Chapter V is a brilliant attempt to show that these four ideas all fit together.

Moving from common to private ownership

The problem Locke set for himself was to explain how it was that we moved from common ownership to private ownership of the Earth’s resources. Some of his contemporaries, such as Selden and Grotius, had said it happened by consent: the common owners agreed to allow individuals to take parts of the Earth for themselves. Robert Filmer, the target of Locke’s treatises of government, thought this was silly. Filmer believed there are no natural property rights but, rather, that God gave the Earth’s resources to kings to control as they see fit.

Locke agreed with Filmer’s criticisms of Selden and Grotius but he did not accept Filmer’s conclusion. He offered his labor theory of property rights as an alternative to both sides. It supported private property rights, like Selden and Grotius, but it did not rest on the consent of mankind: individual labor is enough to make something yours (provided some constraints are satisfied).

We talked at length about what common ownership might mean. Dixie, for instance, was not sure that this even makes sense. Locke, alas, did not give us much guidance about what he meant in saying that the world was given to us “in common” (§26), so our answers have to be speculative. One thing he might have meant is that the common owners can put limits on how resources can be used. If we all own a well in common, we can vote to determine whether any of us can take a bath in it, for instance. Aiman added another important consideration: none of the common owners can be excluded from the thing that they own in common. Private property, of course, involves exclusion: if it’s mine, you are excluded from using it (without my permission).

Labor theory

Locke’s big idea was that labor is what converts common resources into private property. Individuals own themselves and their ability to labor. When they labor on things, they “mix” something they own (their labor) with the resource, thereby making the resource something they own.

We had an extensive discussion of what this involves.

Aiman correctly noted that the first thing that has to be established is that the individual is permitted to labor on things in the first place. (Locke thought this was obvious: see the remarks about acorns.)

I picked on Locke’s metaphorical language. I wonder if he would have been better off leaving the explanation out. Almost everyone who reads this thinks that he’s right to say that if you make something you have a very good claim that it should be yours. But almost no one finds the idea of “mixing” something you own with something else to illuminate much. There is such a thing as explaining too much; maybe Locke did that here.

We drew an interesting comparison with Hobbes as well. Hobbes, of course, did not believe in natural property rights; he thought they only came about with the state. His argument was that in the dangerous state of nature, anyone could have as much right to any thing as anyone else. If so, nothing belongs exclusively to anyone. Adam and Dixie surmised that Locke disagreed with Hobbes here because he did not think there would be scarcity in the state of nature whereas Hobbes did.


Locke tried to address the question of inequality in three ways.

First, he imposed limits on private appropriation. Private property is allowed only if enough and as good is left for others and nothing is allowed to spoil. So one individual can’t take up all the farm land or all the water. We have great inequalities now because money enables us to convert natural resources that are scarce and subject to spoilage into money, which can be saved indefinitely without spoiling.

Second, he argued that private ownership leaves everyone better off. People will be willing to farm only if they can sell their crops. Once they can do that, the productivity of the land skyrockets. More importantly, everyone eats better than they could when they were left to forage acorns for themselves.

Finally, there was the doctrine of necessity: the poor can take what they need, even if it belongs to someone else. We have seen this before in our discussion of Hobbes’s moral philosophy. (Locke agreed with many of their contemporaries that people could take property that they need. Hobbes was the less conventional thinker and went further: if you can take property to avoid death by starvation, why can’t you take a life in order to prevent a violent death?)

Some libertarians are troubled by these parts of Locke’s views. What he is saying is that the poor can take property and, since that is equivalent to taking labor, that comes too close to allowing the poor to enslave the wealthy. At least, it appears to be inconsistent with the labor theory of property rights. I think they have an interesting case about the consistency of Locke’s views.

Key concepts

  1. Why common ownership posed a problem for Locke.
  2. How the labor theory works.
  3. The limits on private appropriation: enough and as good, no spoilage.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted March 24, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy