Outline of Locke on property

Notes for March 6

Main points

This is an outline of Locke’s chapter on property rights (chapter 5). This chapter is densely argued, covers a wide range of topics, and unpredictably repetitive. I hope the outline will help you work your way through it.

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)
  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, for example, the reference to Hooker on how we ought to love one another as equals in ch. 2, §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.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted March 5, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy