Locke on property

I said that Locke’s discussion of property is split between two problems:

  1. Explaining the transition from common ownership to private property via labor.
  2. Explaining why the inequality that results from private property is not objectionable.

In other words, Locke is not nearly as much of a contemporary libertarian as you might have thought. He is genuinely concerned about inequality and not just about preserving private property rights.

The first problem and the labor theory

The problem is to explain how we moved from common ownership of the earth’s resources to private ownership. Locke’s contemporaries, Selden, Grotius, and Pufendorf, all held that this transition involved the consent of the common owners. Locke accepted the criticisms of this view laid down by his adversary Filmer but he rejected Filmer’s view that there are no private property rights outside of the state. (See the handout). That is why Locke tried to show how common ownership became private ownership “without any express compact of all the commoners” (§25).

The labor theory was meant to provide the explanation.

Locke thought it was obvious that people are permitted to use the Earth’s resources without getting permission from everyone else first. What is the point of God’s giving us the world if we have to meet an impossible condition before we are permitted to eat the food we need to stay alive? He noted that the way we acquire goods like food is by labor: picking fruit or killing deer. And he developed a theory that employed premises about self-ownership and mixing labor with resources to explain how labor generates private property rights without the consent of others.

We talked about a number of problems with this theory. Benji and Samuel, for instance, noted that while it might work for resources that are not owned, it has paradoxical results for resources that are owned since it seems to allow anyone to transfer ownership of one person’s property simply by working on it.

I said that Hobbes’s criticism of natural property rights is still lurking as well. Locke wishes to show that one person’s laboring on a resource gives that person a claim to the resource, such that others are obliged not to use it. But Hobbes had denied that there can be such obligations so long as anyone might need to use anything in order to save their lives.

Perhaps Locke assumed that the state of nature would be less violent than Hobbes thought it would be or perhaps he rejected Hobbes’s assumptions about what the right of self-preservation gives people a right to have. I can see how he might have legitimate answers to Hobbes. I’m just saying that he has to address Hobbes’s point before he can show that people have the obligations that make up property rights.

The second problem and Locke’s anthropology

The second problem is not widely discussed. Indeed, I myself have been skipping over the last half of this chapter for years and I don’t think I am unusual. We have been trained to think of Locke as a libertarian who is concerned about property rights above all.

But I have become convinced that I have been wrong. Locke is very concerned to show that private property does not enable people to come to own too much. He starts §31 by saying, “It will perhaps be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns, or other fruits of the earth, &c. makes a right to them, then any one may engross as much as he will” (§31). The rest of the chapter, §§31-51, attempts to answer that objection.

I said he went through three stages of society showing how private property, as he understood it, does not lead either to spoilage or leaving others without enough. Remember also the Lockean safety net: the needy may take what they need from those who have more than they need (First Treatise, §42). In sum, unequal wealth does not bother Locke. What is troubling, he claims, is a situation in which people do not have enough. Any inequality above that, provided goods are not allowed to spoil, is acceptable.

What drives the argument is the massive increase in productivity that comes with property rights. That drives the cost of food down such that it is much easier to meet your needs than it would have been in, say, a hunter-gatherer society. So a highly productive agricultural or commercial society leaves even those who have no rights to the land better off than they would be with their common rights to the Earth.

The crucial point I wanted to make here is simply that Locke spent most of his time trying to address the point. He has six sections setting up and answering the first problem and twenty-one sections setting up and answering the second problem. So, I infer, he cared quite a lot about inequality.

What I did not say

I lost track of time and did not get to the end of what I had planned to say. Oops! Here is what I had in mind.

First, there was Aaron’s observation that Locke’s theory does not conform to the history of property as we know it: those who labor on the land are, notoriously, not the ones who own it.

Locke’s story has to be that the current owners of the land can trace their ownership back to someone who originally labored on it. You can acquire land even if you have not worked on it yourself by inheriting it or exchanging other goods for it. So long as the chain of ownership is legitimate, the present owners of the land need not be the ones who labor on it. If the historical chain of ownership is not legitimate then Locke would have to say that the present owners do not have rights to their land.

Second, I wanted to point out that there is a tension between the limits that Locke imposes on property ownership and the labor theory of property.

Locke maintains that necessity trumps property rights. The poor can take whatever they need from those who have more than they need; the property rights of the latter are cancelled by the needs of the former (First Treatise, §42). In particular, even labor cannot give people property rights when others do not have “enough and as good” (§27). And labor cannot give people property rights to goods that will spoil or go to waste (§31, 37–38, 46).

But why are people allowed to take the goods you have mixed your labor with just because they are going to spoil or just because they do not have enough and as good? According to the labor theory, that would be like enslaving the person who labored on them. The laborer has mixed her labor with the goods, such that my taking the goods would be taking her labor which is something that she owns. The fact that the goods are going to spoil or that I need them is beside the point.

Maybe what Locke should say is that a truly needy person can enslave someone else. Children, for instance, have a right to their parents’ care. And, at the other end of life, parents have a right to their childrens’ care. It’s not so crazy to think that we owe a level of service to one another in moments of need. Similarly, maybe people can take what they need even if others have labored it. That would resolve the tension for Locke.

The third thing I wanted to point out concerns the relationship between property rights and improvements. Locke says that property rights should go to those who improve the land, the “industrious and rational” (§34). The thought is pretty straightforward: people won’t improve the land if they don’t get property rights to the product of their labor (why work to grow crops if others will simply take them?), everyone benefits from efforts to improve the land (we have agriculture), therefore, property rights go to those who improve the land and everyone wins.

However, you would get the same improvements if you gave property rights to anyone, and not just to the industrious and rational. Suppose that the ones who get property rights are the lazy and infirm. They are either unwilling or incapable of improving the land. Will the land just go to waste? No! The lazy and infirm will sell their rights to the industrious and rational.

The industrious and rational would buy the rights because they can still come out ahead with the improvements they plan to make. And, once they get ahold of rights to the land, they will make the improvements as before. So the improvements will be made even if the industrious and rational are not the ones who initially have the property rights.

One advantage of this system is that it makes some provision for the lazy and infirm. They are, after all, the common owners to begin with. But they are also obviously going to be left with nothing once the industrious and rational start to snap up the land by laboring on it. If they could sell their rights to the industrious and rational, by contrast, the lazy and infirm would at least get something in exchange for their original rights of common ownership.

Finally, it sometimes seems as if Locke is making an argument based on the consequences of giving property ownership to the industrious. The argument I have in mind goes something like this.

  1. The point of having rights is to preserve mankind.
  2. Private property vastly expands the value of land and other natural resources. (Without property rights, there would be little incentive to put the labor into it.)
  3. Therefore, there are private property rights.

I don’t think that is Locke’s main argument. But you can see it in his invocation of God’s command that we “labor” and “subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life” (§32), his claim that God gave the earth “to the use of the industrious and rational” for the common “benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life,” (§34) and his claim that everyone ought, “when his own preservation comes not in competition … as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind” (§6).

I think he is more interested in showing that private property is compatible with natural law, as he understands it. But you can see how this is very close to a different kind of argument that derives property rights from the consequences of recognizing them rather than from natural law and natural rights. In that way, there are strains in Locke’s arguments that anticipate utilitarianism, the next theory we will discuss.

Outline of chapter 5

This is slightly modified from the outline that comes with the reading. I changed my mind about how the end is structured.

  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).

  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 (§§26-30).

  3. Objection: someone could come to own too much. The rest of the chapter is devoted to answering this. There is a natural law limit: people cannot acquire property rights beyond what they can use or, in other words, no spoilage is allowed (§31, also §§37-38, §46). Locke argues that property rights do not, in fact, give rise to spoilage in three different kinds of society: hunter-gatherer societies, agricultural societies, and commercial societies.

    1. People are incapable of taking more than they need by hunting and gathering wild fruits and animals (§31).

    2. Agricultural labor improves the value of land, improving the position of others even after it is appropriated as private property (§§32-44).

    3. Commercial societies have money which allows them to store the value of perishable goods that can be used, like food, in something imperishable and useless, like gold. Inequalities in money do not result in spoilage or making others worse off than they would be without property (§§45–51).


There was a handout for this class: 13.LockeProperty.handout.pdf