Gibbard on Locke

We discussed Gibbard’s article comparing what he called “hard libertarianism” with Locke’s version of libertarianism.

Prof. Brown took Gibbard’s argument that hard libertarianism would probably lead to a system of limited property rights, where owners have to pay part of their earnings to others, as an occasion to discuss the extremely large number of ways that property rights can be qualified.

Then we wrapped up with my making an argument in favor of hard libertarianism and against Locke.

Hard Libertarianism

Hard libertarianism is the view that no one’s rights can be limited without their consent.

If you begin, as Locke did, with the assumption that we all own the earth in common, hard libertarianism has some surprising results. It gives the unproductive members of society something to bargain with: they can refuse to give up their rights to the earth’s resources without getting a share of what the others produce. Thus it can form the basis for a sort of guaranteed income.

Gibbard believes that hard libertarianism runs into trouble with generations. Younger generations will demand a cut of whatever older generations make as the price for the older generation’s use of the younger generations’ rights to the earth’s resources. This will, obviously, limit the older generations’ incentives to produce anything. (Especially since the bargaining will be a mess: the resources will have already been used, so it is not clear to me what forces them to an agreement.) Gibbard thinks the only way to solve this sort of problem would be by using hypothetical contracts between the living generations and those yet unborn. But hypothetical contracts are antithetical to the idea behind hard libertarianism: that rights can only be surrendered by consent.

Locke’s Libertarianism

Locke was not a hard libertarian. He held that the fact that one person labors on a part of the earth’s natural resources is enough to terminate everyone else’s rights to use it even without their consent. This is so because labor generates property rights, according to Locke, and property rights are rights to exclude others from what one owns. Since Locke held that the earth was originally owned in common, the beginning of private property rights meant the termination of the rights of the common owners.

But how does laboring on something terminate someone else’s rights to that thing? This is a central question for Locke’s theory. (This is, in essence, a version of the question that Jesse posed last time.)

Gibbard maintains that Locke’s position makes sense only if the following moral principle is true: “the acts of each person [should] benefit or harm only himself, except as he himself chooses to confer or exchange the benefits of his acts” (Gibbard, 84). If this were true, then I could claim the full benefit of my acts of laboring on a piece of land to the exclusion of everyone else. Gibbard does not buy this, but some members of the class thought that libertarians would find it obviously true. That’s moral philosophy for you.

Self-Ownership and Property Rights

One thing that came up in connection with a question Ella posed is worth repeating here. For Locke, there is a sharp distinction between rights to the earth’s resources and rights to one’s own body. The former are originally collective while the latter are individual. That is why the fact that individuals own their ability to labor can be used to generate property rights in material resources: you mix the thing you own (your labor) with the thing that you don’t own (the resources) and thereby create a property right in the thing that you did not previously own.

To see why this is so, consider a different way of characterizing the original distribution of rights. “God’s laws tell us to preserve mankind, so God gave everyone a right to one another’s labor along with the right to the earth’s natural resources.” If that is the way it works, then, for example, children and the infirm have rights to be cared for while able-bodied adults will, presumably, swap with one another to gain full possession of their rights. That is just a sketch. We will talk about a more detailed proposal along those lines when we read Ronald Dworkin.

Hard Libertarianism and Incentives

Locke thinks that God meant the earth to be used for the good of mankind. From this assumption, he infers two things: first, that God approves of private property rights because the earth’s resources will not be developed without them and second, that private property rights should go to the industrious and rational.

God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labour was to be title to it) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrel some and contentious. (Second Treatise §34)

I think that Locke is right about the need for property rights but wrong to assume that they have to go to the industrious and rational.

Suppose the lazy and incompetent have rights that cannot be terminated by the labor of the industrious and rational. Suppose, that is, that we are in a hard libertarian world where they can lose their rights only by voluntarily agreeing to give them up, presumably in exchange for something else. Would this world be less productive than Locke’s world (leaving the generational problems to one side)? I say no.

If the productive can make better use of the land than the unproductive can, they will buy out the unproductive, paying them a share of the profits they anticipate making when they improve the land. Assuming there are minimal transaction costs (a big assumption, I grant you), society will be just as productive, but the lazy and incompetent will get something for their rights. According to Prof. Brown, that is an application of the Coase Theorem. Again, we will encounter similar, better developed, versions of this idea in Dworkin’s article.

I also had a mini-rant about libertarianism. Libertarians who follow Locke think that people have natural property rights to anything they make, provided others have enough and as good left over. So, for instance, if you invent a drug, it’s yours. That means two things. First, others are obliged not to take it from you and second, society is obliged to protect your property from others.

It’s the second point that I was ranting about. I do not see why that follows. Why does the rest of society have to help you defend your property right? More to the point, why can’t the rest of society demand a cut of what you make in exchange for defending your property right? After all, the value of your invention without enforced copyright laws is pretty close to zero. If the drug works, someone else will copy it and sell it at a lower price. The value of the invention comes from your having an exclusive right to make and sell the drug. That kind of restraint on trade requires the state. Why can’t the state say it will put in the effort only if society as a whole benefits? That’s my rant about libertarianism.


Coase, R.H. 1960. “The Problem of Social Cost.” The Journal of Law and Economics 3 (October): 1–44.

Gibbard, Allan. 1976. “Natural Property Rights.” Noûs 10 (1): 77–86.

Locke, John. (1680) 1995. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. The Philosophical Works and Selected Correspondence of John Locke. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.