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 without the consent of the common owners.
  2. Explaining why the inequality that results from private property is not objectionable.

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.

Will S., for instance, did not find Locke’s talk about “mixing” labor illuminating. Nothing is literally mixed; it is just a metaphorical expression. But what does it mean? Also, as someone noted (sorry for forgetting who!) mixing something you own with something you do not own is not always a way of gaining ownership of the other thing. As Robert Nozick put it, if you mix your tomato juice in the ocean, you simply lose your juice; you don’t come to own the ocean (Nozick 1974, 175).

Max said that labor is not a way of gaining ownership of privately owned property. If it were, you could come to own my house by painting it while I am not watching! But if labor doesn’t transfer privately owned property without the consent of the individual owner, why does it transfer commonly owned property without the consent of the common owners?

Bry drew the correct conclusion, in my opinion, namely, that “common ownership” must be different in kind from private ownership. So what rights do people have when they are the common owners? To answer that, we will have to do some detective work since Locke does not directly discuss the matter. Some things seem pretty clear. Common owners are at liberty to use the resources that are commonly owned: they do nothing wrong to the others if they use the common resources without getting permission. The common owners also have claim rights against being prevented from using the resources in some ways: one cannot block the others from picking up acorns and the like. But they do not have claim rights to have any particular things: others may use any particular thing first without doing anything wrong to anyone else.

Finally, I proposed that Locke thought common ownership gives everyone a right to enough of the earth’s resources. That is why he says that an individual cannot acquire property rights if “enough and as good” is not left for others (§27; see also the First Treatise, §42). Locke took pains to show that private ownership would not leave people without enough. My guess is that he was thinking that this shows that private ownership does not violate the rights of common ownership. The right of common ownership is a right to enough, private ownership does not violate this right, therefore private ownership does not require the consent of the common owners. That is the rough idea I have in mind. Locke himself did not say this, however, so it is just my guess.

Audrey asked what would happen if there were scarcity. I think that Val had a similar question inspired by Hobbes. These are not things that Locke got into. As Will P. put it at the end of class, Locke thought that land was wildly abundant: just look at the Americas! And as we know from the readings, he also believed that the institution of property rights would make the land hundreds or thousands of times more valuable by giving owners incentives to improve it. That would also alleviate scarcity. Still, it is a nice question what he would say if people were in conflict and needed to take some land or other property in order to survive in their war. That is Hobbes’s question.

The second problem and Locke’s anthropology

Locke announces the second problem he will discuss at the beginning of §31: “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. Locke tries to show that his theory of private property does not allow people to take too much for themselves.

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 Locke’s 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 I did not say

There are a million things to say about Locke on property.

One is that there are evident differences between the story Locke tells about the origins of property and the actual history of the acquisition of property. The wealth that people hold today cannot all be traced back to honest people laboring to improve their plots of land. We will discuss this more when we talk about reparations for slavery.

I also wanted to address a remark that Will P. made at the end of class. As he pointed out, you can find in Locke an argument that property rights are justified because they make everyone better off. I have in mind 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.

You can see it in Locke’s 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 do not myself think that this is Locke’s main argument. 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 those rights rather than claiming that they can be derived from natural law and our ownership of our ability to labor. In that way, Locke’s arguments anticipate utilitarianism, the next major theory we will discuss.

I do want to make one point about this utilitarian-style argument. Locke says that property rights should go to those who improve the land, the “industrious and rational” (§34). The idea is 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 the lazy and infirm, that is, people who are either unwilling or incapable of improving the land. That sounds a little crazy. Won’t land just go to waste if the lazy and infirm get rights to it? No! They 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.

Key concepts

You should know the three parts of this chapter:

  1. The problem of moving from common ownership to private ownership.
  2. The labor theory of property.
  3. The concern about some people owning too much and how Locke tried to address it.


Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.


There was a handout for this class: 12.LockeProperty.handout.pdf