Locke on Property

I started off with some remarks about a difference between Hobbes and Locke on the topic of punishment that I find curious. (I wrote out what I had in mind at the end of the notes for the previous class.)

Then we turned to Locke’s celebrated account of property. Locke makes one big assumption and tries to answer two questions. The big assumption is that God gave the Earth’s resources to mankind in common.

The questions are:

  1. How did we make the transition from common ownership to private property?

  2. How is the inequality in wealth that comes with private property compatible with the equal ownership rights that God gave us?

The transition question

Generally speaking, it is a good idea to look very carefully at the beginning of things. That is where philosophers set out the question that they intend to answer. In this case, Locke set a very specific question for himself; understanding that question is essential to understanding what he was doing in the rest of the chapter.

The problem, as Locke sets it out, is to explain how we moved from common ownership of the earth’s resources to private ownership without any explicit agreement of the common owners (namely, all of humanity) to allow some people to take parts of the earth’s resources as their own, private property.

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 of property rights

The labor theory was meant to provide the answer to the transition question.

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.

But this is not enough to get to property rights. Part of what it means for you to have a property right to something is that others are obliged not to use that thing. So far, Locke has shown that God must have allowed people to use things in nature. He has not shown that anyone else has an obligation to let them keep the things they take out of nature. This is not usually an issue with things like fruit or acorns: once they have been eaten, no one else is going to get them (or want them). But if one person is to have ownership of a piece of land, then others are going to have to have duties not to cross that land or take any crops that grow on it. It is those duties that Locke has to explain.

In short, Locke needs to explain how the fact that an individual labors on something does two things:

  1. Transfers ownership of the thing from the common owners to the individual.

  2. Makes it the case that others have obligations not to use that thing.

He has two ways of doing these things.

  1. An answer based on a natural rights story about mixing labor with resources.

  2. An answer based on a quasi-utilitarian story about how giving property rights to those who labor serves the good of mankind as a whole.

Locke thinks of these stories as coming to the same conclusion: people have property rights to the things they work on. As we will see when we read Nozick later in the term, other thinkers believe they come apart.

The natural rights answer

The natural rights story goes like this:

  1. You come to own a thing by mixing something that you own with it.
  2. Everyone owns their labor power.
  3. Working on something involves mixing one’s labor power with that thing.
  4. Therefore, working on a thing is a way of coming to own it.

It seems to me that Locke says too much and too little in this argument.

He says too much because in trying to explain why someone who works on something has a good claim to have it, he turns what looks like an obvious point into a mysterious one. What, after all, does it mean to “mix” your “labor power” with a thing? By contrast, “whoever works on a thing has a better claim to have it than anyone else does,” is straightforward and seems obviously true.

He has said too little because he has not filled in nearly enough of the details about how this might work. Here are two of the points that we picked out.

First, there is the next laborer problem. If laboring is a way of transferring ownership from the common owners to private owners, does that mean that it is a way of transferring ownership from one private owner to another? If so, then Taylor can come to own my house by painting it while I am not looking. That is not the kind of property rights that we are familiar with.

Second, there is the drink in the ocean problem. Sometimes, when you mix something you own with something you do not own, you lose what you had previously owned. If I spill my piña colada in the ocean, I do not come to own the ocean even though the sugary tropical drink was definitely mine.1 Locke wants to say that there are other occasions when mixing something that you own with something that you do not own means that you gain ownership of the thing that you had not previously owned. In order to make this work, he needs to explain what distinguishes these cases from the ones in which you lose your rights.

Maybe there could be solutions to these problems. I do not mean to say that Locke’s position is hopeless, just that there is more work to be done than he did.

Digression on the limits to property rights

Before I turn to the second, quasi-utilitarian, way of connecting labor with property rights, I should mention that Locke insists on some important qualifications. Specifically, he says that no one can acquire property rights, even if they labor very hard, if one of the following conditions is met:

  1. The things acquired will spoil or go to waste. E.g. you collected more acorns than you can eat and they will rot or you fenced in more land than you can cultivate and it will go to waste.

  2. One person’s acquisition of the things will not leave “enough and as good” for others. E.g. if there is only one source of water in our area, I cannot come to own it as my private property because others would not have enough and as good for themselves.

  3. Someone does not have enough while another person has more than he needs. E.g. a rich person’s surplus belongs to a needy poor person (see §42 from the First Treatise, p. 3 in the reading).

These limits raise a third problem for the natural rights account. Suppose you have labored by collecting acorns and thereby mixed your labor power with the pile of acorns. If taking your labor power is like enslaving you, then no one should be allowed to take the acorns, even if some of them are going to spoil. That’s your labor power mixed in the pile and you can do whatever you like with it. Similarly, when the poor person comes to take the rich person’s surplus, the rich person can say “that’s like insisting that I serve as your slave, which you have no right to do.” In other words, there is a tension between the natural rights story and the limits that Locke puts on ownership.

The quasi-utilitarian answer

Chris brought up the second way that Locke sees labor as providing a basis for property rights. We did not have enough time to discuss it, but it is interesting enough that I thought I would devote a section of the notes to it.

This story is an ancestor of a view that will come to be known as utilitarianism. It goes like this.

  1. God gave the Earth’s resources to people for the purpose of preserving mankind.
  2. Labor vastly improves the resources available for the preservation of mankind.
  3. No one will labor unless they can have private property rights to the things they labor on.
  4. Therefore, there should be private property rights that go to those who labor.

It seems to me that this more implicit in some of the things Locke says than an explicit theory. You can see the idea 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). That said, I think the natural rights story is the one that he meant to give and that this one is probably not his official story; I will explain why presently.

One thing to note about it is that any property rights it establishes will be weaker than those established by the natural rights story. If violating someone’s property rights would help preserve mankind, then it is hard to see why that would not be OK on this story. That would help this story to address the tension between the limits on property rights and the labor theory: if taking property from the rich is needed to save the poor, that’s OK because saving the poor without seriously hurting the rich is a way of preserving mankind.

In fact, I would think that people would be required to labor if this were Locke’s story. Labor improves the resources available to preserve mankind, after all. If so, they would not have much control over how they spend their time. (That is why I have doubts that this is what Locke really meant. I believe he thought people really do own their own lives and have liberty to decide how to use their labor power.)

The inequality question

We spent most of our time on Locke’s first question, about the transition from common to private ownership. The second question concerns inequality.

Locke announces at the beginning of §31 that “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). This is a problem because, as I said earlier, Locke thinks there are limits to what a person can take. God gave the world to humanity in common and that means one person cannot take things for himself if they will spoil or if it means that others will not have enough. More generally, it raises a question about whether the inequality that comes with private property is compatible with God’s original grant of the Earth’s natural resources to mankind in common. Roughly, if God gave the Earth to everyone, how come the rich own so much more of it than the poor do?

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.

He goes through three stages of society showing how private property, as he understood it, does not lead either to spoilage or leaving others without enough. On the contrary, societies that have private property rights are thousands of times more productive than societies without them. So everyone in these societies is much better off than they would have been in a world without private property rights. That means everyone still has what they were given by God when they were given the Earth in common.

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.

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.


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.

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

  1. This is Robert Nozick’s joke, alas, and not mine. See Nozick (1974), 175.


There was a handout for this class: 08.LockeProperty.handout.pdf