Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2017

Locke on Property


We contrasted the way Locke’s chapter on property rights is taught in philosophy classes with what an economist finds in it.

The philosophy version is that Locke is an early libertarian who is arguing for natural property rights. As far as this way of reading Locke is concerned, the chapter could pretty much end around §31 or, if you want to stretch it out, §39. (§39 really does appear to give an answer the question that was originally posed; it’s a natural place to think “he’s done now.”)

And yet Locke himself does not stop at §31 or even §39. He goes all the way to §51. Why?

What Professor Brown finds is an anticipation of distinctions that economists would develop after Locke’s time. Locke treats acorns are consumption goods (see §31), land as a productive asset (§§32–44), and money as a store of value (§45–51).

What your philosopher takes away from this is that Locke was mainly interested in showing that property rights are compatible with what he regarded as a more fundamental right that all people have: the right to have enough to meet one’s needs. That is what the end of the chapter is devoted to showing, after all.

Our discussion

Locke uses a series of phrases as if they meant the same thing. For instance, he treats using a thing as being equivalent to not letting it spoil. We started off with some questions about whether those kinds of phrases really are equivalent or whether they could come apart. Matthew, Paul, and Will came up with cases where people have more of a kind of thing (such as acorns and shovels) than they can use while not letting those things spoil. Tristan argued that, for Locke, excess is defined in terms of spoilage, at least for acorns. I’m less sure about land. I think Locke thinks land can “spoil” if it is merely not being put to use. But I would have to check on that.

Blake asked whether gold is going to waste if it is being saved rather than invested and used. (You could ask a similar question about whether it is being wasted if it is spent on something frivolous.) I said that this brought out a tension in Locke’s thinking between a proto-utilitarian thought that property rights are justified because they work for the benefit of mankind and a natural rights theory that derives property rights from ownership of one’s own body. If you push the idea that property rights are justified because they serve humanity as a whole, you will be open to allowing society to take someone’s gold if it is being used in a socially sub-optimal way. If you think of property rights as a product of self-ownership, by contrast, this way of thinking about waste will be less appealing. Society doesn’t get to draft you into working for others just because you want to spend your time in sub-optimal ways, after all. Why should it get to do that to the product of your labor, namely, your property?

Aaron’s question about feudalism brought out a different tension. Locke believes in inheritance. But the person who inherits wealth did not produce it by labor. So where does the right to an inheritance come from? Locke must be assuming that the original laborers’ property rights included the right to bequeath the property on their heirs. That may be so, but the labor theory does not explain why property rights have this feature.

Finally, Prof. Brown is certainly correct to say that Locke did not have a utilitarian theory. There is nothing in here about maximizing the overall good. At most, he is committed to saying that everyone has a right to have their needs met. That seems right to me. But I still think it is enough to introduce tensions into his view. As Matthew and Etelle both pointed out, in different ways, Locke is pulled in two directions. Suppose someone has a lot of property based on her own labor and that she is surrounded by poor people. On the one hand, the labor theory says that she has a right to her property, just as she has rights to determine how she will spend her time. On the other hand, Locke’s claim that people have a right to have their needs met means that it is the poor who have the right to this person’s excess property. In other words, this kind of conflict can come up even without full blown utilitarianism.


Locke is generally thought to limit property rights acquired through labor in two ways:

  1. There must be “as much and as good” for others after the property has been acquired.
  2. No one can acquire goods as property if they will spoil.

I said that I thought the first is only a sufficient condition and not a necessary one. That is, I said that I thought Locke only meant that your acquisition of a piece of property is acceptable if there is enough and as good left for others and that he did not mean that it is acceptable only if there is enough and as good left. This matters because it would get him out of the obvious problems that arise from the finite supply of natural resources like land.

But I think I got a little too far over my skis and I want to take it back. I was looking at §33, which seems to say what I had in mind: if there is enough and as good left over then there is no problem with acquiring a piece of land as your property.

§33. Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst: And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same. (Locke [1680] 1995, sec. 33)

As far as I can see, there is no need for an “only if” in §33. So far, so good. But §27 looks bad for me (I added italics to emphasize the part that is especially bad).

§27. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. … For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. (Locke [1680] 1995, sec. 27)

That sounds like “you get property through labor only if there is enough and as good left for others.” So I’m not feeling great about my interpretation. Nuts. Oh well.

On a happier note, we talked a lot about the difference between hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural ones. Someone, maybe Tristan, made the point that the first agricultural societies were much worse off than their hunter-gatherer predecessors. As it happens, there is a new book out by James Scott about the first states that makes this point, among others. There is a nice review of it in the New Yorker. In other words, you can be completely convinced that we have higher quality lives now than our hunter-gatherer ancestors had. But there is still a puzzle about the origin of agriculture and the state, namely, the members of the first agricultural societies (and the first states) seem to have been worse off than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. So there is a question: why did they do it? Either they were forced or something changed about hunting and gathering for those people.


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.