Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2018

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 productive inputs (§§32–44), and money as a store of value (§45–51).

Locke was not asking the kind of questions that economists ask. He had moral commitments to the propositions that it is wrong to acquire goods and let them spoil and that it is wrong to acquire property without leaving enough and as good for others. His question was how private property could be compatible with these moral points. It was in the course of answering this fundamentally moral question that he developed these concepts that economists find so useful.

Go Locke!

Our discussion

Molly asked how the introduction of money affects the requirement to leave enough and as good for everyone else. It’s a good question and I don’t think we answered it squarely. Professor Brown pointed to §45. There Locke suggests that the use of money makes land scarce. If so, money exacerbates the problem because it makes it less likely that there will be enough and as good to leave to others. You would think that Locke would have said that money makes the economy much more productive, such that everyone is better off than they would have been if they had been able to take untouched land for themselves. Er, I would think that. But I am much better off in our world than I would have been if I had to farm a patch of land, so that might influence my thinking.

Some limitations of Locke’s account of money came up. For instance, he has nothing about how to regulate the supply of money and he has no story about labor markets.

Peter N. asked if Locke is talking about a guaranteed income (Jeremy and Kamyab raised similar points). I think the answer depends on what you think is the most important part of his story. You can find any of the following:

  1. A welfare floor: everyone’s needs have to be met, whether through leaving enough and as good or charity.

  2. Natural rights: everyone owns their own power to labor and so individuals have rights over whatever they mix their labor with.

  3. Proto-Utilitarianism: God wants us to promote the interests of everyone.

  4. Virtue: God rewards the industrious and rational by giving the Earth to them.

I think that readings 1 and 2 are the most accurate. But you can certainly find the others in there too. Locke thought they all amount to the same thing. But it’s not obvious that they do. Charity could conflict with natural rights if what I take as charity is the product of your labor. The proto-utilitarian and virtue arguments might favor very little charity so as to preserve the incentive to work.


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.