Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2019

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

Locke has two provisos that limit the acquisition of property. One says that you cannot acquire something as private property if it will spoil in your possession (§31). The other says you cannot take something as your private property if doing so would not leave “enough and as good” for others (§33).

It’s not obvious how these are related to one another. While they appear to be different, Locke seems to treat the second as a restatement of the first. But, as Prof. Brown said, it’s not obvious how land can spoil, while it is fairly clear how you can take land without leaving enough and as good for others.

Locke introduces money as a way of explaining how even very considerable inequality is compatible with his provisos: money isn’t worth anything on its own, so you’re not making anyone worse off by having it, and it can’t spoil. Alexa didn’t find this persuasive. Surely you’re wasting money if you just leave it in a room without circulating it.

Rachel asked about the line about property rights to “turfs my servant has cut” (§29). How can the master gain property rights over something that the servant labored on? It’s a good question. I think Locke needs to add some discussion of how rights are alienated. I assume the idea is that the servant sold his time to the master and so the master gets the turfs the servant cuts. But I don’t know and Locke doesn’t say.

Ali reminded us that the material from the first Treatise shows that you can’t force someone to work for you, where “forcing” includes withholding the necessities of life.

I said that you can find three different moral arguments for property rights in Locke:

  1. A natural rights story: people have natural rights to their bodies and so they acquire property rights when they labor on unowned things. Locke says, mysteriously, that they “mix” their labor with the things they come to own (§27)

  2. A proto-utilitarian story: God commands us to promote the good of mankind and property rights accomplish that goal by giving people an incentive to make natural resources more productive (§32).

  3. A virtue story: property rights go to the “industrious and rational” when you allocate them according to labor (§34)

While Locke thinks they all amount to the same thing, I pointed out how they have different implications. A utilitarian, for instance, would be willing to take away property from someone who labored if doing so would promote the overall good.

At the very end, I said that you don’t have to give property rights to those who labor in order to have a productive society. Rooney got this one: if you give property rights to the earth’s resources to the lazy and foolish, the industrious and rational will buy the rights from them. They will pay a price just below what they think they can get for the resources after they have improved them with their labor. One advantage of giving property rights to the non-virtuous is that it ensures them a share of the earth’s resources which were, by hypothesis, given to us all in common.


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.