Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2020

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

Hutch worried about whether Locke’s conclusions could be acceptable. Even if you think that every step of the story is fine, what if you don’t think the conclusion is acceptable?

Professor Brown said that after giving his story about how property is initially acquired, Locke does the thing that an economist would do: he asks what happens next. In particular, he’s concerned with the question of whether someone could acquire too much.

As Prof. Brown put it, what if the rich people buy up so much farmland to grow flowers that there isn’t enough food for the poor to eat?

Prof. Brown thinks that Locke’s rock bottom commitment is that everyone has a right to enough to survive. So if you’re asking “what is ‘too much?’” that’s a case that illustrates how someone might have too much, as she understands Locke.

Jordan thought that wouldn’t be a problem. If food became scarce it would be expensive and so it would be more profitable for farmers to grow it.

We also had some discussion of two provisos or conditions that Locke puts on 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 once 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.

Agnes asked how this works over generations. Our next author, Gibbard, will say that it doesn’t work very well. My own opinion is that Locke probably meant something like this: “given how much more productive land is when it is privately owned, everyone in the generations after the institution of private property will have enough and as good left to them; they will have enough to care for themselves at least as well as they would have been able to do in a world without private property.” In other words, you don’t have to leave others equivalent plots of farmland, you just have to leave others equally (or better) able to feed themselves. That’s what “enough and as good” means. But that’s my interpretation rather than something that Locke himself clearly said.

Dylan B. gave an example of water usage suggesting that Locke’s kind of story wouldn’t work for the use of that resource in the cases he had in mind.

Lilly noted that Locke treats unimproved land as wasted. We don’t think that way. It’s wilderness or nature and we think that’s good. We have parks devoted to preserving it! I think that’s an excellent point. It leads me to muse about the social conditions under which environmentalism could be a significant value.

Roman noted the influence of Locke’s ideas on the American constitution and asked about slavery. I said that I didn’t think a fair reading of Locke could lead anyone to think he would have condoned a system of slave labor. (He did describe the punishment for crimes as a kind of slavery, but that’s a different sort of thing, I think.) At the same time, we know that Locke himself invested in the slave trade.

Emily noted that the use of the labor theory in Marxist or socialist thinking. Laborers, on these theories, are exploited because capitalists keep some of the value that their labor creates. I think that’s right as a matter of intellectual history. And next week Prof. Brown will introduce us to Marx in her exposition of Piketty’s book. Stay tuned!

Different Arguments in Locke

I didn’t say this in class, but it seems to me 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, they really 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.


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.