Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2020

Gibbard on Locke


Allan Gibbard’s question is whether what he calls “hard libertarianism” or Locke’s soft libertarianism support “widespread unencumbered ownership.” His answer is no.

We talked about both kinds of libertarianism. Then Prof. Brown had us list the ways in which property rights as we know them are encumbered.

Hard Libertarianism vs. Locke’s Libertarianism

Hard libertarianism is the view that a person’s moral rights can only be altered by that person’s consent. No one can just take away your rights.

Locke is not a hard libertarian when it comes to property rights. He thinks that everyone starts off with the right to use all of the earth’s resources. More precisely, he thinks that everyone has what lawyers call the liberty to use the earth’s resources, where a liberty consists in the absence of contrary obligations. When Locke says that everyone has the right to use the earth’s resources, he means no one would do anything wrong by using them.

Locke’s theory is that this right can be lost when other people labor on some part of the world. I can lose my right to pick up acorns in a field if Emily has done the work to plow the field. Note that this can happen even if I did not agree to give up my rights. She did the work, she gets the property right. Since her property right to the field is incompatible with my liberty right to use the field, I lost my right because of something she did and not through my own consent. So Locke isn’t a hard libertarian about property rights.

You can ask, as Daisy did outside of class, why labor has the effect of terminating the common owners’ rights. That’s a good question. It’s why Locke scholars have jobs. I don’t think the answer is obvious. My best guess is that what Locke means by “common ownership” is that everyone has the right, meaning liberty, to use enough of the earth’s resources to stay alive and even thrive a bit. If labor improves these resources and everyone benefits from the system of private property that encourages people to labor then no one’s common ownership rights are actually terminated. I can’t say I’m completely crazy about this, since it doesn’t sound much like common ownership to me. But it’s the best I can do. Anyway, this kind of question is very much a live issue among Locke scholars.

One other interesting tidbit is that Locke is a hard libertarian when it comes to political authority. He thinks that the state gets the power to make and enforce laws only over those who consent to obey it. That’s a little curious. Why is hard libertarianism correct for political authority but not for property?

Our Discussion

At the end of the last set of notes, I described three different arguments meaning to explain why labor generates private property rights that I find 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)

I said that Locke did not really press on the ways these arguments are different and that, to the extent he thought about them at all, he seems to have thought that they all amount to the same thing.

Ryan and Hutch described tensions between the proto-utilitarian story and the natural rights story.

Professor Brown said that one thing Gibbard is saying is that future generations need a commitment device. That is, if the members of generation 1 think that the members of generation 2 will be free to take what they (generation 1) produce, the members of generation 1 won’t produce very much. That works to the disadvantage of generation 2 as they don’t come into the world that has as much stuff in it as it would have if the members of generation 1 had produced as much as they could have. If the members of generation 2 could commit themselves to a set of property rights that would allow the members of generation 1 to keep what they make, that would work to everyone’s advantage.


Gibbard, Allan. 1976. “Natural Property Rights.” Noûs 10 (1): 77–86.