Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

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 commitments. It was in the course of answering this fundamentally moral question that he developed these concepts that economists find so useful.

Our discussion

We spent a fair amount of time talking about what I had called the right to charity. In Locke’s words, it is “a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise” (First Treatise, §43). (As Francis noted, it’s a bit misleading to call that “charity,” as charity is usually given at the discretion of the giver while Locke is talking about what the recipient has a title to have.) It’s a frustrating topic to discuss because Locke said so little about it despite the obvious problems with making it work.

We also talked at some length about Locke’s so-called provisos or limits on the rights to acquire private property. Locke’s chief claim is that no one can acquire property rights to things they will not use. If you have acquired so much that some of it will spoil, others are allowed to take the excess (§31). He also says that property can be acquired only if there is “enough and as good” left over for others after the acquisition (§33). It is not clear how those two ideas, namely, the prohibition on waste and the requirement that enough and as good is left for others, are related to one another.

Professor Brown asked what it means to waste land. She noted that it would be different than wasting a perishable good like acorns. The idea seems to be that land is wasted if it is not improved while a perishable good is wasted when it becomes unusable by, for instance, rotting.

Professor Brown also noted that what economists mean by “as good” is different from what Locke means. For an economist, one bundle of things is as good as another if someone would be indifferent between them. But for Locke, the fact that there is land available is enough to show that the private acquisition of plots land that everyone would prefer to own is acceptable.

Maddie asked what happens if there isn’t enough. Say we’re talking about water in the desert: if you were to own it, there would not be enough and as good for everyone else, so you cannot own it. But what happens then? Do people have to share? Is it a war of all against all?

Finally, Professor Brown noted that Locke is not using the concept of opportunity cost. He thinks that inequalities in money are acceptable because money does not decay and he does not see that those inequalities could leave anyone worse off than they would have been without private property. But Professor Brown thought the second point was mistaken. If I buy up all the farmland to grow flowers rather than food, others might not have enough to eat.

Different Arguments in Locke

Patrick mentioned this towards the end of class. It’s important enough to restate here. 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.