Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

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. When he 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 Professor Brown 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 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 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. Everyone still has the right to use enough of the earth’s resources to stay alive and even thrive a bit even if they don’t have the right to use the quite large amount of land that they would need to stay alive and thrive a bit in a different world, namely, one without property rights. 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

Locke relies on some assumptions about what is enough and more than enough. Individuals can acquire property rights only on the condition that others will have “enough, and as good” for themselves (Second Treatise, §27). And those who have “plenty” have to give some of the “surplusage” of their goods to those who are in “extreme want” (First Treatise, §42).

Professor Brown asked what Locke means by this. In particular, she thinks he moves between “need” and “want.”

Francis pointed out that there is significant scholarship about how common ownership is successful. If so, Locke’s assertion that private ownership is massively more productive is mistaken. The scholar to look for here is Elinor Ostrom.

Professor Brown led a discussion of the different kinds of limited property rights. The upshot was that property rights need not be absolute.

In the course of this discussion, Prof. Brown expressed her intense dislike of the way eminent domain is used. Rawls was mentioned and Prof. Green drew a distinction between two ways of referring to Rawls’s work.

On the one hand, you might take Rawls’s principles of justice, which tell us to always favor the worst off class. Understood that way, Rawls supports Prof. Brown’s views.

On the other hand, you might take Rawls’s method of referring all questions about justice to the decisions that would be made by parties in what he calls the “original position.” Specifically, Rawls contends that the parties in the original position would choose the best worst outcomes. For them to have an opinion about eminent domain, they would have to know which of these would be worse for them than the other.

  1. They turn out to be poor and have their homes taken under eminent domain.
  2. Their desires for public projects are frustrated by eminent domain law that protect the poor. (This could be true whether they are poor or not poor.)

I doubt that the parties in the original position could know the answer to that question.

If that is gibberish to you, don’t worry. We will get to it in our class on Rawls.


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