Political Philosophy Spring 2024

Locke on Property


Sometimes, Locke uses a wide notion of the term “property”. For example, he says that people unite for “the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property.” (§123, also §87). Here, the word “property” refers to, well, life, liberty, and material things.

Other times, he uses “property” with a narrower meaning to refer to rights to material things. This would be the “estates” part of “lives, liberties, and estates.” For today’s class, we will talk about this narrower use of “property,” namely, the private ownership of material things.

In §42 of the First Treatise, Locke tells us that there are three sources of rights to material things.

  1. Labor (“the product” of “honest industry”)
  2. Inheritance (the “fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended on him”)
  3. Charity (“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”)

Chapter five of the Second Treatise is about labor.

The questions Locke poses for himself in this chapter are:

  1. How did we make the transition from common ownership to private property?

  2. How is the inequality in wealth that comes with private property compatible with the equal ownership rights that God gave us?

The transition question

Generally speaking, it is a good idea to look very carefully at the beginning of a piece of philosophical writing. That is where philosophers set out the question that they intend to answer. In this case, Locke set a very specific question for himself.

The problem, as Locke puts it, is to explain how we moved from common ownership of the earth’s resources to private ownership without any explicit agreement of the common owners (namely, all of humanity) to allow some people to take parts of the earth’s resources as their own, private property.

Locke’s contemporaries held that this transition involved the consent of the common owners. Locke accepted the criticisms of this view laid down by his adversary Filmer but he rejected Filmer’s view that there are no private property rights outside of the state. (For the curious, I will post some of this background material below.) That is why Locke tried to show how common ownership became private ownership “without any express compact of all the commoners” (§25).

The labor theory of property rights

Locke’s answer to his question invokes what is called the labor theory of property rights. The idea is that people acquire property rights to material goods by laboring on them.

Locke thought it was obvious that people are permitted to use the Earth’s resources without getting permission from everyone else first. What is the point of God’s giving us the world if we have to meet an impossible condition before we are permitted to eat? This gets us up to labor because the way we acquire goods like food is by laboring: picking fruit or killing deer.

But this is not enough to get to property rights. Part of what it means for you to have a property right to something is that others have duties not to use that thing themselves, at least, without your permission. So far, Locke has shown that God must have allowed people to use things in nature. He has not shown that anyone else has a duty to let them keep the things they take out of nature.

This is not really an issue with food like venison or acorns: once they have been eaten, no one else is going to get them (or want them). But if one person is to have ownership of a piece of land, then others are going to have to have duties not to cross that land or take any crops that grow on it even when they could do those things. It is those duties that Locke has to explain.

In short, Locke needs to explain how the fact that an individual labors on something does two things:

  1. Terminates the rights of the common owners.

  2. Generates obligations for others not to use that thing.

He has two ways of doing these things.

  1. An answer based on a natural rights story about mixing labor with resources.

  2. An answer based on a proto-utilitarian story about how giving property rights to those who labor serves the good of mankind as a whole.

Locke thinks of these stories as coming to the same conclusion: people have property rights to the things they work on.

The natural rights answer

The natural rights story goes like this:

  1. You come to own a thing by mixing something that you own with it.
  2. Everyone owns their labor power.
  3. Working on something involves mixing one’s labor power with that thing.
  4. Therefore, working on a thing is a way of coming to own it.

Locke insists on some important qualifications. Specifically, he says that property rights cannot be acquired through labor if one of the following conditions is met:

  1. The things acquired will spoil or go to waste. E.g. you collected more acorns than you can eat and they will rot or you fenced in more land than you can cultivate and it will sit uncultivated if no one else is allowed to use it.

  2. One person’s acquisition of the things will not leave “enough and as good” for others. E.g. if there is only one source of water in our area, I cannot come to own it as my private property because others would not have enough and as good for themselves.

  3. Someone does not have enough while another person has more than he needs. E.g. a rich person’s surplus belongs to a needy poor person (see §42 from the First Treatise, p. 3 in the reading).

In a nutshell, you can labor very hard but if you wind up mixing your labor with too much stuff, you just lose your labor rather than gaining rights to the stuff.

One thing we are going to do is talk about criticisms of the labor theory. One thing I would like you to think about is what Hobbes would say about it.

The proto-utilitarian answer

Here is another way of explaining the relevance of labor to property rights that you can find in Locke’s presentation. This story is an ancestor of a view that will come to be known as utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the view that the right thing to do is the one that brings about the best results; in the case at hand, private property rights are justified because humanity as a whole is better with them than it is without them. I do not think this is Locke’s main idea, but it is interesting enough to spell out.

The proto-utilitarian answer goes like this.

  1. God gave the Earth’s resources to people for the purpose of preserving mankind.
  2. Labor vastly improves the resources available for the preservation of mankind.
  3. No one will labor unless they can have private property rights to the things they labor on.
  4. Therefore, there should be private property rights that go to those who labor.

It seems to me that this more implicit in some of the things Locke says than an explicit theory. You can see the idea in Locke’s invocation of God’s command that we “labor” and “subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life” (§32), his claim that God gave the earth “to the use of the industrious and rational” for the common “benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life,” (§34) and his claim that everyone ought, “when his own preservation comes not in competition … as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind” (§6).

One thing to note about this is that any property rights it establishes will be weaker than those established by the natural rights story. If violating someone’s property rights would help preserve mankind, then it is hard to see why that would not be OK on this story.

That would help this story to address the tension between the limits on property rights and the labor theory: if taking property from the rich is needed to save the poor, that’s OK because saving the poor without seriously hurting the rich is a way of preserving mankind.

On the other hand, I would think this would have implications that Locke would have rejected. If labor improves the resources available to preserve mankind and we are required to preserve mankind, then it follows that we are required to labor. Since I believe Locke thought people own their own lives and have liberty to decide how to use their labor power, I doubt this is what he meant.

The inequality question

Locke’s first question is about the transition from common to private ownership. The second question concerns inequality.

Locke announces at the beginning of §31 that “It will perhaps be objected to this, that if gathering the acorns, or other fruits of the earth, &c. makes a right to them, then any one may engross as much as he will” (§31). This is a problem because Locke thinks there are limits to what a person can take. God gave the world to humanity in common and that means people cannot take things for themselves if they will spoil or if it means that others will not have enough. More generally, it raises a question about whether the inequality that comes with private property is compatible with God’s original grant of the Earth’s natural resources to mankind in common. Roughly, if God gave the Earth to everyone, how come the rich own so much more of it than the poor do?

The bulk of the chapter, §§31–51, attempts to answer that objection. Locke tries to show that his theory of private property does not allow people to take too much for themselves.

He goes through three stages of society showing how private property, as he understood it, does not lead either to spoilage or leaving others without enough. On the contrary, societies that have private property rights are thousands of times more productive than societies without them. So everyone in these societies is much better off than they would have been in a world without private property rights. That means everyone still has what they were given by God when they were given the Earth in common.

In sum, unequal wealth does not bother Locke. What is troubling, he claims, is a situation in which people do not have enough. Any inequality above that, provided goods are not allowed to spoil, is acceptable.

Main ideas

These are the things you should know from today’s class.

  1. The problem of moving from common ownership to private ownership
  2. The labor theory of property
  3. The concern about some people owning too much and how Locke tried to address it
  4. Why Locke thinks that the institution of private property makes everyone better off


Locke’s thesis is that he can explain the transition from common ownership to private ownership without appealing to the consent of the common owners. Here are some passages from his contemporaries that put some of the contending views on display.

John Selden, among others, maintained that the transition from common to private ownership had involved consent.1

if … all men were indifferently and without distinction Lords of the whole, before a division was made of some parts, then of necessity we must conceive, they all ought to remain, equally and without distinction, Lords of those parts which never came under a division, even as they were before, unless some compact or covenant intervene whereby all kind of ancient right or title of common interest shall be so renounced, that any persons whatsoever might afterwards become particular masters of those places which should remain vacant or undisposed, who should first corporally seize them with an intent of possessing, holding, using, and enjoying. …  it must be yielded, that some such compact or covenant was passed in the very first beginnings of private Dominion or possession, and that it was in full force and virtue transmitted to posterity by the Fathers who had the power of distributing possessions after the flood. (Selden 1652, 22–23)

Robert Filmer criticized this attempt at explaining private property.

How the Consent of Mankind could bind posterity when all things were common, is a point not so evident: where children take nothing by gift or descent from their parents, but have an equal and common interest with them, there is no reason in such cases, that the acts of the fathers should bind the sons. I find no cause why Mr. Selden should call community a pristine right; since he makes it but to begin in Noah, and to end in Noah’s children, or grand-children at the most. (Filmer 1680, 213)

Certainly, it was a rare felicity, that all the men in the World at one instant of time should agree together in one mind, to change the Natural Community of all things into Private Dominion: for without such an unanimous Consent, it was not possible for Community to be altered: for, if but one man in the World had dissented, the Alteration had been unjust, because that Man by the Law of Nature had a Right to the common Use of all things in the World; so that to have given a Propriety of any one thing to any other, had been to have robbed him of his Right to the common Use of all things. … If our first Parents, or some other of our Forefathers did voluntarily bring in Propriety of Goods, and Subjection to Governours, and it were in their power either to bring them in or not, or having brought them in, to alter their minds, and restore them to their first condition of Community and Liberty; what reason can there be alleged that men that now live should not have the same power? So that if any one man in the World, be he never so mean or base, will but alter his Will, and say, he will resume his Natural Right to Community, and be restored unto his Natural Liberty, and consequently take what he please, and do what he list; who can say that such a man doth more than by Right he may? And then it will be lawful for every man, when he please, to dissolve all Government, and Destroy all Property. (Filmer 1680, 234–36)

Locke disagreed with Filmer’s conclusions. He thought that there are private property rights that constrain the state while Filmer thought the state had absolute power and was not bound to respect private property rights. But Locke also accepted Filmer’s criticism of the argument based on consent. Chapter 5 of the Second Treatise is an attempt to show that you can accept Filmer’s criticism without accepting his conclusions.


Filmer, Sir, Robert. 1680. “Observations Upon H. Grotius De Jure Belli & Pacis: Together with Directions for Obedience to Governours in Dangerous and Doubtful Times.” In The Free-Holders Grand Inquest Touching Our Sovereign Lord the King and His Parliament to Which Are Added Observations Upon Forms of Government. London.
Grotius, Hugo. 1925. De Jure Belli Ac Pacis Libri Tres. Vol. 2. The Classics of International Law 3. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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.
Pufendorf, Samuel. 1749. The Law of Nature and Nations. Edited by Jean Barbeyrac. 5th ed. London.
Selden, John. 1652. Of the Dominion, or Ownership, of the Sea. London.

  1. Hugo Grotius (1925, 2:189–90) and Samuel Pufendorf (1749, 361–78) had similar accounts of the origin of private property.↩︎