Locke on Property: A Critique

John Locke’s political philosophy has had a lasting impact about American Political ideology (Hartz 1955, Dienstag 1996a, Dienstag 1996b). While the Lockean influence on the principles and argumentation of the Declaration of Independence, the deepest impact on the American political mind seem to be his emphasis on property rights. The irony is that of all the Lockean concepts which Thomas Jefferson includes in the Declaration, the right to private property is left out and replaced by the more vague right to the pursuit of happiness. Yet sadly, American capitalism in practice has been more than willing to place property rights above the other supposedly inalienable rights.

However, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about John Locke’s argument about property as a natural right. On one hand, I am in awe of the careful argument which he develops to defend property as a right. It is an argument which is detailed and humble. On the other hand, I totally disagree with that very argument. Ultimately I think that Locke makes a mistake by trying to place the right to private property on equal standing with the natural rights or life and liberty. In this essay I will look at how he develops the idea of property as a natural right. After outlining Locke’s argument, I will present an argument that says that the natural right to property fails to be convincing and that the arguments of Hobbes and Rousseau concerning property give us a more proper understanding of the role of property in society. It is only with deep respect that I offer this criticism of Locke.

Now in analyzing Locke’s theory of rights, we could start by considering whether natural rights, rights granted to humans by God is even a acceptable or desirable approach to rights. While it is an ideal which appeals to certain American sentiments, it is an idea which no longer holds much weight in philosophy or political theory (Thomson 1976). However, for my purposes here I will grant unto Locke the idea of natural rights. I do this for two reasons, the first of which is that one can (and should) reject his theory of property rights even if one accepts a similar idea of natural rights (it seems to actually diminish the force of the his broader argument). Secondly, it could be argued that Locke’s argument for natural god-given rights can be better understood as part of the Enlightenment tradition of rights as inherently based in human reason and rationality. His references to deity may be more distracting than informative.

Locke is open about the challenge which he faces in establishing private property as a natural right. He notes that the Bible teaches that God “has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common” (Locke 1690 Chap. V Sec. 26, future references to Second Treatise on Government will just refer to the sec with Chapter V) Yet, this does not stop from trying to show “how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners.” In saying this, Locke is explicitly saying that property is a product of mans existence in nature and not a product of the social contract. Rousseau will later argue, rightly in my view, that Locke has this backwards. But before we get to that we should look at how Locke justifies this claim.

Locke says the the earth is not only given to all men by God, but also that it, and the other creatures or the earth, are given for man’s benefit (Locke Sec. 27). While man is not given the earth as private property, he is given a specific thing as personal property and this is his “own person” which “no body has any right to but himself.” (Locke Sec. 27). As a result of man’s body being his own property, man’s labor and “the work of his hands” is therefore his own as well. The claim that our body is ours seems reasonable. Nobody owns me but me. Of course, this is written in a time when the living bodies of men and women where owned by others specifically as property. Yet, this claim that my own self is my property is an odd claim in a way (Becker 1976). Do we really think of our body as property? In a way, it seems to contribute to my thought that for Locke, property is so prominent that even our right to life is prominent because our lives belong to ourselves as property rather than having intrinsic value in and of itself. However, I think that what Locke really means is that God too gives us our lives and bodies and no other person has the right to control or own it. Locke falls into a problem that many social contract theorist have. He makes everything seems like a legal arrangement, even our relationship with ourselves.

The common earth becomes private property through the mixing of land by ones own labor (Locke Sec. 27). By improving the land, one takes it out of nature and it ceases to be common property but instead becomes private property and this means that others no longer have a right to utilize that land (Locke Sec. 27). So while private property rights are natural rights, they become as such by no longer being part of nature. This is the shortcoming that Rousseau finds in the depiction of nature found in Locke: his argument about nature is very much a depiction of man in civilized society (Rousseau 1754). The irony is that Locke has just stated that property rights exist in nature and are not a result of the social contract that brings man out of nature and into organized society. Already, Locke is struggling to maintain his original argument.

A question we can ask is why property must be a natural right? Must it be on par with the rights of life and liberty. It does not seem that it would undermine Locke’s commitment to property rights by making it a right protected by and established by the social contract rather than a right which exists in nature, a fact which seems difficult to establish. I think that here we have to consider the historical context of Locke’s discussion of property. Locke is discussing private property in an age when the idea of widespread property ownership does not yet exist. He is also writing in a time when capitalism is just starting to develop and the remnants of the feudal era are still evident in England and the dominant economic system of the day is mercantilism. Under the feudal system, the land owned by the aristocracy was worked by the peasants who had no right to the land. They also did not benefit from the land, but instead there mixing of the land provided for the wealth and well-being of the feudal lord. On top of all of this, the lives of the common peasants was largely left up to the whim of the lord. This makes me think that Locke’s concern was not to protect traditional land holdings but to paint the traditional land arrangement as a form of slavery rather than a natural state of being. To say that land should belong to those that work it rather than it belonging to those who hold claims through inherited title may very well have been as radical as Locke’s theory of revolution.

The limits which Locke places on property seems to support my argument about his good intentions when it comes to private property ownership. He said that as “much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property” (Locke Sec. 32) This seems to limit property to the amount of land that one can actually work, which Locke thought would be of only “a very moderate proportion” (Locke Sec. 36).

I do not read Locke to be saying that one is entitled is any particular way to land which one has others mix and till on his behalf. Thus property is something which anyone can have but at the same time no one can have too much or beyond what one can work. Locke support this interpretation when he says “no man’s labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part” because by doing so would only be taking land from others who could be using the land for their own improvement (Locke Sec. 36). For Locke the purpose of government is not just to protect property rights but to “established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind, against the oppression of power” (Locke Sec. 42). By providing universal land ownership, Locke hopes to protect the common citizen from the oppression that follows when the land is held only by a few. Therefore, Locke’s theory of property cannot and should not be used to justify such practices as share-cropping or harsh and exploitative employment practices. Such things are what Locke thought universal land ownership would prevent not protect. However, unlike Locke’s vision, the ownership of land in not fairly distributed, resulting in the oppression or slavery which he so desired to avoid.

While I think that there are redeeming qualities in Locke’s concept of property, this in no way supports his idea that property rights are natural rights. I have already shown that Locke’s very argument about property involves the removal of property from nature. Locke seems to unintentionally support the opposite of his very claims by coming back to the idea that the Earth was given to Adam and Eve and their children as a common gift from God. Jean Jacques Rousseau in his discussion of the state of nature (and his critique of the state of nature found in the works of Thomas Hobbes and Locke) also made similar references to Adam and Eve and there existence as the an example of man in nature. Additionally, Rousseau points out that the state of nature as described in Hobbes and Locke tries to have it all: the illusion of nature with the advances (some positive and negative) of modern society. Locke’s description of property rights is a prime example.

Rousseau seems to share with Locke a similar concern about the inequalities that result from the unfair distribution of property. However, for Rousseau private property and its impact on humanity is a major cause of inequality and oppression amongst men and not the solution. Rousseau argues that the path towards private property is also the path that leads man away from his ideal pre-civilized cooperative society. Yet, for Rousseau, by the time private property is introduced man has long since ceased to lived in his original natural state (all these male pronouns seem a bit awkward, though I think that they are consistent with the though of the classic social contract thinkers). Private property is not only something which is not found in nature, it is also something which is found amongst men long after mankind has abandoned nature. Now, for Rousseau the social contract is not the point where state of nature stops and organized society begins. There is not a specific event or agreement which instantly changes the status of man but instead an evolutionary process which takes place throughout human existence. This is particularly meant to counter the claims of both Hobbes and Locke, for whom the social contract take mankind out of the state of nature. Additionally, both Hobbes and Locke seem to fear (in the case of Hobbes) or worry (in the case of Locke) that mankind could somehow devolve back into the state of nature.

While Rousseau views property as having a damaging affect on human well being, he does not abolish it in his proposed republic (Rousseau 1762). However, he has a very different view of how property rights come about. Unlike Locke, Rousseau contends that private property solely exists because the state allows for it as part of the social compact. The difference between these two conceptions of property is that Rousseau’s idea of property places the common good, the good of our fellow citizens, before the private particular good. Locke’s idea of property gives the sense that property has priority over society. Society is important, but property is granted and sanction by heavenly power. Despite what his intentions may or may not have been, Locke’s theory of property rights undermines a commitment to the common good by justifying one in placing the good of ones private good over the good of society. In the social contract tradition, society is our fellow man. In American capitalism, the Lockean notion of private property has long allowed for some to place personal well being above the well being of others because property took priority over society. Is this what Locke intended? No, I do not think so. But by establishing it as a natural right that exists prior to the social contract, he essentially does this very thing.

In looking at Locke’s theory of private property, I have argued three things. First, he tries to establish private property in order to protect those who lacked property but who worked the land from the oppression of arbitrary privilege. Second, in his very argument for private property as a natural right, Locke undermines that very assertion by highlighting the own weakness of his own conception of the state of nature. Third, the idea of property as a natural right is harmful idea. Despite the significance of John Locke’s political theory on the American political imagination, the adaptation of his idea of private property as a natural rights is one which we should question rather than embrace.

Becker, L. C. (1976). The labor theory of property acquisition. The Journal of Philosophy, 73(18, Seventy-Third Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division), 653-664.
Dienstag, J. F. (1996). Between history and nature: Social contract theory in locke and the founders. The Journal of Politics, 58(4), 985-1009.
Dienstag, J. F. (1996). Serving god and mammon: The lockean sympathy in early a merican political thought. The American Political Science Review, 90(3), 497-511.
Hartz, L. (1955). The liberal tradition in america; an interpretation of american political thought since the revolution (1st ed.). New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Locke, J. (2005 [1690] “The Second Treatise on Government” in Classics of moral and political theory (4th ed.). M. L. Morgan, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.
Morgan, M. L. (2005). Classics of moral and political theory (4th ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.
Rousseau, J. J. (2005 [1754]). “On the Origins of Inequality” in Classics of moral and political theory (4th ed.). M. L. Morgan, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.
Rousseau, J. J. (2005 [1762]). “The Social Contract” in Classics of moral and political theory (4th ed.). M. L. Morgan, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.
Thomson, J. J. (1976). Property acquisition. The Journal of Philosophy, 73(18, Seventy- Third Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division), 664-666.

6 Replies to “Locke on Property: A Critique”

  1. Nice overview, Chris. I would argue that although the Lockean view is a popular political way to see property rights, the reality in the U.S. is closer to Rousseau’s ideas. Private property rights are supported by, and subordinate to, a massive governmental (i.e. legal) framework (the innovation, flexibility and reliability of which allowed for the massive Anglo-American economic expansion of the 20th century). Within this framework public goods are frequently prioritized over private enjoyment (i.e. land use and environmental regulations in the case of real property), which presumably saves the country billions of $$ in property litigation. So to the extent that the US built an extremely prosperous system on the basis of public control of private property, I think your point that Locke was wrong is well-taken.

  2. DCL, I think you may have a point. However, this has not been the case throughout our history. To the extent that it is now, that is a good things.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Further a Lockean would simply say that the move to Rousseau style is itself evidence of how the country has gone astray.

  4. Well, sure. Though I think a Lockean and a Rousseauian can lament together the extent to which we are truly Hobbesian. Hehe, I will have to explain that sometime.

  5. I’ve always read Locke’s limitation on the amount of land that one can hold be limited to what one can work is overridden by the creation of money. As land is appropriated, the peasants who are displaced are then left to sell their labor – the original position – to those who have the spare capital to pay for it, thus defending an unlimited right to private property, as long as the workers are compensated for their property – labor.

    Locke’s theory of value is based on work, denying that nature has inherent value. Additionally, the idea that one can only take as much as allows for everyone else to have the same amount is assuming that if one takes out an hectare of land and appropriates it to oneself, and if it produced 10 bushels of wheat when left to wilderness, but that when worked, it produces 100 bushels of wheat, then you have increased the amount of property available to all by appropriating part of it to yourself, thereby removing that limit to individual property as well.

    You should check out the MacPherson essay in the front of the Hackett standalone printing of Second Treatise. It has a really interesting argument about Locke that I haven’t found duplicated elsewhere.

    Also, have you read Waldron’s God, Locke and Equality?

  6. However, this has not been the case throughout our history.

    Why not, Chris? The need to obtain and prove title, the Takings clause, cattle fencing duties, restrictions on entailments, etc. have all been with us since the beginning of our country and show significant public interest overrides to unrestrained private property.

    Clark, a Lockean may so lament, but I don’t think they can do so while simultaneously imagining that such lucrative (Randian) returns for property owners exist in a state of nature.

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