Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Locke on Property Rights

In Search of the Republic--28

In his Treatise, Locke suddenly turns to a discussion of the origins of the right to property.

The fundamental law of nature, the right of self preservation, implies that man has right to food, drink and other things that meet his physical needs:

"Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us, that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence"

According to Locke, God has given the natural world in common to mankind for this purpose.

"God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being."

So if God gave it in common, what distinguishes private property from the common?


In the state of nature, when a man mixes his labor with nature he removes it from the common. It has been appropriated and becomes his property; it is proper to him.

"Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others."

In fact, according to Locke, God gave nature to man for this very purpose--to be improved. God did not give it to be a source of envy and contention.

"God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labour was to be his title to it;) not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious."

One reason the acquisition of private property might  lead to contention is that most portions were fairly equal. No man could accumulate more land that he could use, owing to spoilage. No rational person would invest labor to produce more from the land that his family could use to meet their physical needs. It would rot in the fields.

This changed with the invention of money and commerce.

The invention of money to hold the value of one's labor and the prospects of trading with others for things that they produced opened the door to unequal portions of nature's resources. The invention of money provides the incentive and means to increase one's industriousness and one's property:

"And as different degrees of industry were apt to give men possessions in different proportions, so this invention of money gave them the opportunity to continue and enlarge them."

When men consented to the use of money, they consented to inequality of possessions.

"But since gold and silver, being little useful to the life of man in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage, has its value only from the consent of men, whereof labour yet makes, in great part, the measure, it is plain, that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out, a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus gold and silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor."

So just as man has a right to property in his own person--his life and liberty--he also has a right to the fruit of his labor--the work of his hands. These are so inextricably linked in Locke's mind that for much of the rest of his treaties, he uses the word property not only for the product of man's labor, but also for his natural rights. Property describes a man's "life, liberty, and estates."

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