John Locke And Property


John Locke And Property Essay, Research Paper

Mathew Jelonkiewicz

Answered Question #2

Locke s Ideas on Property

John Locke was considered one of the first modern liberal thinkers of our times. His ideas and theories permeate throughout many of the democratic world s constitutions. He authored many essays during his lifetime but one of the more famous ones was the Second Treatise on Government, attributed to him only after passing. This writing is concerned with individual man coming together into a political society and outlines the type of government that is needed to help this coming together of people. The Second Treatise of Government has many key elements such as natural rights, social contract, government by consent and the right of revolution. But unquestionably all of these elements are a precursor to Locke s Raison D Etre of government, The great and chief end, therefore of man s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under civil government is the preservation of their property.

For Locke, natural law, or law in the state of nature, begins and ends with the natural right of property. Locke believed primitive man existed in a state of nature, which was one of peace, goodwill, and preservation. In this state, property was common in the sense that everyone had an equal right to draw subsistence from whatever was offered in nature. Man had a natural right to that with which he mixed his labour. The fundamental idea behind this theory on private property was that by expending ones internal energy (owns labour power) upon something, that item became a part of oneself, or one s private property. This theory on property contained a second part, sometimes referred to as the spoilage proviso. The idea behind the spoilage proviso was that one was entitled to take out of the common only as much as one could make use of to ones advantage before it spoiled. Whatever is taken beyond this is considered more than ones share and belonged to others. At this point Locke s theory on the origins of property, while still in the state of nature comes upon a key transitional point. This point is the introduction of money. The introduction of money essentially puts the spoilage proviso into non-use as now one can appropriate more land than one needs and barter or sell the rest for a profit. The invention of money also leads to making land scarce, as it gives man the moral right to enlarge their possessions and also makes it possible to use an unlimited amount of the produce of the land. This, as mentioned earlier, is when Locke s fundamental idea for the necessity of government comes into the equation.

Individuals now enter a social contract to protect their right to life, liberty, and property. This social contract is the entrance into political society. Locke s theory also says that this right to property is one that has always existed, prior even to the state of nature. This is a right to which each individual brings to society in his own person. Therefore the newly created society does not create the right to property but rather now exists with the sole purpose of protecting that prior right. It is this key point on property rights that serve to explain Locke s reasoning on why people enter into a commonwealth and the type of commonwealth people enter into. Unlike Hobbes, who believed that the commonwealth should have an unlimited scope of powers, to, among other things, protect the people from themselves, Locke believed that the commonwealth should be a very minimalist government. Locke defined political power as

The right of making laws with penalties of death, and all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property [in the broad sense of life, liberty, and estate] and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good (Morgan,p.766).

The legitimacy of government in Locke s view was that after the entrance into the social contract the state cannot take any rights away from man but must rather serve to protect them. Political power of the state can have no right because this right is derived from the right of the individual man to protect himself and his property. Thus the executive and legislative powers used by civil government to protect property are nothing except the natural power of each man resigned into the hands of the whole. These rights are legitimate because it is a better way of protecting natural rights than the way they were protected in the state of nature, with the inconvenience of one being ones own judge, jury, and executioner and handing out punishment as one sees fit.

Locke conceives of us having a property in our own person. This type of self-ownership thesis has a lot of fault to it. His idea of property being in oneself seems to be influenced by the Roman law doctrine of occupatio. The Romans also believed that all creatures on land, sea or air, if taken by anyone immediately become his. The argument here is that Locke takes this doctrine and makes it his but ceases to elaborate on who decides this or how it is regulated, if regulated at all. This idea that we have a property in ourselves brings up the question of whether we can establish this right unto external objects. Locke believes that we can, but there is no one to regulate or make sure that we don t put our property unto an external object at the expense and disadvantage of someone else. History clearly shows that human nature is not such as Locke believed it but rather that we are capable of evil and aggression towards each other. In this case there will certainly be a need for some type of coercive force to protect one s property. The idea of minimal government with the purpose of only protecting property is a good one as people are not as dangerous as Hobbes believed but would still need some type of regulation and enforcement of property laws. Locke believed that humans are naturally good and peaceful because they were given a God given duty to improve the earth and themselves. This part of Locke s thought puts holes in his own spoilage proviso . Locke permits the privatization of bits of the world so long as there is enough left for others and nothing is spoiled. How can we improve the earth if we are only doing enough to survive for ourselves? Locke s own proviso is vulnerable to a regress argument as it clearly puts the duty to improve and progress to a halt. The idea of taking only enough for oneself and knowing to leave behind for others is questionable as well. Who regulates or decides on how much one takes? Is it instinctive to know how much to leave for others? It seems like Locke just picked this concept out of thin air and it does not hold any tested validity. That being the case than the next logical step would be the onset of inequality. This inequality starts from the rise of alienable private property and quickly moves to the inequality in the distribution of resources. This unequal distribution would than create a further rift of propertied and propertyless. Now a consequence of this is that the disadvantaged people must use the property that is naturally in them to labour for others.

The criticism of Locke s writings on property are that if one begins to really dissect the text there are a lot of questions brought up to the answers he gives. Although the significance and influence of John Locke s theories on property and government can be seen ingrained into many country s constitutions. His general ideas written more than four hundred years ago are still relevant and practised in today s world. A clear example is the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness written into the United States constitution that is clearly taken from Locke s beliefs on life, liberty and estate or in other words one s property.


Morgan,. ed. Classics of Moral and Political Theory. Second edition


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