Locke On Property

One of the more fascinating chapters in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government explains his position on property. He ties his view in with his doctrine of natural human rights which informed the thinking of our founders as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of Locke on his walls (one of two I am given to understand) and his “Declaration of Independence” is thoroughly Lockian, as is his Virginia Constitution. In any event, Locke thought that property was a natural right, along with life and liberty. Note that Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase which was later changed to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Property is a natural right because in a state of nature, before there are any civil laws to protect it, we have a right to as much property as we can take and use. Note that “use” is a key here. Locke  places a boundary on this type of acquisition–a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to his advantage, making sure to leave some for the next person. If, for example, I chance upon apple trees in the state of nature I have a right to as many apples as I can reasonably consume before the next harvest. I ought not take more than I can eat or so many that others who might have a right to them as well cannot find enough to eat. That is, I should only take as many apples as I can eat before they go bad; if I take too many apples and some of them rot and go to waste, I have overextended my natural rights of acquisition. Others might have been able to eat those apples. One ought only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it–building house on it or farming on it–but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste.


The invention of money clouds the picture somewhat, but the principle remains the same. The value of money is merely symbolic: it stands for the labor extended in creating products. I have a right to collect more money than I actually need because money does not spoil. But, at the same time, I have no right to more than I could possibly need in my lifetime, especially if it means that others will have less than they need to live on. It’s a “zero-sum” game here — even in the case of money. There’s only so much to go around.

Even John Calvin writing a century before Locke and usually credited with formulating the Protestant Work Ethic, urges restraint — and bear in mind that this is the man who regarded great wealth as a sign of God’s favor:

“. . .many today look for an excuse for excessive self-indulgence in the use of material things. They take for granted that their liberty must not be restrained in any way, but that it should be left to every man’s conscience to do whatever he think is right.  . . but because Scripture has laid down general rules for the use of material possessions, we should keep within the limits laid down. . . . Many are so obsessed with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted, are changed into hard metal or become like painted figures.”

If we now alter our focus somewhat and think about our own society in which 1% of the people control the vast majority of wealth in the country and the numbers of poor and needy grow daily, thousands of whom have no place to sleep or sufficient food to eat, we can see where Locke might have some serious problems. He was convinced, as was Adam Smith (the father of free-market capitalist theory), that humans would be guided by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others and their natural tendencies towards acquisition would be tempered by that sensitivity, as was urged by such men as John Calvin. In other words, the concept of the “free market” was couched within an ethical framework which stressed human sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves: people would care about one another out of a sense of shared humanity, as “laid down by Scripture.” The notion that some would accumulate billions of dollars while others around them starve was unheard of, not even considered. It clearly violates the fundamental Lockian principle about the natural right we all have to property. To quote Benjamin Disraeli,

“Riches, position, and power have only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the People.”

In sum, our present situation violates the fundamental moral principle — and Locke’s notion of natural rights was a moral precept, not an economic one — that we have a right only to that which we can reasonably use in our lifetime while making sure there is enough for others who might be in need. On its face it is abhorrent that so few control so much of the wealth in this country and so many of them seem to have no sense of shared humanity with others in need — though there are notable exceptions, such as Bill Gates and a handful of wealthy athletes who make an effort to help those on this earth who go hungry to bed (if they have one) each night. I would argue that those with great wealth have a moral obligation to help others who have less than they do. At the very least, they have no right to more than they require to live a healthy and happy life.


10 thoughts on “Locke On Property

  1. And, being a former Republican I can say that the greatest con is the party of wealth can tell the working class that it better that I have more as I am a job creator. They also go along with it, as they aspire to be like that. Yet, we now have fallen greatly in the ability to achieve the American dream.

    I am all for merit and achievement, but we must have some social underpinnings that don’t let hard working people fall behind so much. We have those with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the minimum wage, but we need to do a little more to make sure someone who works full time can get by.

    To our President’s credit, he did reach the working class, but won’t they fail to see is the man has a history of falling short on delivery and has tended to think more of himself. I do hope he does help these folks, but I am not optimistic.

    • I doubt seriously that this man will help anyone besides himself! Let’s hope that, at the very least, he doesn’t hurt the middle-classes even more than his predecessors.

  2. I wonder why it is that in general (excluding the likes of the Gates family and a handful of others) that mankind is the only species to think they are better, more deserving as individuals than other species? Good post, my friend … much to ponder on here.

    • The curious thing is that the very rich honestly believe they have a right to the immense wealth they have and which they cannot spend in their lifetime. It’s not a right at all: it’s a privilege and one (according to Balzac) they achieved by dishonest means in many, many cases.means.

      • Agreed. And you know the really sad part? They still have not learned that timeless lesson that “money can’t buy happiness”. It is so true, yet the rich … they just don’t get it. They may be rich in money, but they are poor in character and the things that matter most in life.

  3. I have to say, this is maybe among the most prescient observations on the Historical Record made well before the Modern Era, and elaborated in so many crucial ways as Testimony to the Intellectual and moral Evolution of Mankind. Full Stop. Congrats, Mr. Curtler…your elevation of this Social Accord (General Will) must prove convincing to all those with listening ears and a ready heart integral to our Sustainability as Free Society. NOW you’re talking. More Word please. Kudos!

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