Property: To What Extent?

John Locke is credited with being the most influential English writer on those who declared independence from Britian and put forth the goal to “form a more perfect union.” His Second Treatise on Government is, perhaps, the most powerful piece describing the concepts that the people are sovereign and that government can only be done by consent and that once those who are appointed to govern stray from the mandate given by the People, that sovereign body (the majority of the People) can recall them and reassert its power to govern.

In this book Locke also gives an explanation of property that is reasoned, reasonable, and not capitalistic. In fact, Locke is considered by many to be the father of liberal economics (today’s libertarian economic viewpoint) as his ideas laid the groundwork for Adam Smith’s descriptions of a free market, of Frederic Bastiat’s utopia of free exchange of goods and services, and of Ludwig von Mises’ explanation of subjective value and the natural laws of human action and choice.

Locke identifies critical concepts regarding property from a Christian and libertarian perspective. This post discusses the first three.

1. Property is given in common to all humanity:

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: or revelation, which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah, and his sons, it is very clear, that God, as king David says, Psal. cxv. 16. has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.

2. Individuals have the right to make something their own as they use it, appropriating it to themselves by its use.

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. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. The fruit, or venison, which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his, i.e. a part of him, that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life.

3. What we remove from the state of nature for our own immediate use becomes ours, just as our body and our labor is ours.

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…at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

This last phrase is the key to understanding the legality of property in its natural, “inalienable” state.

Per Locke, one can only remove something from the common property of mankind if “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” Any other construct for property requires force and the state. This natural principle, however, is almost impossible to enforce from a civil and political standpoint. It borders on socialism, limiting the amount of something that one can own. It depends on the goodness of the taker to not take so much that there is not sufficient left. It also doesn’t apply well in realms where a resource is limited, like land (or water in the Atacama desert).

So although I really like what Locke says here (and what he says later–in future posts), I don’t know that it solves any of our questions regarding the role of the state in either its socialistic tendency to force equality of property (or at least preserving “enough and as good” by limiting the amount one can take to himself) or its corporatistic tendency to promote centralization of property in the hands of few.

4 Replies to “Property: To What Extent?”

  1. I’m basically ok with what Locke is saying here, on its face, and I basically agree with you, Mike, about the problems posed. How do we determine whether “enough” has been left to others, when an individual takes something for her own? And even if we could ensure that “enough” is left to others, how do we justify one individual taking more than another — is it just “first come, first serve”? Or “take what you can physically defend”?

    This is where I favor the role of governance. Libertarians get caught up in talking about “the state” — I don’t care much whether we call the system of governance “the state” or not. I’m not sure what qualifies a system as a “state,” or why that matters much. I simply think that a community (or society) can agree on (a) how they will go about agreeing to things, or how rules will be made and enforced, and (b) what those rules will be.

    Sometimes this system is not actually agreed to — it is imposed by someone with power (e.g., dictator). Sometimes it is agreed to, but huge swaths of the community disagree (e.g., when the Constitution was ratified, or when legislation passes by simple majority vote).

    But regardless of the merits of any given system — and whether or not we call it a “state” — the bottom line, relevant to this post, is that it seems to me there has to be some kind of system in place to govern property. Otherwise, it’s a nasty, “first come,” “strongest wins” kind of world.

  2. How much of the natural law do we want to turn into civil law? I think that human nature responds best to love and freedom, not external force (which is what civil law is). I agree that we can’t resort to a “first come”, “might makes right” method to property distribution. However, concentration of control of property into the hands of a Vanguard makes me even more uncomfortable. Is there a way to check the Vanguard and make sure that it doesn’t exploit the people?

    Hence, I am working to help individuals with the same religious ethos as I have to see property as a gift from God, to be used as Locke states. Have his words been twisted by those who would use them for their benefit? Absolutely, as were Marx’s words. Thus we have to take Locke at his word and promote the concepts that individual Christians must limit their property to those limits stated by him (both Locke and Christ…and Isaiah and many others). Otherwise our options are profound inequality (under capitalism) or profounder inequality (under a Vanguard).

  3. 1. I don’t really believe in “natural law.” Unless you’re defining it in a way different from how I define it.

    2. I don’t agree that inequality is necessarily worse under something like state-run socialism than it is under capitalism. In fact, I think equality tends to be much better in Euro-style social democracies than it is in the U.S.

  4. Natural law is that law which exists in a state of nature, the natural consequences of our actions, the cause and effect with naturally govern everything, every decision, every individual. That’s how I define it.

    And I agree that there is more equality under a Euro-style social democracy than in the U.S.

    Regarding the Vanguard: I understand that it’s supposed to disappear, but I don’t see that happening. Do you have a good historical example of that or is it that we haven’t given socialism enough time to get there?

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