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November 2015

John Locke: Some Qualifications in Locke’s Theory of Property

Smith explains how Locke dealt with some problems in the traditional Christian theory of private property.

This essay (and the next) discusses two qualifications in Locke’s theory of private property. The first is what Robert Nozick called the Lockean proviso, according to which labor establishes an exclusive right to unowned resources, “at least where there is enough, and as good left in common with others.” The second qualification, commonly called the “spoilage limitation,” states that a person may not claim ownership of so many natural resources that some of them spoil before he is able to use them.

The spoilage limitation arose in Locke’s reply to a possible objection to his labor theory of property, namely, that “any one may ingross as much as he will.”

To which I Answer, Not so. The same Law of Nature, that does by this means [labor] give us Property, does also bound that Property too. God has given us all things richly, I Tim. vi. 17. is the Voice of Reason confirmed by Inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a Property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for Man to spoil or destroy.

The interesting thing about Locke’s two qualifications is that he mentions them largely for the purpose of rebutting them. His qualifications incorporate traditional Christian claims that private property is the consequence of original sin, that it flows from the sin of avarice and generates even more avarice, and that any person who owns property in excess of what he needs to satisfy his basic needs is obligated to use that property to further the common good rather than to promote his own selfish interests. It is quite possible, in my judgment, that Locke included his qualifications to acknowledge the traditional objections to private property. And though Locke agreed with those qualifications in principle, he went on to show how they have little if any relevance to his labor theory of property. The upshot of Locke’s argument is that the institution of private property is not a zero-sum game in which one person’s gain is another person’s loss. Rather, private property is a positive-sum game, an institution that benefits every member of a society. In short, private property is a precondition of a good life for every person.

My thesis, though conjectural to some extent, is plausible given the effort that Locke invested to show how his qualifications are largely irrelevant to his labor theory of private property. Here it is necessary to understand Locke’s distinction between the early stages of a society, before the introduction of money, and the more advanced stages of society, when gold became the common medium of exchange. And since much of Locke’s discussion appears in his defense of the private ownership of land, we should understand his position on that topic before proceeding. Locke believed that land, like any other natural resource, requires labor to make it useful to man, and that such labor gives the laborer the right to claim exclusive jurisdiction over that land. As he put it:

But the chief matter of Property being now not the Fruits of the Earth, and the Beasts that subsist on it, but the Earth it self; as that which takes in and caries with it all the rest: I think it is plain, that Property in that too is acquired as the former. As much Land as a Man, Tills, Plants, Improves, Cultivates, and can use the Product of, so much is his Property. He by his Labour does, as it were, inclose it from the Common. Nor will it invalidate his right to say, Every body else has an equal Title to it; and therefore he cannot appropriate, he cannot inclose, without the Consent of all his Fellow-Commoners, all Mankind. God, when he gave the World in common to all Mankind, commanded Man also to labour, and the penury of his Condition required it of him. God and his Reason commanded him to subdue, i.e., improve it for the benefit of Life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that in Obedience to this Command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his Property [his labor], which another had no Title to, nor could without injury take from him.

When, “in the first Ages of the World,” people claimed the exclusive right to own the parcels of land on which they had labored, they did not violate the qualification that enough land be left for others to use. A significant implication of Locke’s labor theory of original acquisition is that it severely limits the amount of land that any one person may legitimately claim during the stage of original acquisition. A single person can cultivate or otherwise improve only modest parcels of land. Hence in the early stages of social evolution this natural limitation of labor functioned (morally speaking) as an assurance that the land owned by one person would leave enough land for others. Here is how Locke put it:

The measure of property, Nature has well set, by the Extent of Men’s Labour, and the Conveniency of Life: No Man’s Labour could subdue, or appropriate all, nor could his Enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any Man, this way, to intrench upon the rights of another, or acquire, to himself, a Property, to the Prejudice of his Neighbour, who would still have room, for as good, and as large a Possession (after the other had taken out his) as before it was appropriated. This measure did confine every Man’s Possession, to a very moderate Proportion, and such as he might appropriate to himself, without Injury to any Body in the first Ages of the World….

Of course Locke knew that the history of property claims to land frequently did not conform to moral principles; rulers in particular claimed jurisdiction over huge areas of land. But those claims were illegitimate, according to Locke’s theory. Indeed, later Lockeans, such as Thomas Hodgskin, used the labor theory of property to criticize the large landed estates claimed by kings, feudal lords, and aristocrats, because those estates had originally been acquired by conquest and political coercion, not by labor (or voluntary transfer). (See my discussion of Hodgskin here.) It is therefore exceedingly odd that Robert Nozick posed the following question (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1975, p. 174) in regard to “Locke’s theory of acquisition.”

What are the boundaries of what labor is mixed with? If a private astronaut clears a place on Mars, has he mixed his labour with (so that he comes to own) the whole planet, the whole uninhabited universe, or just a particular plot?

How could anyone who has even skimmed Locke’s discussion of property seriously ask whether his labor theory would justify a claim to own an entire planet when the claimant had only worked a miniscule part of it? Of course, anyone is free to ask any questions about a philosophical theory. For instance, I could ask whether Nozick wanted Anarchy, State, and Utopia to be taken seriously, or whether he intended his book to be an elaborate satire of political philosophy. Some questions are useful and reasonable insofar as they may help to clarify what a philosopher meant to say or to pinpoint a specific ambiguity or problem, whereas other questions are so off-the-wall that they deserve a heartfelt Doh! from Homer Simpson.

But Nozick’s silly question does present an opportunity to contrast Locke’s labor theory of original acquisition with its chief competitor, the occupancy theory. As I noted in the first essay in this series:

[I]t is safe to say that the major philosophers who preceded Locke posited occupation, not labor, as the moral foundation of private property. Indeed, both Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf discussed “occupation” in considerable detail. So why did Locke abandon this widespread focus on occupation and argue for labor instead?  

Various reasons contributed to Locke’s substitution of labor for occupancy, but one thing is certain: The occupancy theory provided a convenient rationale for rulers to claim property rights (in the form of political jurisdiction) over vast areas of land that were untouched by human labor. When explorers “discovered” a new country, they typically planted a flag and claimed that land mass on behalf of their king. Granted, this seems to stretch the meaning of “occupancy” beyond what we normally mean by that word, but in the hands of Samuel Pufendorf—who devoted an entire chapter to the topic (“Of Occupancy”) in On the Law of Nature and Nations (1672)—and other defenders of occupancy theory, it was a relatively easy task to show how occupancy theory justified political dominion over virgin land. No such political rationale was available to defenders of the labor theory, however, and it is reasonable to assume that Locke had this problem in mind when developing his labor theory of property. Moreover, given how the labor theory, in contrast to the occupancy theory, tended to limit the powers of government, it is understandable why most classical liberals followed in Locke’s footsteps.

Much more needs to be said about Locke’s qualifications, so I shall conclude this discussion in my next essay.

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