In his first essay in a new series on John Locke, Smith explains some essential features of Locke’s case for private property.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

My last essay discussed John Locke’s theory of a negative commons. This was the moral status of natural resources prior to the emergence of private property, a situation in which every person had an equal right to use unowned land and other natural goods. I included this topic in my lengthy series on “Freethought and Freedom” because it was germane to understanding how natural‐​law philosophers during the seventeenth century moved from the traditional Christian doctrine of private property to a more secular approach. But it would be an unwarranted stretch to include additional essays on Locke within my series on freethought, so I hereby begin a new series devoted to Locke’s ideas. This series will discuss not only Locke’s theory of property in more detail but also other features of his political theory, such as his theory of government and his defense of the rights of resistance and revolution against established governments.

The most important source for understanding Locke’s justification of private property is the celebrated chapter “Of Property,” which comprises Chapter V of The Second Treatise of Government. But we also find significant remarks about property in Chapter IV (“Of Adam’s Title to Sovereignty by Donation”) of the First Treatise. Although most of my discussion is based on Locke’s treatment in the Second Treatise, I may occasionally draw upon his comments in the First Treatise.

According to Locke, in the “natural state”—that original condition in which every person had an equal right to use natural resources provided by the “spontaneous hand of Nature”—no one had “a private Dominion, exclusive of the rest of Mankind,” over those resources. But such resources would have been useless for human survival and well‐​being unless they could be appropriated by individuals for their personal use. So how can a transition from unowned resources to private ownership be morally justified? How can one person legitimately claim an exclusive right to use a resource that, in its natural state, could be used by anyone? Locke’s treatment of this problem remains highly controversial among scholars. His theory has been used to justify everything from laissez‐​faire to the welfare state to full‐​blown socialism. Which of these conflicting interpretations should be covered in my survey of Locke’s political ideas is a judgment call, and I frankly remain uncertain about my final decision. I fear that many of my readers will have little if any interest in the fine points of Lockean scholarship, however much those points may interest specialists. Fortunately perhaps, I can delay my decision until a later time. Before we can appreciate the ambiguity in some of Locke’s statements about property, we must first understand his overall approach. Hence the purpose of this essay (and probably the next installment as well) is to provide a barebones account of how John Locke justified private property, while postponing a consideration of the more controversial features until a later time.

There is another reason why an overview is desirable before I delve into more technical matters. Only a relative handful of my readers are likely to have actually read Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. The status of John Locke in the modern libertarian movement is rather like that of Adam Smith. Both figures are widely known to nonacademic libertarians, as are their leading ideas, but it is a safe guess that the major works of these philosophers remain largely unread. This is understandable. The workaday libertarian is more interested in ideas that he can use in the struggle to establish a free society than he is in arcane historical theories and controversies. And if this libertarian believes that he can find adequate justifications of private property in the writings of modern libertarian philosophers, such as Rothbard, Hayek, and Rand, then why should he spend his time reading earlier and quite possibly less satisfactory accounts?

As I have attempted to demonstrate throughout my many Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org essays, the issues discussed by early classical liberals are essential to understanding the origin and evolution of modern libertarian ideas. In addition, many of the internecine controversies among early classical liberals may be found, alive and kicking, in the modern libertarian movement. The fundamental problems attending an adequate defense of individual freedom are perennial; they arise again and again from one generation of libertarians to the next, however much the particular contexts may differ. There is much to be learned from reading the books of John Locke, Adam Smith, and other intellectual giants in the history of freedom—knowledge that is directly relevant to the problems confronted by modern libertarians.

Having presented my preliminary case for the relevance of John Locke, I shall now explain the basic principles that underlay his case for private property.

The key to Locke’s moral transition from common dominion to private ownership was his conception of self‐​ownership, or property in one’s person. As Locke put it in what was destined to become one of the most influential passages in the history of political thought:

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 placed it, it hath by his 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.

Locke continued:

He that is nourished by the Acorns he pickt up under an Oak, or the Apples he gathered from the Trees in the Wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. No Body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, When did they begin to be his? When he digested? Or when he eat? Or when he boiled? Or when he brought them home? Or when he pickt them up?

Locke answered these questions by selecting the last of these options. The acorns became the private property of the owner when he picked them up, for it was in the gathering that labor was first expended. “That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than Nature, the common Mother of all, had done, and so they became his private right.” But this raises a crucial question: “Was it a Robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in Common?” Locke replied that to require universal consent would lead to universal starvation. More is involved here than the practical problem of obtaining the permission of every person on earth. Morally speaking, such consent is not required because, according to both reason and revelation, humans “have a right to their Preservation.” Thus if even the right to eat acorns and other natural goods could not be morally justified without first obtaining the consent of every commoner, “Man had starved, notwithstanding the Plenty God had given him.” (It should be noted that self‐​preservation had long been defended as a fundamental right—indeed, as a duty—by natural‐​law philosophers. In the thirteenth century, for example, Thomas Aquinas maintained that “whatever is a means of preserving human life belongs to the natural law, and whatever impedes it is contrary to it.”)

When Locke wrote that “every Man has a Property in his own Person,” he was using “property” in its older meaning to signify rightful dominion over something. (See my discussion in The Philosophy of the Declaration of Independence: Part 2.) Hence it was quite common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to speak of property in one’s conscience, property in one’s freedom, property in one’s labor, property in one’s happiness, and even (as we find with James Madison) property in one’s time. Whereas we might say that “this computer is my property,” earlier philosophers might have said, “I have a property in this computer.” Locke included life, liberty, and estate (i.e., external goods) in his generic conception of property, so when he argued that the primary purpose of government is to protect property rights, he was not merely referring to material objects. Rather, he meant that a government should protect those fundamental rights (including the right to enjoy the fruits of our labor) that are essential to self‐​preservation and happiness.

Locke stressed labor as the foundation of private property because some form of labor is the basic method by which we sustain ourselves, even if that labor consists of nothing more than picking up acorns off the ground. Humans cannot survive without labor, so coercively to expropriate the fruits of another man’s labor is to violate his fundamental right of self‐​preservation. Labor is involved in every life‐​sustaining activity.

It has been said that Locke was the first philosopher to pinpoint labor as the essential factor in the original acquisition of property titles, but I cannot independently confirm this common claim with certainty. Although I am better versed than the average bear in the early literature on property, that literature is so extensive that I may have overlooked a natural‐​law philosopher who anticipated Locke’s stress on labor. Nevertheless, it 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? This interesting question has not received the attention it deserves, in my judgment, so I shall offer my own thoughts in a forthcoming essay.