Critical Analysis of John Locke’s Theory of Property Rights in Chapter Five of the Second Treatise of Government

Erik F. Meinhardt Philosophy 230 Social & Political Philosophy Macpherson 22 May 2007

This paper aims to critically analyze John Locke’s theory of property rights as introduced in chapter five of his Second Treatise of Government. It will present the theory in general, move to explain the theory’s function in relation to the Second Treatise of Government as a whole, discuss the problems of the theory, and finally evaluate the fairness of this kind of property distribution. Locke argues for property rights by starting from assumptions about humankind’s nature, then moving to explain how these assumptions allow for private ownership of property. Locke starts in Section 25 by saying that it is a natural right of mankind to preserve himself by eating, drinking and doing like things by taking from nature. Locke interprets this actually as an obligation than people have to God. Of course, he takes a great leap in the following sections describing deductively how this assumption of taking from nature for self-preservation leads to man having a property over anything. Section 26 states that God has “given the world to men in common” and the ability to make use of that world’s resources. Section 27 goes on to state what people do own even in the state of nature, namely their person and the labor which their body produces. Thus, any object of the state of nature that a man manipulates with his work and labor transfers into his possession. It is this labor which separates that which is owned “in common” and that which is privately owned [section 28]. In section 31 we find Locke providing a limitation to his property rights. This has commonly been called the spoilage proviso and limits people to take only that which they can use before it spoils (to limit waste). But all land that a man can take and improve with his labor belongs to him alone. That is to say that no one else has equal title to the products or land as they did before someone’s labor was involved. Section 33 contains the second proviso, called the sufficiency proviso. This limits the amount of property anyone can take to only the point where “there [is] still enough, and as good left.” Locke requires enough land to go around for everyone. At the point where there is no longer enough land, Locke points out in section 34 that non-owners must labor on owned land to sustain their lives. Section 37 defends capitalism in general by claiming that with land being owned and cultivated, human happiness overall is increased. He actually says later that a

nation where everything is already owned is better and more productive. He points to the fact that at the time large pieces of land in America were unowned, but those living in those areas were not of the same quality of life as those in Britain, for example, where everything was owned. Labor makes land ten times better than “land of an equal richness lying waste in common.” When people own land, they care about it more and thus make it more productive than it was before, Locke argues. He emphasizes without question that it is not the land that is valuable itself, but the labor applied to it. It is this labor that founded property rights, after all. Section 46 rids Locke of the spoilage proviso, making private property attainable by means of money. The ability to sell a good before it spoils allows anyone to produce more than he can use for himself because money is a lasting object unlike perishable food. Money, Locke argues in section 50, is by a “tacit and voluntary consent” of men a way to barter and exchange possessions. One can see that Locke has basically made it so that his provisos are no longer valid in his theory of property rights. Money eliminates spoilage and waste as well as the need for enough land to go around. When one connects the dots, one will see that property to Locke is a natural right of man. Sustaining oneself is one’s duty to God and a natural right itself, and it is clear that the only way to do this is to exploit the land which God gave humanity in common. When one does this and adds one’s labor to the land owned in common, the product and land is transferred as property to the person doing the work. People enter into civil society, Locke argues, to protect this natural right and secure their duty to sustain themselves to God. Life, liberty, and “estate” are essential for man and need to be protected by some kind of enforcement authority. Civil government is Locke’s way of guaranteeing the right to property, as it is for the other rights. Many problems are associated with Locke’s theory on property. Several of these problems lead to problems of unfairness, which will be addressed later. The first and most major problem deals with contextual reasons behind Locke’s theory. According to Introduction to Political Theory by John Hoffman and Paul Graham, John Locke formed

his theory of property rights in order to reconcile the differing philosophies of Christianity and newly founded capitalism. When capitalism was rising around John Locke’s time, it presented a major problem for the church. Capitalism produces a lot of waste and unneeded production. A goal of capitalism is not to just pounce on existing demand, but to create manufactured wants of such “superficial” things like fashionable clothes. Locke acknowledges that class inequalities will necessarily result in private ownership of property since only some people will be owners and others will be wage laborers. The poverty created from private ownership reduces the ability of people to sustain themselves. This contradicts Christian tradition and dogma. In addition to the inability to sustain oneself, as Locke points out, commonly owned property was the norm before capitalism. It resulted in less famine and poverty than capitalism, and Locke needed to reconcile this and other things with Christianity. It seems as if it was difficult to have a capitalist Christian society with increases in poverty, increases in artificial wants, waste, private property and people’s inability to fulfill their duties to God. Locke explains these things shoddily by arguing that utilitarianism is the more important and more Christian than any of the problems of capitalism. He acknowledges and supports inequalities and a class system. To Locke, the common good is more important than common ownership. The premises for these arguments lie in religious thinking, which I think presents a serious problem. A more secular approach to property rights is more suitable for modern justifications of private ownership. What is more is that this reconciliation of capitalism and Christianity is what makes his theory so unfair. To be fairer, Locke should have stuck with traditional Christian dogma on the subject of property rights. Obviously, not many people find class inequalities and poverty fair situations. Locke would say that fairness only rests in the justice of the initial acquisition (explained above) and the result of private property. True, capitalism does provide better products for people, but that does not necessarily mean we need to accept unchecked capitalism

which is what Locke argues for (his checks are nullified by money) at the expensive of the impoverished. Under Locke’s theory, a major problem exists with ownership of property. Certain people are born to be owners as a result of inheritance and certain others are born to be wage laborers. This creates a class structure which is obviously tipped to benefit the owner (as he owns the labor of the wage laborer, the land upon which the laborer works, and the product of the laborer’s work). Locke sees no problem in this creation of a class structure. Locke sets up his theory so that the sufficiency proviso—that is that people can only own property if there is enough for everyone to own—is nullified by money. I find this response inadequate. It leaves a gaping problem in Locke’s overall argument. It makes no sense to say that the first to arrive on land and work it posses it and then rightfully transfer their property to their children in the form of inheritance. The class structure is what the next generation is inheriting in this situation. Ancestors of an owner did nothing to deserve the inheritance of said property and the ancestors of wage laborers were never given a chance to own anything. Even in the case of the initial acquisition of property, it seems unfair to say that only those who can work are allowed to own anything. It just so happens that Locke was also supporting something undemocratic in his theory of property rights. In his time, only property owners could vote. People who did not own property for the most part had limited rights. The reason for joining into society is to protect one’s rights, in Locke’s view, but it makes no sense for non-property owners to join into this society if their rights will not receive any protection. Marxist theorists can better extrapolate on the problems associated with a class structured society and the exploitation of wage laborers, but it is important to note that it seems grossly unfair that under Locke’s system those who put labor into a land area are not entitled to any of what they produce. Owners have sole rights over the product. I think systems have been devised which are more fair—namely socialism and justice as fairness. These do not require religious explanations for property rights, nor do they provide shoddy unfair explanations of economic systems.

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