The Ideas of John Locke on the Preservation of Property

Categories: John Locke

Locke says that the state has a responsibility to preserve people’s private property. He (1688) says “The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into common-wealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property” (p. 262). The state has to set laws which establish the rights of the people to own property. It has to have judges to decide between disputes. And it has to have people to execute the law once it’s passed. The reason why people join a society is to get this particular protection for their property, or else they would have remained in a state of nature.

For the same reason they have to protect it they can’t take it away as well. Since people join a society to preserve their property not to have it taken away. If the state would have the right to take it away it would be as if they wouldn’t have any property at all.

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Since, Locke (1688) says, “I have truly no property in that, which another can by right take from me, when he pleases, against my consent” (p. 266). People would be a lot better off living in a state of nature where at least, they have a right to try to defend themselves when someone tried to take their property. They would never willingly agree for the state to have the right to take their property whenever they pleased. In order for Locke to come up with his opinions of the role of state in regarding property he assumed a number of things including people have a right to their own preservation, the way to acquire property is through labor in the land, and that land is better acquired than lying not toiled in the common.

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Locke (1688) says, “that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation” (p. 250). As soon as a person is born he automatically has the right to try to preserve himself by any means possible, as long as he does not infringe on someone else’s property. And that god gave humans the world and everything in it including the fruit it produces, and the animals it feeds. People have a right to all of it to preserve themselves. He (1688) then says that in order to preserve ourselves we need “a means to appropriate them some way or another”( p. 251), and the way to do it is through labor. He (1688) says that “every man has a property in his own person” (p. 251), and therefore the work of his hand belongs to him as well. So by adding labor to property we add something of our own to it the “labour put a distinction between them and common” (Locke, 1688 p. 251). By causing a change in the land with our property we take it out of “the hands of nature” (Locke, 1688 p. 252) and make it our own. He then says that by people acquiring land they are not taking away land from anybody else since there is so much of it. And not only are they are not doing anything wrong they are actually doing a good thing for every one else. Since the land left in the common, land that nobody uses is like wasting. He (1688) says that land that is worked on and some gain comes from it is “ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common” (p. 254). When people work on the land, they cause everyone to gain since they can give people product from the land by trading it for other things. In conclusion, the government has to protect people’s property since people have a natural right to own it and that is the reason why they joined the society. That is the only way to have a proper government, a government the people will want to be under.

Locke begins by saying that God gave the world to mankind. Every feature of the world was “common” to man, meaning that the world belonged to everyone. When God gave the world to man, he also gave man reason to make the best use out of it. “The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being(Locke, 18).” We have to remember that all these things, such as soil, trees, and fruits,are here for everyone to use, but are of no use unless they are removed from their natural state in some way. How are they removed from their natural state that God created them in? Labour is a property in itself but also leads to the creation of private property. A property is something that someone owns. Locke says that “every man has a property in his own person. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his (Locke,19).” Labour is a property of man, something man owns, and by the means of labour, man is able to remove something out of it’s natural state. When this object is removed out of it’s natural state by labour, it excludes the common right of other men to the object, thus becoming the property of the labourer.

From this concept of labour, comes the question of how to measure property. “The measure of property is determined by the extent of man’s labour and conveniences of life (Locke, 22).” God gave us earth, more specifically ground, but without labour. In this case the ground is useless. Man was forced to labour as a means of survival. Without labour, man would not have the essentials, such as food and shelter, which are needed to survive. The outcome of man’s labour is his property. God forced men to labour (or have property),thus creating the condition of life. The rule of propriety states that every man is allowed to posses as many products of nature as he was capable of laboring. If these products perished in his possession before he was able to use them, he would be taking away from others, an action that was punishable. This rule applies to determining the amount of property one can acquire. As the population increased and as property took on value, there was a need for boundaries between the private properties of different owners. “For it is labour indeed that puts the difference of value on every thing (Locke, 25).” What Locke is saying here is that the more labour that is put into harvesting a corn field, the more the corn the proprietor will get out of the land, and the more value the land will have. Locke says “of the products of the earth useful to the life of man nine tenths are the effects of labour (Locke, 25).” In effect, the increase of land meant an increase in the employment of land, which built the foundations for the cities, industry, and government that emerged. Private property led to bartering, usually trading non-perishable items such as money, for perishable items such as fruit. As Locke states it, man is “exceeding the bounds of his just property not lying in the largeness of his possession (Locke,28).” The invention of money, a private property, gave man the opportunity to enlarge his possessions, status, and wealth. Locke’s theory of property emerged in the sixteenth century. We need to examine a scenario to understand how Locke’s theory applies to the nineteenth century. When the Gallup Poll conducts a census, it sends questionnaires to the population that it needs to receive information from. For example, staticians that work for the Gallup Poll are trying to receive information about the lives of working parents.

The poll sends questionnaires only to parents that work. When Mr. Jones, CEO president, reads the question “How does working a night shift affect your child’s life?” he is going to interpret it differently then Mrs.Smith, the librarian, when she reads it. Why? Because each person comes from a different background. Society, political events, family life, social life, time period, and many other factors influence the way a person views something. It is merely impossible to find a question that will have the same meaning to each person. How can Locke’s universally known theory be applied to each person? The answer to this question is that Locke’s theory of property can not incorporate each person into it’s meaning. The information that Locke wrote applied to the sixteenth century. This is by no means Locke’s fault because he could not predict the way of life in the nineteenth century. I am sympathetic with Locke’s viewpoint. To an extent I agree with every point he makes. What I do not agree with is the fact that his theory excludescertain people, such as the poor and disabled. God gave the world to mankind for everyone to share. God created the world so that everything, including everyone would be equal. We know that the world was useless without labour. What Locke failed to include in his theory was that certain people such as the disabled may not be able to use their bodies for labour. This means that they are unable to produce their own food, shelter, and other necessities to survive.The outcome of man’s labour is his property.Does this mean that a disabled person can not have the necessities for survival? God forced men to labour(to survive),thus creating the condition of life. If a person is not able to supply physical labour, does this mean he does not have the right to survive? God created the condition of life, thus causing the disabled to be unequal.

Locke says, “every man has a property in his own person (Locke,19),”referring to the labour of one’s body. If man does not have labour does he not have property? The same concept applies to people who are poor. Poor people have nothing of value, no goods to trade for land, so how are they supposed to provide for themselves? They could work for others, but what if they have no skill? Man was forced to labour as means of survival. Does being poor take away the right to survive? God gave the world to mankind but he left it in the hands of man to use, distribute,and place value upon. The extent of labour leads to the extent of wealth, which can be traced back to God and his creation (the world). Those who are excluded in the acquisition of property are the misfortunate and also result from God and his creation.”One gave title to the other. So that God, by commanding to subdue, gave authority so far to appropriate: and the condition of human life, which requires labour and materials to work on, necessarily introduces private possessions (Locke,22).”

Mathew Jelonkiewicz Answered Question #2 Locke’s Ideas on Property John Locke was considered one of the first modern liberal thinkers of our times. His ideas and theories permeate throughout many of the democratic world’s constitutions. He authored many essays during his lifetime but one of the more famous ones was the Second Treatise on Government, attributed to him only after passing. This writing is concerned with individual man coming together into a political society and outlines the type of government that is needed to help this coming together of people. The Second Treatise of Government has many key elements such as natural rights, social contract, government by consent and the right of revolution. But unquestionably all of these elements are a precursor to Locke’s Raison D’Etre of government, “The great and chief end, therefore of man’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under civil government is the preservation of their property.” For Locke, natural law, or law in the state of nature, begins and ends with the natural right of property. Locke believed primitive man existed in a state of nature, which was one of peace, goodwill, and preservation.

In this state, property was common in the sense that everyone had an equal right to draw subsistence from whatever was offered in nature. Man had a natural right to that with which he mixed his labour. The fundamental idea behind this theory on private property was that by expending ones internal energy (owns labour power) upon something, that item became a part of oneself, or one’s private property. This theory on property contained a second part, sometimes referred to as the spoilage proviso. The idea behind the spoilage proviso was that one was entitled to take out of the common only as much as one could make use of to ones advantage before it spoiled. Whatever is taken beyond this is considered more than ones share and belonged to others. At this point Locke’s theory on the origins of property, while still in the state of nature comes upon a key transitional point. This point is the introduction of money. The introduction of money essentially puts the spoilage proviso into non-use as now one can appropriate more land than one needs and barter or sell the rest for a profit. The invention of money also leads to making land scarce, as it gives man the moral right to enlarge their possessions and also makes it possible to “use” an unlimited amount of the produce of the land. This, as mentioned earlier, is when Locke’s fundamental idea for the necessity of government comes into the equation. Individuals now enter a social contract to protect their right to life, liberty, and property. This social contract is the entrance into political society. Locke’s theory also says that this right to property is one that has always existed, prior even to the state of nature. This is a right to which each individual brings to society in his own person.

Therefore the newly created society does not create the right to property but rather now exists with the sole purpose of protecting that prior right. It is this key point on property rights that serve to explain Locke’s reasoning on why people enter into a commonwealth and the type of commonwealth people enter into. Unlike Hobbes, who believed that the commonwealth should have an unlimited scope of powers, to, among other things, protect the people from themselves, Locke believed that the commonwealth should be a very minimalist government. Locke defined political power as “The right of making laws with penalties of death, and all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property [in the broad sense of life, liberty, and estate] and of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good”(Morgan,p.766). The legitimacy of government in Locke’s view was that after the entrance into the social contract the state cannot take any rights away from man but must rather serve to protect them. Political power of the state can have no right because this right is derived from the right of the individual man to protect himself and his property. Thus the executive and legislative powers used by civil government to protect property are nothing except the natural power of each man resigned into the hands of the whole. These rights are legitimate because it is a better way of protecting natural rights than the way they were protected in the state of nature, with the inconvenience of one being ones own judge, jury, and executioner and handing out punishment as one sees fit. Locke conceives of us having a property in our own person. This type of self-ownership thesis has a lot of fault to it. His idea of property being in oneself seems to be influenced by the Roman law doctrine of occupatio. The Romans also believed that all creatures on land, sea or air, if taken by anyone immediately become his.

The argument here is that Locke takes this doctrine and makes it his but ceases to elaborate on who decides this or how it is regulated, if regulated at all. This idea that we have a property in ourselves brings up the question of whether we can establish this right unto external objects. Locke believes that we can, but there is no one to regulate or make sure that we don’t put our property unto an external object at the expense and disadvantage of someone else. History clearly shows that human nature is not such as Locke believed it but rather that we are capable of evil and aggression towards each other. In this case there will certainly be a need for some type of coercive force to protect one’s property. The idea of minimal government with the purpose of only protecting property is a good one as people are not as dangerous as Hobbes believed but would still need some type of regulation and enforcement of property laws. Locke believed that humans are naturally good and peaceful because they were given a God given duty to improve the earth and themselves. This part of Locke’s thought puts holes in his own “spoilage proviso”. Locke permits the privatization of bits of the world so long as there is enough left for others and nothing is spoiled. How can we improve the earth if we are only doing enough to survive for ourselves? Locke’s own proviso is vulnerable to a regress argument as it clearly puts the duty to improve and progress to a halt. The idea of taking only enough for oneself and knowing to leave behind for others is questionable as well. Who regulates or decides on how much one takes?

Is it instinctive to know how much to leave for others? It seems like Locke just picked this concept out of thin air and it does not hold any tested validity. That being the case than the next logical step would be the onset of inequality. This inequality starts from the rise of alienable private property and quickly moves to the inequality in the distribution of resources. This unequal distribution would than create a further rift of propertied and propertyless. Now a consequence of this is that the disadvantaged people must use the property that is naturally in them to labour for others. The criticism of Locke’s writings on property are that if one begins to really dissect the text there are a lot of questions brought up to the answers he gives. Although the significance and influence of John Locke’s theories on property and government can be seen ingrained into many country’s constitutions. His general ideas written more than four hundred years ago are still relevant and practised in today’s world. A clear example is the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness written into the United States constitution that is clearly taken from Locke’s beliefs on life, liberty and estate or in other words one’s property. Bibliography Morgan,. ed. Classics of Moral and Political Theory. Second edition

John Locke believes that man has a right to private property. According to Locke, God gave man this plentiful earth, with all of its plants and animals, to work on and nourish our bodies with. God gave us this earth to “make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience” (135). Since our bodies are properly ours, the “labour of his [our] body” is also properly ours, so “whatsoever then he removes out of the state… thereby makes it his property” (136). Locke is very clear and concise on this premise. Locke then describes why it is just for individuals to claim parts of God’s gift to all of “man in common” (135). Locke explains that the labor involved in removing things out of its state of nature “puts a distinction between them and common” (136). Therefore, he explains, “it is the taking any part of what is common, and removing it out of the state of nature leaves it in, which begins the property” (136). In short, labor creates property. However, this same theory also limits the amount of property one can have. Since God gave us the earth to use “to the best advantage of life,” anyone who lets the land perish and rot has “offended against the common law of nature” (140). Therefore, one can only possess as much land as they can cultivate and use, without wasting anything. Locke does point out, however, that giving things away, or trading them, before they perish is permissible. However, Locke explains that the agreement to use money changes this natural limitation. Money is not like fruit, crops or cattle, because it cannot perish: “Money knows no limit” (135). Therefore, “there is no limit to the private wealth we can accumulate as long as we trade our perishable goods for that imperishable store of value, money” (135). Locke’s theory is very well thought out. However, in terms of money, he never specifies whether or not it is just to make money from money; from interest or investing. I cannot arrive at how he would react to this. On one hand, Locke may approve of this because some amount of work is still involved: investors must research their moves, as well as work to make the money in the first place. On the other hand, Locke may disdain this because making money from money seems to go away from the way God intended the gift of the earth’s resources to be.

When one tries to decide whether Locke was misguided in trying to account for all the legitimate functions of government in terms of “the preservation of property”, it is important to qualify the statement by deciding what exactly Locke meant as property in the first place.

Locke states that “every Man has a property in his own Persons”, this is a difficult notion to grasp given our own modern definition of property. Our “persons” are certainly not a property in the sense of being something we could see to someone else, and the right to trade away or alienate something is certainly a major part of the modern meaning of the notion of property. However, the word ‘property’ in the seventeenth century was often used more widely to denote any rights of a fundamental kind, and fundamental rights were often claimed to be inalienable. For Locke therefore, human beings are primarily centres of rights and duties (rather than, as with Hobbes, centres of appetites). The right and duty or ‘property’ of humanity requires, first and foremost, our survival. However, Locke is also at pains to state that once “our own Preservation comes not into competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of Mankind.” The extent to which I may exercise my political liberty to ensure my own survival therefore, is constrained to the ability to which you may exercise yours. Locke proposes that one must derive our political power as this is the “state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit within the bounds of the law of nature.”

There is no doubt, that the society that transpires out of a Lockean government offers individuals some of the qualities that one would expect to find in a modern liberal democracy that are missing in a seventeenth century government. However, the overwhelming sense that one gets from reading Locke is that he moulded his political doctrine simply to give individuals private property rights that protect it from royal appropriation and to allow the individual to withdraw his/her consent to be subject under a government at anytime. So, while the concept of men uniting into Commonwealths and putting themselves under Government for “the preservation of their property”, eloquently justifies these aforementioned rights, Locke seems to have trouble in trying to account for all the functions of government in terms of “the preservation of property”

The government that comes out of the Lockean society is small, non interventionist and exists for the solitary purpose as a body chosen as the people to settle disputes over an individuals property. However, this is all that the Lockean government is allowed to do, which means that Locke has to attempt to justify for all other legitimate functions of government in terms of the “preservation of property” which Locke has difficulty in doing.

For example, taxation by a government is not technically allowed unless it obtains consent from every individual that it intends to impose taxation on. Since property is a natural (ie. a pre-political) right, established in accordance with the law of nature, and because the preservation of it is the main reason for entering civil society, it follows that it cannot be a legitimate act of government to appropriate, through taxation, the possessions of its subjects without their consent. This seems to require the individual express consent of each property owner, since it differs from the transfer of the rights of judging and punishing in a most important sense. In the case of arbitrating in property disputes, what is transferred are the enforcements of a pre-existing natural right, in the case of taxation what is transferred is the right to abrogate a right. Since the general abrogation of a right of nature would be tyranny, this can only be avoided where each alienation of that right, i.e. each act of taxation, is specifically consented to. In the issue of taxation, Locke slips, without justification, from insisting on the individual’s consent to taxation which is consistent to everything thus said to assuming that there exists somewhere some form of institution expression for such a consent which it does not.

The legislative body which is entrusted with the people to making laws must pass nothing contrary to the law of nature even though people might consent to such enactments or it will cease to be legitimate. Locke therefore faces the problem of trying to justify action such as taxation that a government carries out in a way that is consistent with his very foundation for the purposes instituting a government without running contrary to it.

Locke runs into many of these problems when he tries to justify the characteristics that the existing economy has. The problem lies in the fact that all individuals in Locke’s doctrine are equal and “there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us”. Although equality in the political arena can be intellectually justified quite well by the Lockean doctrine, Locke has to find a way in order to justify the widespread discrepancies in the economic wellbeing of individuals that he finds in the economy. Indeed, this is the problem that political thinkers have today. They have no problem championing the equality of political rights among individuals, but seem to have more of a problem in championing economical and social rights. Evidence of this can be seen in the necessity by the UN to create two human right covenants; The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The reason that Locke and people down the ages have problems in using the same foundations to justify both economic and political equality is that they are fundamentally two different types of equality. This is best explained by Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in the United States. Sowell uses the Michael Jordan analogy to explain the two different types of equality; “In some cosmic sense, it is indeed unfair that Michael Jordan had such huge talents for playing basketball, while yours truly had none. But should the rules have been changed to bring the basket down to four feet for me–or raise it 10 feet higher for Michael Jordan?” By one measure, the one on one match with Michael Jordan was completely fair, we both played on the same court, used the same ball and had to abide by the same rules. But as Sowell puts it “in some cosmic sense” it is anything but fair, Michael Jordan was born with an immense talent for basketball and is also 5 feet taller than I am.

While no one would argue against the fact that individuals in a State should have equal voting rights or should not be subject to different criteria when it comes to arrest and interrogation simply due to their financial or social standing, people find it harder to justify economic equality, or being born with the same resources as everyone else. The ramifications of the first type of equality simply require that the same political rights are given to all the members of the society, the second type of equality however, would entail the taking of resources from families that are financially well off and distributing it to other families to ensure that every member of the society starts out with the wealth as everyone else. This brings us down the road of communism, which is a road that Locke is careful not to go down.

Strictly speaking, the Lockean doctrine at it’s most fundamental level would only allow an individual to gather natural resources for their own survival with the proviso that “there must be enough, and as good left common for others.” In order to justify the existing structure of the economy where many individuals clearly hold more than is needed to simply ensure their own survival.

In order to justify the economy surviving in the current state in a manner that is consistent with the natural law, Locke devises a series of workarounds that centre around the fact that such an economy is more efficient that a hunter gatherer economy and is better able to sustain mankind’s existence and thus is not inconsistent with natural law. However, in order for efficiency to be completely consistent with Locke’s definition of private rights to property it is important that there is some kind of income redistribution mechanism in place. The obvious candidate to carry out such a policy would inevitably the government, and although the government could carry out such a policy, the problems that was outlined earlier relating to taxation make the carrying out of such a policy impracticable due to the express consent required from each individual that the government wishes to appropriate property from. Furthermore, Locke does not seem to address this problem fully, simply assuming that “every one who enjoys his share of Protection, should pay out of his Estate his proportion of for the maintenance of it.”

Locke perhaps was misguided if he was trying to explain all the legitimate forms of government in terms of the “preservation of property”, but one keeps feeling when reading the Two Treatise of Government that he was simply trying to construct a doctrine that would protect the individuals right to property without royal appropriation and allow an individual to withdraw his consent to government at anytime. By constituting a government in terms of its role in “the preservation of property”, Locke fulfills these aims eloquently. However, as with any doctrines there are problems. Firstly, there are the problems of attempting to fit the existing economical system around his political doctrine as outlined above, and in this Locke relies on his assumption that man is fundamentally a good and benevolent person which is contrary to the Hobbesian view of human nature. The role that a government can play in the international arena is also undermined by the Lockean government, since the very essence of Lockean government is founded on consent, and foreign countries have not expressly consented to a foreign Lockean government and thus any attempts to intervene on another country’s behalf however well intentioned will constitute a illegitimate act.

The purpose to studying political theory is not to attempt to understand political thinkers in terms of what period they were writing in and to understand the state of society during the thinkers lifetime, that is the job of history. The job of political theory is to read these texts and see if any of these ideas can be applied to the world as it is today. In many senses the Lockean doctrine, however insufficient it may be in attempting to explain all the roles of government suffers the same problems that we are grappling with today, the marrying of a free wheeling laissez faire capitalist society with a sense of social responsibility, and the tentative balance that exists between the right for people to make their own mistakes and the right of the government to intervene for the greater good of society as a whole, if this is indeed the case and Locke was misguided in attempting to explain a government in terms of “the preservation of property”, we have not yet found a better method of justifying the legitimate functions of a government three hundred years on.

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The Ideas of John Locke on the Preservation of Property. (2021, Sep 13). Retrieved from

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