John Locke on Property

Clifford Cobb and Fred Foldvary


Fred Foldvary:

Locke's logic becomes perverted by bringing in money; he seems to be troubled by the logical implication of his proviso (perhaps because the landed interests would be offended and cause him trouble?) and sought an escape through the twisted logic regarding money. It doesn't work. Now the population has way more than doubled, and even at the time of Locke, land of equal quality was no longer available in cities, for example. Locke is silent on the implementation of his proviso. Maybe he was afraid of the power of the big landowners. At any rate, the geoist/Georgist interpretation is fully consistent with Locke's proviso, and the only one that really confronts it. We can reject Locke's backtracking related to money as logically unsound and contradictory to his sound logic regarding the proviso.

Cliff Cobb:

It seems to me that Locke's logic is not perverted by the introduction of money. He says that if people can appropriate only that amount of land that they themselves can work (i.e., as farmers, because he does not consider commercial land), then no one would be able to appropriate an excessive amount. However, the existence of money (and the ability to exchange land for money) permits some the capacity to achieve an unlimited accumulation of assets, including land.

Yet, even in the absence of money and even if we assume that land has value only for farming (which seems to be Locke's implicit assumption), his proviso is still self-contradictory on its own terms. Everyone might receive 10-30 acres of farmland, depending on soil quality to meet his "enough and as good" terms, but 10 miles outside of London or Liverpool and 100 miles west of Boston were hardly equivalent in value. It would appear that he did not understand the concept of rent, and more particularly that the margin is created by location more than by soil quality.

If we take away the assumption that is valuable only for farming, the proviso's terms are even more implausible. I presume that by 1680, a small lot in central London was already worth hundreds of times what a small farm was worth in the countryside. If that is the case, the only way (as Fred suggests above) of solving the problem of "enough and as good" is through the monetization of the value of land, which is then distributed equally among all citizens. What Locke saw as a problem (money) was actually part of the solution.

Part 2

Cliff here with some ideas about Locke that completely turn upside down the usual reading of him. In fact, the ideas below cast doubt (in my mind at least) on the use of Locke as the basis of any geo-libertarian thinking. I had always wondered (and still do) how Locke was situated in relation to the English Civil War and the Restoration. The discussion below offers some insights into that question, but only a beginning.

Some months ago, I raised a concern that those who rely on the Lockean analysis of property rights never seem to mention the rest of Locke's writings, specifically his Essay on Human Understanding. Not having read the latter myself (other than a few paragraphs), I did not have any particular problem in mind. It simply seemed that one should consider someone's philosophy as a whole, not just one particular outcropping of it.

In the last few days, I was reading Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. In the introduction, he shows how most American radicals, including Henry George, have made based their radical prescription on the "truths self-evident" in the Declaration of Independence (human equality and natural rights).

In Chapter 1, Lynd points out that by the 1760s, sophisticated thinkers "viewed with amused contempt" arguments based on the state of nature, the social contract, and the natural rights of man. These had come to be viewed as human inventions, not conditions of nature. The Declaration of Independence appeared "from the standpoint of the ethical relativism of a Montesquieu, Voltaire, or Hume [to be] a piece of provincial propaganda. . . unworthy of serious intellectual attention."

According to Lynd (who draws from Carl Becker's books, The Declaration of Independence and The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers), there was an intellectual crisis in the 18th century over the question of natural rights. The problem lay in the language of "self-evident" truths, which were derived from a law of nature that Locke had said in his Second Treatise was "writ in the hearts of mankind" and which "cease not" in society. Yet, Locke himself, in his Essay on Human Understanding had argued against intuitive knowledge. Locke's epistemology was purely environmental or based on sense experience. There was a fundamental contradiction between rights known through intuition and a theory of perception that precluded any knowledge of such rights. There can be no enduring "self-evident" truths if truth is found only in the passing moments of sense experience. Thus, rights to life, liberty, and property could not be grounded in Nature or knowledge of God, if ideas of right and wrong are entirely dependent on particular contexts.

As a result of this internal contradiction within Locke's thought, "English political philosophy in the eighteenth century turned away form natural rights toward a social science characterized by ethical relativism and pragmatic accommodation to existing reality." Thus, Locke's epistemology lent support to conservatives who proposed that people needed to accommodate themselves to the existing order rather than resist it. Apparently, even Locke's popularizers, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (joint authors Cato's Letters from 1720 to 1723), were also convinced that "a Commonwealth," or fundamental change in the social order, was a "Phantome" that would "never appear again but in disordered Brains."

At this point, Lynd suggests that the conflict was more apparent than real, since Locke himself was no radical. "Locke, who blamed poverty on the poor, sought to protect all forms of property including chattel slavery, and took it for granted that government must be the business of educated gentlemen, would have been horrified to find his doctrine turned toward the advocacy of common sense, government by common men, finally even common property." Citing Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, Lynd says, "Locke systematically segregated things sacred from things secular, allowing freedom of conscience to religion only after carefully barring it from all interference in secular society." (If this is a correct reading of Locke, then it is quite similar to Martin Luther's view of the relationship between individual conscience and civil law.)

Lynd points out that the chapter on property in the Locke's Second Treatise "begins with the observation that God has given the earth to 'mankind in common' and ends by rationalizing the unlimited accumulation of wealth." (Lynd's point is that Locke invokes traditional, Biblical ideas and images of morality in paragraph 25 in order to build a case for a world of unlimited private accumulation in paragraphs 46-50.) I will come back to this in a moment, but Lynd's next step is interesting. He shows how the logic of the Second Treatise is subsumed under the logic of Locke's epistemology. In the absence of a human ability to know universal truths through intuition or to understand the life experience of others, there can be no common conception of the good life. Each individual becomes an island, psychologically and morally speaking. Thus, the relationships between people are not governed by shared experience. Interactions occur only at the surface, among strangers. Locke: "No particular man can know the existence of any other being, but only when, by actually operating upon him, it makes itself perceived by him." Thus, there is a certain logic in seeing private property, the extension of the self that is publicly observable, as the sole basis for regulating social interaction and defining the principles of government.

Lynd shows that Thomas Paine and the English Dissenters with whom he and Ben Franklin associated overcame the problem of grounding natural rights by going back to writers before Locke: "John Lilburne, Gerrard Winstanley, Richard Overton, and other religious republicans of the 1640s and 1650s." As Lynd argues, "the ascendancy of Dissenting radicalism represented a return to an essentially religious outlook. . . . For them the greate secular truths were 'self-evident' in the same sense as the truth of religion, which is to say intuitively accessible to the average man." Thus, the Dissenters openly criticized Locke's epistemology in order to offer an alternative theory of rights. They proposed an intuitionist epistemology, whereby truth could be perceived through intuition, not the senses. In particular, Richard Price did this in A Review of the Principal Questions and Difficulties in Morals in 1758. (One of the reasons Locke repudiated intuitionism {and the concept of religious knowledge independent of the senses} was his fear of the reassertion of Papal authority in England. He wanted there to be no basis for those who spoke in the name of religion to interfere with civil authority.) [I would just note, in defense of Locke's concern, that grounding of authority in an "inner light" as the activists of the Radical Reformation did, offers no method of determining which "inner light" is correct when there are conflicting views of God's design. This, in turn, gives way to pure power politics.]

Rather than continue in this vein, I want to return briefly to Lynd's claim that Locke "ends by rationalizing the unlimited accumulation of wealth" in paragraphs 46-50 of the Second Treatise. Reading those paragraphs again, I now see what role the introduction of money plays for Locke. At the end of paragraph 46, Locke says that a person exceeds the legitimate bounds of private ownership "not lying in the largeness of his Possession, but the perishing of any thing uselessly in it." The point he has been making is that it is unethical for someone to take land from the commons if doing so causes waste--as in someone growing more acorns and apples than he or she can eat. "He was only to look that he used them [acorns and apples] before they spoiled; else he took more than his share, and robb'd others." The solution to this problem of spoilage was the introduction of money. This allowed someone to own great tracts of land which would generate far more produce than an individual or family could possibly consume. By trading this produce for a metal [gold or silver] that did not spoil, however, the owner could be said legitimately to have a claim on that property. In paragraph 50, the jaws of the trap fall shut: "it is plain that Men have agreed to disproportionate and unequal Possession of the Earth, they having by a tacit and voluntary consent found out a way, how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus, Gold and Silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one, these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor."

I'm not convinced that Lynd's interpretation of Locke is completely correct. I am convinced, however, that Locke can be read as both radical and as conservative, and that trying to determine which is the "true" Locke may not be possible. I suspect it may be necessary to learn more about Locke's social situation (his own landownership for example and his relationship to the political questions of his day) to interpret his writings correctly.

This may seem like an excessive concern with Locke. However, if his writings are indeed one of the definitive starting points of classical liberalism, the ambiguity in his writings may help explain some of the puzzling contradictions (to me) in libertarian thought today.

Part 3

I continue to be troubled by Locke's analysis of property. Since I began reading secondary sources (the first being Peter Laslett's introduction to his critical edition of Two Treatises), it has become more and more evident that Locke's treatment of property is, for him, but a stepping stone to explain why government was instituted to solve problems in a state of nature. To read his "proviso" out of that context is to misread it. This is important because I now think that Locke is saying exactly the opposite of what geo-libertarians claim he is saying. I believe Locke's position is more in keeping with the alodialists or royal libertarians than has previously been proposed on this list.

Before turning to Locke, I want to make a comparison with Henry George. In Progress and Poverty, Book VI, Chapter 2, George says: "We must therefore substitute for the individual ownership of land a common ownership." A few sentences later: "We must make land common property." It is my understanding that certain socialists in England, upon reading that, got off the train and decided that they could support that proposition. In Great Britain's constitutional crisis of 1909, when Parliament had to be dissolved because the House of Lords would not sign a Budget Act that included national rent collection (at a very low level, mind you), part of Prime Minister Lloyd George's support came from socialists who saw the collection of ground rent as a stepping stone toward public ownership of all land in Great Britain. If one willfully chose to ignore what George said in Book VIII, Chapter 2 ("I do not propose either to purchase or to confiscate private property in land." and "It is not necessary to conflscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent."), one could contend that he supported the socialist position of collectivization.

What I want to propose here is that reading Locke's "enough and as good proviso" as Locke's position on private property in land involves as much willful disregard of Locke's fuller purpose as a reading of George as a proponent of collectivization.

The problem that Locke addresses in Two Treatises is how to respond to Sir Robert Filmer who held 1) that citizens have an absolute duty to obey the sovereign in the same way that a son has an absolute duty to obey his father (the patriarchal thesis) and 2) that the world was given to humans by God as common property and that pure communism is the condition in the state of nature (communal rights thesis). (I'm not sure how natural communism fit with Filmer's patriarchal argument about the authority of kings. Presumably he regarded the king as the representative of all people. Therefore a grant from God to all humans in common is a grant to the king. According to this view, private property is not a natural right, but a grant from the monarch, and could be reversed.)

In any case, Filmer believed some people are ordained by God as superior beings to rule over others. That was the thesis that Locke sought to refute.

The derivation of private property from natural law plays a prominent role in the Second Treatise because it is a place-holder for all individual rights vis-a-vis civil authority. Without a natural right to property, the individual is a mere vassal, subject to the absolute, partriarchal authority of the king.

Locke's problem is to show how one can derive the existence of civil authority from a state of nature in which all people are born equal (i.e., without the natural authority of patriarchy). His well-known answer is that people create civil society or a social compact to protect their property.

In section 25, Locke explains that he seeks to show how to justify private ownership in a state of nature "of that which God gave to Mankind in common." (In other words, if God gave it to us in common, which was Filmer's argument, how can he justify individual property ownership in the state of nature?) He wants to show that private property logically precedes the social compact and thus does not depend on mutual consent. (If private property only exists by mutual consent, then it can be taken away by government, and liberty is always at risk.)

To make his case, Locke argues in section 27 that property comes from self-ownership and the application of labor. (Earlier natural law theorists Grotius and Pufendorf had argued that private ownership arises from mutual consent, not from self-ownership and labor. However, Laslett points out that Richard Baxter in 1680 published an argument similar to Locke's: "Propriety is naturally antecedent to Government, which doth not Give it, but regulate it to the Common good. Every man is born with a propriety in his own members.") He introduces the idea that people can take from nature as long as there is "enough and as good" for others.

In 28-31, the application of labor to create property is treated exclusively in terms of usufruct: the appropriation of the fruits of nature (such as acorns, apples, and the grass his horse eats). At this point, labor simply involves taking something from the commons. This describes a primeval economy of hunting and gathering.

In 31, he says this right of appropriation is limited by spoilage. As long as people limited themselves to what they could actually use and as long as the world was not heavily populated, there were no quarrels because everyone could pick all the fruit and catch all the game they wanted.

Then, suddenly in 32, Locke makes an important shift. With the same logic of mixing labor and nature, he now justifies the ownership of land, not just usufruct. We have shifted from hunting-gathering to an agrarian society. In 33, he applies the same limit to ownership that he applied to usufruct: as long as there is "enough and as good." But in 33, he says: "Nor was this appropriation . . . any prejudice to any other man." Note the use of the past tense. In 35, this becomes clearer. Whereas it is no longer possible to remove land from the commons in fully populated England without prejudice to others, it had been possible "in the beginning and first peopling of the great Common of the World." In 36, he repeats this by speaking of "the first Ages of the World, when Men were more in danger to be lost" in the wilderness. He says it is still possible for someone to claim land without prejudice to others by going to America or to Spain.

Section 36 is the second great turning point in the argument, where he begins to justify the concentration of land holdings, far beyond his "enough and as good," which applied only to the misty past or empty continents in his day. In 36, he says in reference to the immediately preceding discussion of free land in America and Spain: "But be this as it will, which I lay no stress on." In other words, the continuing availability of land somewhere in the world which can satisfy his "enough and as good" is not relevant to the argument he wants to make. He turns instead to money and commerce--the world of 17th century England in which there is great inequality of land ownership. "This I boldly affirm, That the same Rule of Property, namely that every Man should have as much as he could make use of, would hold still in the World, without straitning [constraining] any body, since there is Land enough in the World to suffice double the Inhabitants had not the Invention of Money, and the tacit Agreement of Men to put a value on it, introduced (by Consent) larger Possessions, and a Right to them; which, how it was done, I shall, by and by, shew more at large."

As C.B. McPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (p. 203), says in reference to this passage: "The natural law rule, which by its specific terms limited the amount anyone could appropriate so that everyone could have as much as he could use, does *not* now hold. . . . The reason the rule does not now hold is not that the land has run out. . . . The introduction of money by tacit consent has removed the previous natural limitations of rightful appropriation." McPherson also emphasizes the passage in section 50, where Locke reaffirms that the introduction of money has created rightful inequality of ownership of land, and where Locke says: "This partage of things, in an inequality of private possessions, men have made practicable out of the bounds of Societie, and without compact, only by putting a value on gold and silver and tacitly agreeing in the use of Money." The key point is that money exists "out of the bounds of Societie and without compact." Money and unequal access to land are, like the moral capacity to enter into contracts, aspects of the state of nature, not a consequence of civil society. (McPherson, p. 210: "Locke can assume that neither money nor contracts owe their validity to the state.") Since the purpose of civil society is to protect the natural right to property, it would presumably be improper for civil society to alter the distribution of land ownership.

McPherson (p. 213) continues: "It may be thought that Locke's justification of larger possessions on these grounds . . . is strictly inconsistent with his assertion that the right to appropriate is limited to what leaves enough and as good for others. That would be so if the original assertion was made absolutely. But it was not. It was asserted as a consequence of a prior principle, namely, the natural right of every man to get the means of subsistence by his labour. . . . That right can be satisfied in either of two ways. One way is to stipulate the original ['enough and as good'] limitation . . ., and it is only in the context of still plentiful land that Locke asserts the limitation." The other way is "by stipulating or assuming an arrangement which ensures that those without land can get a subsistence by their labour."

Thus, it seems that for Locke, the state of nature has two stages: the first, a stage prior to the introduction of money in which there is land "enough and as good" for everyone, and a second stage in which money has *rightfully* allowed some to own more land than others. Unequal ownership of land is natural and moral, according to Locke, since it does not deprive people of their natural right to property because each person owns himself or herself and can earn subsistence by selling his or her labor. Self- ownership, not the right to "enough and as good" land as others, is thus the basis of the rest of his political argument.

In summary: Locke's own analysis provides a flimsy foundation upon which to build a Georgist platform. Classical liberalism, as represented by Locke, justifies extremes of inequality in access to natural opportunities.

If Locke had argued otherwise, he would not only have been a political radical (which he was, by authorizing rebellion against unlawful government), he would also have been an economic radical in the Georgist sense (which he was not). He was a radical in his repudiation of the traditional, feudal conception of property rights being derived from royal authority. But he did not propose that every person had an equal right to land.

Further Comments by Fred Foldvary

Cliff Cobb wrote:

It seems to me that Locke's logic is not perverted by the introduction of money. He says that if people can appropriate only that amount of land that they themselves can work (i.e., as farmers, because he does not consider commercial land), then no one would be able to appropriate an excessive amount. However, the existence of money (and the ability to exchange land for money) permits some the capacity to achieve an unlimited accumulation of assets, including land.

Fred Foldvary responds:

But Locke is historically wrong. Huge landholdings of estates and empires don't necessarily require money. When the Spaniards took the Indian lands and established the latifundia, they used guns rather than money.

Cliff Cobb wrote:

Yet, even in the absence of money and even if we assume that land has value only for farming (which seems to be Locke's implicit assumption), his proviso is still self-contradictory on its own terms. Everyone might receive 10-30 acres of farmland, depending on soil quality to meet his "enough and as good" terms, but 10 miles outside of London or Liverpool and 100 miles west of Boston were hardly equivalent in value.

Fred Foldvary responds:

There is no contradiction in the proviso itself. The proviso just implies that in that case there is not land of equal quality freely available, hence thet one may *not* simply claim it, not without compensating others.

Cliff Cobb wrote:

It would appear that he did not understand the concept of rent, and more particularly that the margin is created by location more than by soil quality.

Fred Foldvary responds:

He just did not apply the proviso to paying rent as compensation for there not being equally good land available. Locke's economic writings indicate a good understanding of rent.

See his pamphlet "Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest" (1691) and "Further Considerations" (1695). Also Karent Vaughn's book "John Locke: Economist and Social Scientist" and the Locke entry in Mark Blaug's *Great Economists before Keynes*.

Locke knew about "all devouring rent" long before Henry George.