John Locke and the Justification of Property

How does Locke justify private property having begun from the proposition that God gave the Earth to humankind in common?

Ian Howarth

John Locke’s justification for the existence of property within society is outlined in ‘Two Treatises of Government’ (1690) and based on two strands, the first the utility of mans labour and its effect on his environment, and the second builds on Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) concept of man in a state of nature, and the need for government that this state demands in order to bring about stability and security within society.john locke

 Locke argues that property can be legitimate despite God giving the earth to all men in common because of the effect of mans labour in producing goods or creating a better environment for himself or other men.  He argues that all men are born with the ownership of their own person and ownership of the fruits of their labour, as through our labour we invest a part of our person into our work and as a result this becomes our property. “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.” (cited in Chapter Two Private Property: Authentic and Unauthentic, 2004)

 Locke argues that mans own labour is the origin and the justification of property and its contract or preservation is the justification of government.  Locke justifies private property through arguing that what man  ‘.  . . removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, 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 in, it hath by this 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.’ (cited in John Locke on Property, 2004, emphasis added)

 Locke further argues that while man lived in a state of nature the only law that existed was the moral law of God and the natural rights that this bestowed on all men equally.  These are what Locke calls the ‘natural rights of men’ they are God given and as such inviolable, and are ‘… the rights to life, liberty and property.’ (Heywood, 1997: 26)

 Both Hobbes state of nature and Locke’s natural law of property support the idea of the independence of the individual within this state. ‘The state of nature knows no government; but in it, as in political society, men are subject to the moral law, which is the law of God. Men are born free and equal in rights.’ (cited in The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2004) This state of nature due to its lack of government is as Hobbes describes in essence anarchical and without order, and as such there is no way men can guarantee the preservation of their natural rights from the intervention of others.

 Locke argues that ‘IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. (cited in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, 2004)

 Hobbes describes life in a state of nature as ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 227)  He describes a situation where individuals are in a constant state of war with one another.  Man is aggressive and egotistical, and seeks only to his own ends, his interests are defined in terms of power, conflict is natural and the social environment is anarchic.  Hobbes argues that this ‘state of nature where men live without a common power ‘to keep them all in awe’ is a war of all against all … [and]… forestalling the argument that such a condition never existed, he points to the relations between states as exemplifying it.’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 227)

The liberty that Locke believes to be a natural right of man would be lost to chaos and anarchy in a Hobbesian State of Nature, as too would be men’s claims to the property of their labour.  Therefore he accepts Hobbes argument that it is fear that compels men towards government, ‘This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.’ (cited in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, 2004) However Locke disagrees with Hobbes about the nature of the government that legitimately should arise out of the state of nature.

 Whereas Hobbes in his work ‘Leviathan’ (1651) endorses the divine right of Kings as the ‘Leviathan amongst Leviathans’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 227) who will maintain order in society, he does so at the expense of the natural right of men to liberty and property.

Monarchy is a system of government that invests absolute power in a single sovereign authority, and Hobbes viewed property as lying solely in the gift of the sovereign and not as an inalienable right of men.  Locke within his work ‘Two Treatises of Government’ presents an argument that reconciles the Hobbesian need for political order with the liberty of the individual citizen through the maintenance of their natural rights, and refutes Hobbes argument that monarchy is the only form of government that can guarantee peace and security within society.

 Locke presents a liberal argument for the legitimacy of property and unlike Hobbes he doesn’t seek a Leviathan but a representative government, a committee to rule whose sole purpose is to protect mans natural rights.  The protection of property is the central justification of government for Locke, and the nature of that government is as vital as the property it protects ‘If government through taxation, possessed the power to expropriate property, citizens were entitled to protect themselves through controlling the composition of the tax-setting body; the legislature’. (Heywood, 1997: 71)  Therefore Locke argued that representative government (democracy) was the only truly legitimate form of government as it protected mans natural rights upon which he argued rested the right to vote.  However Locke did not believe in universal suffrage as he argued that only property owners should have the right to vote as only ‘they had the natural rights that governments could infringe’ (Heywood, 1997: 71).

 Therefore Locke’s justification of private property within a world given in common to all humanity rests on his argument that man through his labour excludes the natural rights of all other men over that which he has laboured.   This condition is enforced through limited government elected by and containing property owners as only through the possession of property can a man claim his natural rights.

 Locke does however appear to place limits on the amount of property a man may appropriate arguing that a man has a right to as much as he needs but should not appropriate so much that it would spoil, stating that man has a right to ‘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.’ (cited in John Locke on Property, 2004)  However this statement is not as clear as it appears as Locke does argue the legitimacy of private property and wealth, an apparent contradiction to the statement above.  This is reconciled due to the fact that this limit in its literall form is only so in the state of nature.  Locke takes into account money, which cannot spoil, and argues that ‘… to any advantage of life…’ extends to the activities of business and commerce wherein he sees nature’s resources being maximised to their greatest potential for the good of all mankind.

 Locke’s arguments represent a natural law theory of property, it being acquired and justified through mans labour and the preservation of mans natural rights. This preservation represents a classic liberal ideal of what Tom Paine described as the ‘necessary evil’ (Heywood, 1997: 43) of limited government or a ‘…nightwatchman state, with a role that is limited to the protection of citizens from the encroachment of other citizens.’ (Heywood, 1997: 43) Locke also argues for non-intervention by governments in the economy, subscribing to the belief that it works best when left alone to the mechanisms of the free market, this laissez-faire capitalism is seen as ensuring prosperity and protecting the liberty of the individual.

 The concept of natural rights put forward by John Locke had a significant influence on ideas of government, and the position of the individual in relation to it.  His arguments were seen as a justification of the Glorious Revolution of England in 1688, and equally providing a justification for the American Revolution.  American colonists using his refutation of monarchy and belief in natural rights to legitimise their revolt against the British monarchy, through his argument that ‘sovereignty resided with the people, not the monarch’ (Heywood, 1997: 26)

 Adam Smith (1723-1790) would later take Locke’s concept of the natural rights of men and argue that there were also natural laws of economics, this argument presented in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ (1776) was a fierce endorsement of laissez-faire economics and capitalism and represents the rational result of Locke’s arguments for the rights of the individual and the need for the common good of man to be an essential consideration within the distribution of property.  Smith argued that private property and unregulated free markets produce the greatest net social benefits of any socioeconomic system, and therefore represent a legitimate form of distributing property based on Locke’s natural rights.

 Locke basis his justification of government and property on mans inalienable natural rights; these God given rights existed when man was in a state of nature, pre-dating society.  Locke’s argument that these natural rights are given by God is an argument that to be rational requires proof in the existence of God, which is not possible, as belief in God is based on faith, which cannot be scientifically rationalised. This belief in God as the source of mans natural rights lacks the rational credibility for which Locke strives to achieve in his claims to ‘life, liberty and property.’   Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) argued like Locke and Hobbes before him that ‘human beings are rationally self-interested creatures’ (Heywood, 1997: 71) however he disagreed with the notion of pre-existing rights such as Locke’s natural rights.

  ‘[For]…Bentham the function of government was to promote the general good (which he called utility) and the idea that individuals might have the right to undermine this seemed like madness.’ (Baylis & Smith, 2001: 604) Bentham provides a rational explanation for the need of government and considered the concept of pre-existent individual rights that pre-dated society as ‘nonsense upon stilts…especially as no one could tell him where these rights came from’ (Baylis & Smith, 2001: 604), besides it is difficult to imagine how you could be an individual without being a member of society.

 While the lack of rationality at the heart of Locke’s claims to the natural rights of men with its theological basis undermines his argument, it does not however deter from the core liberal agenda, his arguments for the right of men to the protection of their property from the interference of government.  Such interference was at the time widely accepted and had many exponents such as Sir Robert Filmer (1588 – 1653) who in his work ‘Patriarch’ (1680) pursued a patriarchal theory of property and government, that premised that just as fathers have power over their children without their consent, ‘governments have power over their people independently of their consent’ (Theories of property, liberalism, gender and John Locke, 2004)

 Therefore Locke as an exponent of the values of liberal individualism provides a strong and at the time radical case.  However there is a more systemic criticism of Locke, which can be found in Marxist critique of the role of private property in creating class differentials within capitalist democracies that lead to the oppression of the majority (proletariat) by a wealthy minority (bourgeoisie).

 Marxist critique focuses on the ‘inherent tension between democracy and capitalism, that is between the political equality which liberal democracy proclaims and the social inequality that a capitalist economy inevitably generates.’ (Heywood, 1997: 80)  Marxist critique argues that the existence of private property within society leads to the uneven distribution of wealth and creates a powerful ruling class that manipulates the democratic processes within liberal democracies in order to safeguard the privileged position of the bourgeoisie within society.

The close relation of mans labour with the justification of property in Locke’s thesis is almost proto-Marxist, with it’s echoes of Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) arguments regarding the ‘alienation’ of the proletariat from the result of their labour.  However Locke dispels this initial view when he justifies the accumulation of wealth/property through a contract between the property owner and the labourer with money/wages acting as a substitute to the labourer for the property they don’t acquire through their work, this central principle of capitalism shares nothing in common with Marxist ideology.

 Locke argues that all men posses equally the right to ‘life, liberty and property’ and that all men posses the property of their own person and labour, he further argued that the use of this labour is the means by which property is justified through natural law as the action of working the land or writing a book is creating something out of nature that would not otherwise have been and as such is part of ourselves and can be claimed as property.

 The question therefore arises that if all that is required is an individuals labour to claim ownership of something, then how can a factory boss claim ownership of the product when it consist of the labour of others?  Locke answers this by returning to the ownership of our labour and our person, and argues that through money someone can buy another individuals labour and use it to bring greater reward to themselves. The payment for the labourers work justifies the product of their labour belonging to another individual.  This represents a natural law basis for capitalism based on the fact that the labourer owning his person and his labour enters freely into a contract with the employer.

 This contract between the employer and the labourer creates a division within society between the property owning and the non-property owning who live through selling their labour.  This endorsement of a class system by Locke and the subsequent condition that political power within society should only lie with the property owning classes leads to an obvious Marxist critique.

 Marx argues that the division within society between property rich (bourgeoisie) and property poor (proletariat) leads to class struggle, as the proletariat do not truly possess liberty as Locke would claim, as the choice of selling their labour is not a realistic one. The need to survive drives the proletariat into work for the bourgeoisie and denies them Locke’s natural rights to ‘life, liberty, and property’ as they become ‘wage slaves’ (Heywood, 1997: 52) who’s lives are determined by the economic needs of the bourgeoisie who through the wealth they have acquired by their oppression and exploitation of the proletariat also exercise control over political power to the exclusion of the proletariat.

 Marx calls this separation of the proletariat from the product of their labour ‘alienation’ this is the process whereby labour is reduced to a commodity, which is what the purchase of labour ultimately leads to.  Marx argued that this leads to work becoming a depersonalised activity, and prevents people from feeling a sense of fulfilment; to Marx unalienated labour was an essential source of human self-realisation, denied by the weight of capitalist demand.

 This Marxist view of the role of property and production within society is one opposed to the commodity production that exists under capitalism, with this being replaced by ‘…production for use, geared to the satisfaction of genuine human needs.’ (Heywood, 1997: 52)  Marx believed just as fervently in the critical rights of the individual free of the state as Locke did, however Marx unlike Locke argued that true liberty could not exist in a society that sanctioned private property as its very existence creates inequality, limiting and ultimately oppressing the liberties of those who do not own property, or have access to the means of production.

 Therefore Locke justifies property despite God giving it to all humanity in common through the existence of inalianble natural rights and the industrial use of these rights by some through their labour.  Private property, or the ownership of property by a minority and the lack of ownership by the majority is justified through free entry into contract between individuals one seeking labour the other providing it for a wage.  This argument provides the fundamental basis for capitalist economic activity and in its classic laissez faire form faces significant Marxist opposition as a result of the unjust and unequal society that it creates.

 Furthermore Locke fails to rationalise the existence of our natural rights by using theological grounds as the source of these rights, Adam Smith rectified this flaw in arguing that natural harmony underpinned liberal economics in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ (1776) ‘by pursuing their own self-interest, individuals are inadvertently promoting the public good…the mechanism that intervenes between the motives of the individual and the ‘ends’ of society as a whole is what Smith…[calls]…’an invisible hand’ (Baylis & Smith, 2001: 166), we would call this invisible hand free market forces.  Smith is arguing that capitalism is the organic development of our natural impulse to act in our own self-intrests, as it is the only economic system that can fulfil our impulses sufficiently to satisfy the majority of society.

 The inherent strength however of Locke’s argument despite the above criticisms is clear as is his influence on the modern world; his arguments for the liberties of the individual and the need for representative government were hugely influential.  His argument that only property owners should have the vote due to the fact that only they have property that can be taxed or expropriated by the state, represents clear early echoes of the American colonist’s demand for no taxation without representation.  While ‘life liberty and property’ has been immortalised within the preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ (cited in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, 2004: emphasis added)

 In conclusion Locke’s arguments for property have with the work of later philosophers, economists and liberal theorists such as Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill presented an argument that placed the rights of the individual before the rights of the state.  Putting the state at the bequest of the individual, with its role defined as to protect the rights of the individual from infringement by others, and placed the protection of property and thus freedom of commerce at the centre of government activity.  This provided the grounds from which capitalism could be justified in the face of the dominant practices of protectionism and mercantilism that dominated the late 17th century, and the strength to withstand the rise of Marxism and communism in the 20th century.

 Liberal theorists underwent a transition from a deep suspicion of government with a desire to keep its role limited, to a belief in the core responsibility of government to ensure social justice and welfare for the weak within society.  This transition can be attributed to a realisation and acceptance during the 19th century and early 20th century of the effects of pure laissez faire politics.  These effects were highlighted in the Beveridge Report (1948) as the ‘five giants: want, ignorance, idleness, squalor and disease.’ (Heywood, 1997: 44)  This acceptance has led to the development of modern liberalism with a greater role for government than just the protection of property and our natural rights, which Locke saw as the only purpose of government.  However this increase in the scope of government within modern liberal thought has not lessened the overall suspicion of the potential dangers of government extending authority it’s into areas of personal liberty that liberals still hold to be our inalienable rights.

 The goal of modern liberals therefore is to leaver up these vulnerable members of society to a position where they can once again ‘take responsibility for their own circumstances and make their own moral choices.’(Heywood, 1997: 44)  Despite the apparent gulf between the limited government of Locke premised on the protection of property the basic ideals of the liberty of the individual and the need for control on power remain at the root of liberal democracy and social welfare systems worldwide, with the desire for the protection of individual property rights from the authority of government being a central motive in the development of liberal democracy.


Baylis, John. Smith, Steve. (2001) ‘The Globalization of World Politics’ 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp166, 604

 Evans, Graham. Newnham, Jeffrey (1998) ‘The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations’ Penguin, London, pp227

 Heywood, Andrew. (1997) ‘Politics’ 1st Edition, Palgrave, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Great Britain, pp26, 43, 44, 52, 71, 80

 ‘Chapter Two Private Property: Authentic and Unauthentic’ (English Version)

 ‘The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy; John Locke (1632 – 1704)’

 ‘John Locke on Property’

 ‘John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government’

 ‘Theories of property, liberalism, gender and John Locke’


2 thoughts on “John Locke and the Justification of Property

  1. Pingback: Liberalism

  2. Pingback: What is the “State of Nature”? (Analysis of Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia) | ajrogersphilosophy

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