John Locke’s Theory of Property Rights

Political theorists in the 17th century were very concerned about the origins of private property rights. In his June 2020 Summer Seminar lecture, Dr. Eric Mack, professor emeritus at Tulane University, explained how philosopher John Locke broke away from the two dominant 17th century property rights theories.

The first dominant theory held that the sovereign of any country—the king or political ruler— “was the baseline owner of all-natural stuff,” Mack said.

So, the sovereign owned the land, he owned the fields, he owned the forest, he owned the ore, he owned the wildlife, and the only way a subject could become a property owner in any segment of that was for the sovereign to grant that particular individual a right to this field, this river, the animals that were living in so-and-so forest.

-Dr. Eric Mack
Dr. Eric Mack

The second dominant 17th century theory of property rights was that natural land, raw material, and wildlife belonged to people—all people.

So Locke had a lot of arguments against these, but his main argument was if all raw material belongs to the sovereign or all raw material belongs to the people at large, then no one will ever be able to do anything to achieve their own happiness or self-preservation, except by permission of either the sovereign or the people that large. You’ll have to go hat in hand to the sovereign or hat in hand to the people and say, Please give me permission to pick up this acorn so I don’t starve to death.

-Dr. Eric Mack

In other words, the two dominant property rights theories were both incompatible with what Locke believes was individuals’ natural right of self-preservation—our ownership of ourselves. If we have the inalienable right to pursue our own happiness, we must be able to acquire property through our own labor.

How does Locke’s theory of property make such acquisition possible? “If we have a right to ourselves, we have our right to our labor,” Mack explained. “You own your energy, you own your talents.” When we use our labor to possess raw material and shape it for a purpose we’re investing our human capital, and the result is a mix of raw material and our labor.

And Locke thought, it seems very intuitively plausible that if you have done that, and now somebody comes along and grabs that object from you, doesn’t have to physically attack you, but grabs the object without your consent, then that person is making off with the human capital which you have invested in the object, which you still have a right to in virtue of your self-ownership.

Dr. Eric Mack

Watch Dr. Eric Mack’s full lecture, “Property Rights,” in which he also explores Robert Nozick’s end-state theories of distributed justice and patterned theories of distributive justice. You can find additional, details on Summer Seminars and previous lecture videos, graduate and faculty programs, and funding opportunities, at TheIHS.org.

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