I have a very rudimentary understanding of Locke's labor theory of property. The key argument is expressed in Chapter 5 of Book II of the Two Treatises of Government:

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. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, 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 hath 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.

This is, appropriating something (e.g. land) is valid as long as it comes from its own work and there is sufficient left for others.

The issue for which I have found no clarification in the text is the following. Say that a boat with 100 people crashes into a deserted, isolated island. Each one appropriates a 100th of the land. A few years later, another boat with 100 people crashes into the island. Since these people have no land, they must rent a place from the landowners. Yet, if the original 100 individuals would have appropriated half of the land, they would have left space for the rest to also own some land. Thus, is the original appropriation of land not in line with Locke's conditions?

It might seem evident that Locke's condition about being enough for others refers to contemporary fellow men, and not a future with larger population. But can we simply dismiss the problem I am raising as such? This is, can we just say that, because a resource was divided in a time when population was small, there is no injustice in any sense by any subsequent situation where just a small proportion of the larger population owns the resource? Had Locke something to say on this respect? Maybe in another text of him?

1 Answer 1



Locke's justification of the right to private property is based on the Christian paradigm, as evidenced by the citations from the Bible in his work. The question that Locke wanted to answer in his book was this: “Given the paradigm (i.e., God created the world for all humanity to share in commune), how can privatization be justified? Locke maintains that the consent of the people cannot be the foundation of private property since, if this were the case, we would all have died of starvation as we would have needed the consent of others for us to pick and eat an apple. Locke maintains that God wants us to live and prosper. For Locke, the foundation of private property is labor. Locke asserts that we rightfully own the fruit of our labor precisely because we own our body, which is given by God.

Two answers

Based on this background, let’s try to answer your question. While Locke did not address the Island Scenario that you pose, he did consider similar one in the context of extreme privatization. He asks, “Will we run out of land to own?” Locke offers two optimistic answers.

One answer is based on the notion of plentiness, which God, due to his benevolent nature, would have provided us with. (see section 33 of his book) As a man of 17th century when the discovery of America is still fresh in people's minds, Locke asserts that “there is land enough in the world to suffice double the inhabitants”(see section 38). The thinking of Thomas Malthus of 19th century wasn’t yet around. To Locke, the next boat people should be able to find neighboring vacant island which they can lay claim on.

His second answer is based on the assumption that all land is privatized. Even in this case, the second boat people need not worry, nor should the islanders. The optimism is due to two reasons: productivity and the condition of no spoilage. Locke believes that, when one owns a parcel of land, he would improve the land to result in surplus food. This idea is in line with Aristotle’s justification of private property that communism would lead to the tragedy of commons. More people means more labor, which means more production of consumable goods. Once surplus production is established, the condition of no spoilage kicks in. The no spoilage condition states that privatization is justified in sofar as the perison who privatizes can enjoy the goods of the privatization. According to Locke, if the person lets the goods be spoiled, his owning of the goods is no longer justified, and others have the right to the goods that would go bad. Appealing to the commonsensical notion of the diminishing marginal utility, Locke asserts that there would be plenty for everyone to enjoy.

Money money money

The introduction of money ruins the utopia of the private property constrained by the condition of no spoilage. Unlike any other goods, money is a value that can be stored without any spoilage. Following Locke’s logic then, storing money without any upper bound is justified. Thus some Locke scholars argue that Locke would find no moral wrong in the modern form of capitalism manifested by extreme inequality in wealth.

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    Thanks for the detailed answer. I need to digest it, as I don't quite get it all.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Oct 14, 2017 at 9:20

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