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Research: Locke's political philosophy

Philosophy : Political Philosophy

After the English civil war, politics was dominated by the question of the "norman yoke" (i.e. the status quo), and what civil institutions should be like. Locke was a contemporary of many levellers, who fought for universal franchise and, to varying degrees, for the levelling of property rights and distribution, from those who called for universal rights to property, to radicals who claimed for the abolition of private property and the instigation of communal living. Opponents (largely conservative) to the levellers charged them with undermining the institution of property itself, and framed the debate in terms of property and its relation to the state. At the same time, the English were one of many nations exploring the Americas, and trying to claim rights to the land there in the footsteps of the puritans. Locke was one such property owner, and so his project can be understood both as an attack on the conservative elements of the contemporary debate, and as a defense of property as a socially necessary institution.

In stating the case for property, the levellers and their sympathisers made reference to the state of nature, and used theological arguments to suggest both that property is just and that the conservative landlords' use of land was fundamentally unjust.

Locke's writing was also a reaction against Sir Robert Filmer, and to a lesser extent Thomas Hobbes and other monarchists, who claimed a divine absolute right to power on the behalf of the monarchy. As Laslett has pointed out, Filmer's treatise Patriacha traced the lineage of kings back to Adam in the bible, and blamed Adam's fall from Eden on his attempting to exercise his personal liberty against the wishes of an absolute God. So one could say that Locke was forced to provide a theological basis for his arguments, irrespective of his own beliefs (though it seems more than likely that Locke did believe in the theological basis anyway).

God, and the law of nature

Locke's logical foundation and ultimate justification is God, who, according to Locke's interpretation of the bible, gave mankind collectively the earth, and whom all men are obliged to obey. His method is the application of reason, to find the institutions and social/political norms that will best promote the survival of all men.

Since God created us, we are all God's property. To Locke, this means that our first responsibility is self-preservation, since to alow ourselves to come to harm would be failing to uphold our obligation to God. We must also not damage others, nor allow them to come to harm else it conflicts with our self-preservation, since that is also damaging God's property. Stewardship of the earth and of other men is therefore implied, although our first duty is always to ourselves, and our duty to others only holds us insofar as they must exist. Locke's implicit logic here is that with property we care only that it continues to exist, which is an odd assumption, since one could easily extend Locke's basis for stewardship to say that God would want his posessions kept in good condition, and that we therefore have a further responsibility to ensure all people enjoy a certain level of prosperity and happiness.

Locke begins with the state of nature, by which he means the state of affairs prior to the formation of a political state, and where there are no requirements of positive law, only our duties to God. In the state of nature, Locke asserts, we also have the divine right to exercise our gift of reason to decide upon and impose morality. We therefore have the right to punish wrongdoers to return them and God's property as a whole from an immoral to a moral state of affairs, and to prevent further similarly immoral acts. In this, Locke allows the right to punishment to go beyond the right to self-preservation, to include the preservation of a particular social order throughout a political community, rather like Hobbes.

But though he allows for the right of punishment, Locke says that it must be decided upon by an impartial authority, such that the right to self-preservation is respected, and to impose morality isotropically throughout society, without problems of self-interest biasing decisions. Also, if we were to allow arbitrary power, we wouldn't be able to perform our duty to God; we would neutralise the problem of others threatening our right to self-preservation, but in doing so submit the right to an absolute dictator. So Locke suggests that any state of affairs more dangerous than the state of nature is immoral. In other words, to perform our duties to God, we must ensure that political institutions make life less dangerous, and more conducive to the preservation of all human lives, than the state of nature. The only way to guarantee this is therefore to have a contractual handover of authority to a government, one to which all would consent, and which violates nobody's natural rights.


There are many conflicting opinions as to why Locke wrote an entire chapter defending private property. Whilst some suggest it was part of his overall project, providing a basis for the rights of rebellion, and others suggest it was merely a defence of the propertied classes against the poor, Lloyd Thomas, in Locke on Government plausibly suggests that Locke was trying to defend citizens from the monarchs, who tended to appropriate property to raise funds for wars and other costly ventures. Locke wanted to show that the monarch had to go through Parliament, i.e. through the people's representatives, to take any property, so that the transfer was based upon consent rather than arbitrary control, and didn't violate people's natural rights. Of course this can be seen as yet another justification of rebellion, and so it does seem to fit into Locke's project of delimiting and defining Government.

What follows is a short essay on Locke's thoughts on property

"They are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one anothers pleasure."

In this quotation, Locke states the origins of property, which form the basis of much of his theory of Government. To justify both a system that defends the individual from the improper actions of Government and a landowner from the claims of the less fortunate, Locke needed to explain why things, and in particular land, that begin in the commons comes to be exclusively owned by one or more indiduals. He did this with a labour based theory of property, itself based upon a special conception of God and his reason on creating man. But both his motivations and his arguments are suspect.

Locke's theory of property begins with God, who, according to Locke, gave the world to "mankind in common ... to make use of it to the best advantages of life, and convenience" (Locke, sections 25-26), and who also gave each individual property to their own person. This rests upon Locke's assertion that there is a creator, God, and that we have a responsibility to God to protect ourselves first, and our fellow men second. In other words, our own subsistence is our most important priority, closely followed by our own ability to enjoy a good life, followed by our responsibility to ensure the subsistence of other men (Locke, section 27). But whilst this may be taken either as a justification for communism or capitalism, Locke quickly states that "there must of necessity be a means to appripriate them some way or other before they can be of any use", putting property firmly in the control of the individual rather than the community. In other words, Locke says that for us to fulfill our obligation to God we must put property exclusively in the hands of individuals.

The theological basis of this first claim can be easily removed, since one can say that in order that we survive as individuals, and as a species, we must sanction private property; we place value on mere survival and further upon pleasure itself, irrespective of our obligation to a questionable Deity. This itself is, in Locke's writing, an empirically unfounded claim, since communist societies have sustained themselves, if inefficiently. Further, the fact that he claims that we require private property for our survival, and yet doesn't make any claims for commons to remain suggests that his account is lacking, since even the some of the most laissez faire economists today make claims for commons as positive externalities (e.g. parks). Locke doesn't object to collective property, so long as it is jointly owned and controlled by groups of consenting people. But then using this line of argument, one could suggest a defence of communism based upon Locke's theory, in that so long as everyone in the communist society consents to putting their labour into the collective pot, the communal ownership of property is legitimate. It then begins to look a little pointless, constructing only a defence of the concept of property per se against anarchists. But that is an aside.

Now that he has, in his mind, established the necessity of property, Locke needed to justify its origins. He wanted to show that even without any form of political union, in the "state of nature", we would appropriate property, and that this was entirely justifiable. He did this based on labour. When he claimed that we all have a right to our own person, he also said we have a right to our labour, and so it is our right to own the results of our labour. Yet whenever we work, we mix that labour with material from the commons, by, for example, planting seeds or cutting down a tree for firewood. In doing so, we face an obvious choice: we either allow our labour to enter the commons, or appropriate the materials we have used. If we accept Locke's account of the necessity of private property, it is obvious that we must appropriate the commons as private property.

In the state of nature this argument is quite compelling, since Locke's conception of human nature is broadly selfish, and so for me to survive I must be able to stop others from using my land so that I might cultivate my necessary food. But since he lived in a large political union, and wanted to produce a model for just governance, Locke saw the institution of property as the ideal basis. It is in property that we fulfill our basic obligation to God, and in which we find our first consensual transactions with other people, which lead to political situations and that also require at some point an executive power to protect from injustice. So the quotation upon which this essay is based is extremely significant, since it forms one of the bases of government insofar as it justifies that which determines the shape and extent of said government. Locke's theory of property "is not that the existence of private property serves the public good, but rather that rights of private property are among the rights that men bring with them into political society and for whose protection political society is set-up" (Waldon, p.137) It is also a theory of historical entitlement (Nozick, ch.7), and a theory of rights that emphasises that which is gained by virtue of individual action rather than by virtue of a state. In other words, Locke's theory of property sets the basis for a wide range of liberal theories, from those verging on the anarchistic to those found in mainstream liberal political parties.

As it stands then, the quotation may seem unobjectionable, particularly if one appraises its context uncritically. But when put into context, and when subjected to a critical analysis in context, it is more problematic than it may seem.

To begin with, Locke cannot explain how one comes to own an exclusive right to land that is required to begin labouring on it; one cannot, according to Locke himself, begin to cultivate land until one has gained its exclusive use. And yet one cannot, according to Locke, claim exclusive rights until one has mixed the land with one's labour. To get around this, one must either sanction the arbitrary occupation of previously unoccupied land, or sanction what Olivecrona described as a conditional justification for ownership, based upon the subsequent cultivation of the land (Waldon, p.174). Neither seem particularly satisfactory, leaving a lacuna in Locke's theory.

This may be explained by reference to another of Locke's thoughts, that "God has given all things richly" and that there is a "plenty of natural provisions" (Locke, section 31). In fact, he goes on to say that the "appropriation of land, by improving it" does not constitute "any prejudice to any other Man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use" (Locke, section 33). In other words, contrary to the standard theories of scarcity upon which modern economics are based, Locke's theory of property was based upon the idea that there would always be plenty to go around. That may be because at the time of writing this, Locke was investing in land in the newly colonised America, a vast land sparsely populated, and so the arbitrary occupation of unoccupied land would be unproblematic. But that cannot be said of today, and so it leaves the origins of property under question, undermining his whole project as he saw it.

There is a further problem with his theory of labour based property that arises from his dealings in America, and that perhaps provided a motivation for his work. The land he was buying up in America was frequently seized from the native Americans by extreme force, the combination of which with disease resulting in perhaps the first modern genocide. His justification of property based upon labour is laden with references to this colonialist expansion, first justifying the native Americans' right to "own" the fruit they pick and the animals they hunt, and then justifying the siezure of their land based upon their unindustrious waste of said land. To Locke, quanity is arbitrarily valued above diversity, and is seen almost as an end in itself, and so the "waste" of the land by the natives, who could support a fraction of the number of people Europeans could in an equivalent area of land, was almost like a crime against God. So he justified the colonialist expansion with two premisses: property is based upon labour, and value is to be found in quantity and industriousness. It is therefore right that the Europeans take the wasted land from the natives, work upon it and claim it as their own.

Even leaving his motivations aside, it seems that Locke's justification of property is almost as arbitrary as the claims to absolute power on the part of the monarchy that he was trying to challenge. Despite providing compelling arguments for why political societies ought to be based upon property, he fails to in the first place construct an indubitable basis for property, and so is open to attacks from anarchists and communists alike. That said, if one wishes to defend the concept of private property in any context, a labour based system still seems compelling.


R. Bellamy and A. Ross (eds), A Textual Introduction to Social and Political Theory (1996), Manchester

J. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. P. Laslett (2003), Cambridge

J. Waldon, The Right to Private Property (1988)