Is there a natural right to property?

Is there a natural right to private property?

“The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive the people of this, is in fact to deprive them of their liberty.” - Arthur Lee

In his “The Second Treatise on Government”, John Locke argues that we do have a natural right to private property and it is this argument that will be primarily focused on. His aim in the text is to defend the right of individuals to own external things, privately and almost without limitation.

“Mankind in common”

Locke opens his chapter on property with,

“Whether we consider natural Reason, which tells us, that Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation, and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence: Or Revelation, which gives us an account of those Grants God made of the World, 'tis very clear, that God has given the Earth to the Children of Men, given it to Mankind in common.”

According to Locke, the World, and everything it contains, was given by God to all of mankind such that no one person owns anything exclusively but rather everyone owns everything equally. He also claims that human beings have a fundamental right to self-preservation. He goes on to say,

“God, who hath given the World to Men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience. The Earth, and all that is therein, is given to Men for the Support and Comfort of their being.”

When broken down into components, Locke’s argument runs:

P1) The Earth and everything on it (E) belongs to every person equally.
P2) Every person has a fundamental right to self-preservation
P3) God has given every person reason to use E for self-preservation

However, there seems to be a conflict between P1 and P2 since how can one person use a part of E for self-preservation when every other person owns that part of E too. The only conclusion, says Locke, is that “there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them [i.e. part of E] some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular Man”. Using this argument, Locke provides a justification for a natural right to private property, i.e. individuals owning things that others do not.

Self-Ownership and the Means of Appropriation

Having provided a basis for his natural right claims to private property, Locke then develops his argument by explaining the means and limits of appropriation. He states,

“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.”

Sometimes known as the thesis of self-ownership, Locke claims that human beings own themselves in the same way that individuals may own external things. In Lockean self-ownership, individuals have virtually unlimited rights to control and benefit from the exercise of their own bodies and powers. It is not absolutely unlimited because individuals do not have the right to harm others using their bodies or powers unlike those living in a Hobbesian state of nature. Locke continues,

“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 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 joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.”

Locke suggests that when a person takes something out of the world by his labour, he is “mixing” his labour (i.e. part of himself) with that thing, and by the self-ownership thesis, that thing becomes his property in the same way that his body is his property. He uses the example of someone picking up acorns from under an oak saying that the labour of picking up the acorns was mixed with the acorns, which gave him the right of ownership of the acorns. Conversely, the acorns then cease to be the property of everyone else (“it excludes the common right of other Men”).
An obvious objection to this means of appropriation is that it is possible for one or a few persons to “mix their labour” with all the Earth, leaving nothing for the rest.

However Locke tackles this in the last line of the quotation above by saying that individuals can only appropriate an amount of property such that there “is enough, and as good left in common for other”. This proviso allows individuals to appropriate enough for self-preservation while also allowing others to do so as well. An individual can only appropriate as much property as he can use to his advantage without it spoiling. This stops people hoarding land that does not get used, land that Locke believes “is more than his share, and belongs to others”. As a result, individuals, who by nature are limited in labour by their bodies and powers, can only ever appropriate a limited amount of property.
So far Locke, in his eyes, has justified a natural right to own a limited amount of property, so even if we are to accept his argument, he has still only shown that there is a natural right to limited private property. In the last part of the chapter he argues that it possible to have a right to accumulate limitless property. In the words of Levine, it is a social convention that comes to Locke’s rescue!

Money and supernumeraries

Without money, individuals are limited by the amount of work they can do on their own. However, with a universal medium of exchange, individuals can put limitless amounts of land to good use by hiring others to work on it for them. By doing so, they are still satisfying Locke’s condition that only land that can be used to an individual’s advantage can be appropriated. By introducing money, Locke claims that the once limited right to property has now become limitless and so not only do we have a natural right to private property but also we have a natural right to as much private property as we can get.

Levine, Nozick and Tomato Juice

If Locke’s argument is sound then it seems as if he has successfully argued for a natural right to private property. However, his critics, amongst them Andrew Levine, point towards a number of flaws within the argument which could upset the acceptance of the conclusion.

The first objection is to Locke’s claim that God gave the world to “all men in common”. This is clearly a claim based on faith in the divine and in revelation and one that would be rejected by anyone who did not subscribe to Locke’s particular religion. It is possible for Locke’s starting point to be reformulated using secular ideas but it’s not clear how much the rest of the argument rests on this basis of divine giving. In “Engaging Political Philosophy”, Andrew Levine criticise Locke on his idea of “mixing labour”. He says

“To its evident discredit, this position seems to appeal to what anthropologists call ‘sympathetic magic,’ to the idea, common among so-called primitive peoples, that properties are transferred through contact, as when something becomes ritually unclean or ‘polluted’ when it touches something that is already in some ritually meaningful sense unclean”

It seems Levine is not convinced by the theory of “mixing” an object with one’s self, thereby making that object part of one’s self and by extension one’s property. One might agree with Levine that the object does not physically become part of the individual, but it is not necessarily unintuitive for someone who has put time and energy into their labour to reap its rewards. Levine also criticise Locke for being extremely vague about how much or what kind of labour is required to generate claims on external things. He says, “Presumably, rubbing one’s finger up and down a found piece of wood or running to exhaustion on an unowned piece of land would not do.” Robert Nozick also questions the idea of mixing and in doing so, offers an alternative explanation to Levine’s objection. In “Anarchy, State and Utopia” he asks,

“Why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?”

Nozick reformulates Locke’s idea by saying that one does not appropriate something by mixing labour with it, but rather by labouring on it and improving it to make it more valuable. By extensions, anyone is entitled to own a thing whose value he has created. Nozick himself asks why one’s entitlement should extend to the whole object rather than just to the added value one’s labour has produced. However, he gives no real argument against this and instead notes that no value-added property scheme has ever been devised. Levine is still not convinced.

“Apart from vague indications that labour must somehow be productive, that it must improve the item in question, Locke [and presumably Nozick too] had nothing helpful to say about what suffices to confer ownership.”

Another issue arises when considering Locke’s proviso that we leave “enough and as good” for others. If all but one of the apples of the Earth had been appropriated, an individual who wanted to appropriate the final one could not, since he would not be leaving “enough and as good” for others. Consequently, the individual who had appropriated the penultimate apple would also not have left enough and as good for others, and so on ad infinitum. In a world of finite resources, removing anything will diminish the common stock.

Nozick attempts to counter this criticism by altering the terms of the proviso. He says,

“Someone may be made worse off by another’s appropriation in two ways: first, by losing the opportunity to improve his situation by a particular appropriation or any one; and second, by no longer being able to use freely (without appropriation) what he previously could.”

Nozick suggests that a weaker reading of Locke’s proviso means that one can appropriate property as long as that appropriation does not worsen the situation of others. In the apple example, the individual who wanted the last apple would be free to appropriate it since he would not be worsening the situation of others. Levine thinks that this alteration goes against the grain of Locke’s moral philosophy.

“For Locke, institutional arrangements are justified if and only if they respect morally primary rights; improving well-being therefore matters, if at all, only after this condition is met.”

He continues,

“However, Nozick’s revision does make the intuition that underlies the Lockean proviso, that the harmless appropriation of unowned things is morally defensible, more plausible than Locke’s own formulation does. It does so, though, at the cost of introducing a consideration foreign to Locke’s way of thinking into the very heart of his theory.”

Although Levine seems to prefer Nozick’s formulation, he thinks it is too alien to Locke’s overall theory. That does not necessarily mean that the theory is flawed. It is clear that Levine is not persuaded by Locke’s argument. Nozick, being a libertarian at heart, agrees with the essence of Locke’s theory but prefers to reformulate certain areas that he thinks do not work. It is difficult to conclude whether Locke’s natural right of property should be accepted since we know from history that initial acquisition of property was not done on a Lockean basis. If that is the case, how can we accept a current economic system as just, when the basis on which it rests i.e. Lockean appropriation was not the system it grew out of?


Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge: CUP, 1960.
Levine, Andrew. Engaging Political Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

Another objection to add to those listed.

From there how can one logically reach here:

If everything is owned equally, how does one “exchange” ownership? The process of exchange, as an idea and in practice, refutes his earlier premise. If there is an X, which is not owned equally but instead privately, then not everything is owned equally. Equallity of ownership, as per his argument, diminishes with the idea of value. What he seems to be arguing is that value is inherent in the property, whereas I believe if he were to say that value is the result of the exchange all property could still be owned equally, and exchanged as such.
Also then, would it not be that the true labor is the exchange, from which values are assigned after the fact?

I’m glad I found this thread. I’m almost done reading the chapter on Property in Locke’s 2nd essay.

I want to remark that Ben thinks Locke is saying that all in Nature is equally owned by all:

What I think Locke means to communicate is that nature is available to all, not that it is equally owned by all. These two ideas are not the same. I think this because Locke goes on to write about having more land than needed for self-preservation but through labor and ingenuity that person can make sure there’s no spoilage of fauna and flora (my words) by exchanging those items for money (read Section 34-39).

Remember, flora and fauna isn’t property until labor is extended in changing it. So all the land is common until labor (human power) is spent on altering it for one’s preservation (i.e., property is created).

Clearly, Locke has no sense of ecological principles - as it wasn’t an area of study until around the 20th Century.

Locke also leaves open false interpretations of spoiling nature or nature going to waste. This was probably used as justification to run off the Indians.

sure, that was a part of the justification of manifest destiny… the Indians weren’t “run off”… it was attempted genocide pure and simple…


When Locke say’s:

He that gathered a hundred bushels of acorns or apples had thereby a property in them; they were his goods as soon as gathered. He was only to look that he used them before they spoiled, else he took more than his share, and robbed others.
(Second Treatise 46)

He was probably referring to the law and custom of the American Indians, who were still hunters and primitive farmers, rather than some false interpretation about things spoiling.

The Second Treatise seems to be speculating, at least in part, as to how property and government originated in the first place. Hence, Lockes statement:

Thus in the beginning all the world was America (section 49).

Locke wrote this in the late 17th century when there were only a small number of Europeans living on the east coast of North America. The rest of the inhabitants were small tribes that were still engaged in hunting and primitive agriculture, like most of Europe would have been in pre-Roman times.

I would want to ask first, are you using Locke’s definition of natural, or another that you have not highlighted thus far?


Please include others. Let’s discuss. :slight_smile:

Due courtesy extended to ben, from whom this thread will need to progress further.

As with chess, one must wait one’s turn. Protocol, you understand. I’m rather interested to hear what the young man has to say.


Is there a natural right to own part of the sea or ocean for a walking Biped?

In some sense. There is a natural right to the product of your labor.

I do not see where Locke in his Second Treatise of Government say’s property ownership is “unlimited”. The Second Treatise is a continuation of the “First Treatise” which is a rebuttal against Sir Robert Filmer who advocated the divine right of kings and slavery.

Having thus rebuked the argument for the “divine right of absolute power by monarchs” in the First Treatise, Locke then lays out in the Second Treatise what the true origin of civil government is. Hence the title “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government”.

But, more to the point: does Locke argue for one to acquire “unlimited” or nearly “unlimited” amounts of property? I say No. Locke puts a great deal of emphasis on labor (honest work) as to how property would have originated in primitive societies. Also, the introduction of money discussed in chapter 5 seems to be a speculation on how money originated in the first place. The origin of money being antecedent to written historical records.

One should also compare sections 31, 36 and 51 in chapter 5 of the Second Treatise with Lockes eighth Essay on the Law of Nature, part of which reads:

Nature has provided a certain profusion of goods for the use and convenience of men, and the things have been bestowed in a definite way and in a predetermined quantity…And so, when any man snatches for himself as much as he can, he takes away from another man’s heap…

The title to the eighth “Essay on the Law of Nature” is “Is Every Man’s Own Interest the Basis of Natural Law? No”. Hence, from these considerations I would say that Locke does not argue for “unlimited” or even “excessive amounts” of property to be owned by any individual.

Regarding some of the statements about Locke and the American Indians, one should be aware that John Locke’s reading list included this book by Gabriel Sagard: “The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons” (1632).

Sagard was a Catholic missionary who lived with the Huron Indians in what is now Ontario Canada. His book documents their laws and customs. Locke quotes from Sagard in some of his minor essays. So Locke not only read Sagards “Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons”, but must have enjoyed reading it. Here is an excerpt from Sagards book:

[b]“It is their custom (of the Huron Indians) for every family to live on it’s fishing, hunting, and planting…uncleared land is common property, and anyone is allowed to clear and sow as much as he will and can, and according to his needs; and this cleared land remains in his possession for as many years as he continues to cultivate and make use of it.”

[Sagard, “The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons”,chapter 8][/b]

Compare that section from Sagard’s book with the following from Lockes Second Treatise:

[b]“this original law of Nature for the beginning of property, in what was before common, still takes place”

“As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common.”

[Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Section 30 and 32][/b]

One should compare parts of Sagards book with some of these sections from Lockes Second Treatise before forming any judgement about Locke and the Indians.

Saying it’s a natural right makes it political. Nature and rights are not the same piss.

Whether it’s one’s right or not, it’s what terratorial and even non-terratorial lifeforms need in some measure in order to live.

This is so incredibly simple and obvious that the philosophical complications are all totally unnecissary.

Being terratorial is an aspect of the biology of most life.

A portion of terratory is like food and water, and often has both food and water on it.

The whole idea of ‘rights’ is a political concept. Therefore ‘natural rights’ doesn’t make any sense. Rights are something you get from a government so that you think you have some semblance of freedom.

no rights are not given by government, rights are taken/demanded by individuals from everyone else…


So you’re arguing that people inherently have rights, before they are taken away? I really find this hard to swallow. I don’t see any scientific justification for ‘rights’. Why does anyone have a ‘right’ to do anything? Where do these ‘rights’ come from? Rights are a social construct at best, if not a purely political one.

no, people don’t have anything.

rights come from the end of a gun.

as I said, rights are taken/demanded by individuals from everyone else…


oh, my mistake, i totally misunderstood what you meant by that. We’re more or less in agreement.

If I recall correctly, one of my Poli Sci profs contended that what this actually was, was an argument for the hoarding of money and the practice of usury. Taken in the context of the age in which he lived, this was the beginning of the rise of the merchant class and the revolt against what we might call the ancien regime.

What form of wealth never spoils? Not the kind of wealth possessed by land owning Aristocrats, the nobility, and the Church, but the money owned by merchants and bankers.