John Locke on Property Political Theory Analysis

In Locke’s political theory there is a large amount of emphasis put on property. Locke is using the word property to mean all that we can own: land, food, water, animals and so on. Therefore, it is mainly economics which Locke’s work on property is concerned with, and specifically the “labour theory of value” which provides the role of economic regulation in his political theory. Locke believes the Earth was given to all men equally by God. God created us to “subdue” and use nature for our own needs.

He begins in chapter five, “Of Property” in his “Second Treatise of Government”, by qualifying this claim, that God has given the world to man, by using references from the Bible. For instance he quotes king David saying that God “has given the earth to the children of men”*. Locke interprets this to mean that we should use all that is in the world to use, ourselves, as mankind, as support and comfort. Although Locke says that all men have a common right to all that God has given us in the world, individual persons are also able to have property of their own, that no body has a right to but him.

This which the individual owns is his labour and the “work of his hands”*. Therefore, by combining this labour with the land that is commonly his makes whatever he does so solely his in his own person. Locke believes, because no body can question that a man’s labour is something that he owns or has a right to, that something that contains his labour, such as a land that he works on or an animal that he has looked after, must therefore also belong to him.

By combining his labour with the earth, this earth is removed from the common pool of nature and therefore excludes the right that other men had previously had to own it. Locke gives several examples of how this can happen. The one example that in reading his work on property that seems most intuitive to me is that of a water fountain. Locke says how all of the water in the fountain is common to all men, however once some body takes a glass and scoops some of the water out for him to drink, the water in the glass is undoubtedly his to own.

And it would therefore be wrong of anyone to take the water from his glass and drink it themselves for the man who has taken the water from the water fountain has put his labour into that water that is now in his glass; in doing this he has taken it from the “hands of nature, where it was common” and has appropriated it to himself because he has put something of himself, his labour, into it. However, if just by collecting water or, another of Locke’s examples, collecting acorns from under a tree, makes these things yours, then what is to stop any one man indulging himself and taking as much as he is able to take.

Locke considers this objection, however, he has an answer to it. Locke quotes the Bible again, saying that “God has given us all things richly”, but he has given it to us to enjoy. Therefore, a man can take as much as he wants to be able to enjoy it, before it spoils and if he were to take any more of it, then this would be unfair and belong to other people. This would be the wrong thing to do because the world was not given to man by God to spoil or destroy.

God has given the world for the improvement through diligent man, by investing his labour, not in order to be wasted by the greedy or covetous. On top of this a person can not cause any harm to his fellow man by using the land and investing his labour in it, to make it his own property because there is plenty of land in the world for men to make their own in turn. All the same, in countries like our own it is true that no one can appropriate an area of it without all of the other people in that country agreeing to it.

This is because in the instance of having a government and laws the land that falls in this jurisdiction is under joint ownership of this country. Locke believes that in the civilised and cultivated world we live in today that this is for the best, because if all country men can make use of the whole of the country, this is better than each trying to gain use of a small section of it to themselves.

This is my interpretation of what Locke has said on property, however there are many different arguments on what these rules and laws that Locke has put forward mean for how we should act in the real world. For example, James Tully puts forward Robert Nozicks example of pouring tomato juice into the sea. Although you may rightfully own the tomato juice, like one would rightfully own their labour, by combining it with the sea, something that is common to all, this would not in turn make you the owner of the sea. 1.