Locke on property

Locke’s account of private property begins with the supposition that God has given men, through Adam, the earth to all—at least, that is its intended original state. Since Locke already rejects that anyone has a natural right to rule, e.g., the divine right of kings, he therefore rejects the idea that all land was originally owned privately and bestowed by God upon some universal monarch. But even though we are also created by God, we are distinct from nature in that we have the ability to reason abstractly and formulate ends/means, and can thus be called self-owners, as though mind and body were two distinct objects. The mind as subject has exclusive control of the body (the object), which is how the statement that one owns oneself can be made to be coherent. As one owns oneself exclusively, it apparently follows that one’s labor is also under the domain of self-ownership.

But here we have a dilemma under Locke’s thought. If all immovable property, i.e., land, etc., is originally in the commons, yet man is self-owned, how does he come to extend his control over a specific parcel of land, in order to claim that it is his, that it is under his exclusive authority much in the same was as is his body? Locke maintains that there is such a method of appropriating property—there must be, for its absence would entail various absurdities. If there were no way to appropriate property, then mankind would perish, according to Locke. God, of course in his infinite wisdom, did not intend this. If his beginning account of God’s grant of the Earth into the commons is accurate, then it follows that there must be some way of obtaining property out of the commons. Here Locke provides an answer: as it has been already mentioned that we own our own labor, we can come to own property through mixing labor with it.

Once an individual labors with a piece of property that is in the commons, he adds value to it and thus removes the common right of others to the property. The process is one of conjoining—a thing is conjoined and falls under the predicate ‘things owned by X,’ when an individual adds something that was not previously present in nature. Natures do not have the power, for instance, to carry things, digest things, or move things, with intent attached. Anything that imbues an object with intentionality is sufficient to own it as well. This is why Locke addresses the question as to what exactly qualifies under the doctrine of mixing labor, when he asks whether merely picking apples from trees is enough. Must he also carry them, digest them, set them up in a row, or chop them into pieces, in order to call them his? The question is not a frivolous one and will become important when more rigor is applied to Locke’s conception of private property. Locke, however, does address one of the objections that is immediately obvious. It does not mean that because one has the right to appropriate some property, that he therefore has the right to property to the extent that he impoverishes or negatively affects others. God clearly intended that all should enjoy what he gave in abundance. It is unjust for anyone to take so much that it either spoils, is destroyed, or leaves others with non. There is enough for all to enjoy to the fullest—there is enough land enough water to satisfy the desires of all.

But there are a couple problems with this account. The first difficult is a continuum problem, that is, when an individual mixes his labor with a plot of land, then who is to say how much land he has? Is it only that which an individual has clearly and obviously mixed his labor with? If it is, then there appear to be some difficulties that arise. Usually within any given claimed area, it is impossible for each and every section of that property to have one’s labor mixed with it. So are we left with patches of un-owned property that exist within a fenced off area? Could people theoretically teleport onto those sections and avoid the charge of trespassing? On the opposite side, suppose an individual mixes his labor with a plot of land—does that entitle him to the whole area or just a small section? Does that entitle him to everything above (air rights) and everything below, eve to the other side of the earth? If stars came into alignment with one’s property, does one also own them as well? Moreover, there is another problem with the technological challenges that we face today that would have been utterly foreign to Locke. Can an individual, for instance, fly a crop duster over a vast area that he could never practically use and claim it for himself by virtue of him adding something to nature that was not previously there? This seems to be little more than gratuitous flag planting, rather than the establishment of a legitimate claim. And another similar objection forwarded by Nozick is: does my pouring of radioactive tomato juice into the ocean entitle me to the entire ocean, or does it mean that I have relinquished my tomato juice? I don’t take continuum problems seriously.

If Locke wants to limit acquisition to specific instances of physical interaction with nature, it may avoid some important objections, but then it falls on previously listed difficulties, such as the teleportation problem, in which it’s not possible to really claim absolute dominion over a fenced area. Moreover, there is the problem with Locke’s proviso, which states that one may appropriate property so long as it does not worsen the condition of others. In order for a theory of private property to be sound, we should expect a more readily objective and quantifiable standard, for otherwise we are confronted with the vagaries of what exactly worsens the conditions of others. Is each claim to land brought before a bureaucratic board that arbitrarily decides what property qualifies a worsening of a condition? Of course, we can readily differentiate between obvious examples when juxtaposed, but not every case will be so easy. Furthermore, there will be a host of variables unaccounted for. For instance, what happens if the initial land claim is granted, but the board finds five years later that it is indeed responsible for worsening the condition of others. Is property always subject, then, to review and revocation? It would seem that this is not what Locke had in mind, although this is what might follow, given the undeveloped features of his theory that are exploitable.

End note: maybe one of these criticisms is meaningful—most everything else can dealt with using concrete judgment on particulars.