How absolute is the right to property in Locke's political theory?

The purpose of this essay is to consider how absolute the property right that John Locke presents in the Two Treatises of Government is. I argue that Locke's property right is almost absolute, though Macpherson is exaggerating when asserting that it has no limits. Drawing on Waldron's arguments, I demonstrate that the supposed 'enough and as good' proviso is not a limitation at all. I maintain that the spoilage proviso amounts to little. Utilizing Sreenivasan's arguments, I show that the subsistence limitation is considerably less important than Ashcraft asserts. I conclude that the limits on the Lockean property right amount to little, and that it is therefore almost absolute.

The right to property

Locke bases property rights in natural law. He writes:

... natural reason ... 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 (II, 25; 1)

The same conclusion is supported by Scripture. "... God ... has given the Earth ... to Mankind in common." (II, 25). Thus, the world is originally the common property of all mankind. Locke then attempts to demonstrate that private property is possible, i.e. that it is legitimate for individuals to claim some part of the Earth as their own and exclude all others from its use (II, 25).

Locke has a "typically bourgeois" conception of the relation of man and nature (Macpherson, 1962: 236). He thought private appropriation was necessary for human survival (Waldron, 1988: 212-213; Zucker, 2000: 31; Horne, 1990: 50). It is important that Locke does not seem to have a conception of communal appropriation (Isaac, 1987: 118; Bishop, 1997: 322). The choice he sees is between private property and universal starvation (II, 28). Private property is justified by the very nature of things, since the law of nature commands human life to be preserved (Ashcraft, 1987: 126). "The condition of human life ... necessarily introduces private Possessions" (II, 35).

This is the general justification for private property. But how does a particular object become someone's property? According to Locke's theory of appropriation, one acquires property by mixing one's labour with objects (II, 27). Picking an apple makes the apple mine; tilling a piece of land makes it mine. When an individual has thus mixed his labour with objects the objects are no longer the common property of mankind (II, 28).

... Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to ... (II, 27)
The labour that was mine, removing them (objects) out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my Property in them. (II, 28)

Ashcraft argues that the natural right to property only covers property necessary for survival (Ashcraft, 1987: 126). I.e., there is only a natural right the amount of "... meat, drink, clothing, and firing" that suffices for bare subsistence (Ashcraft, 1994: 244). Ashcraft is mistaken. Firstly, Locke never says the right to property is limited to bare subsistence. Furthermore, the logic of Locke's argument does not require such a conclusion. Even though the initial justification for private property is survival, it does not follow that once survival is ensured, the right to property ceases. Secondly, Locke writes of labour creating a "right to" the "Fruits of the Earth", and of the Law of Nature giving us property through labour (II, 31). Since this right to property is derived from the law of nature, it is a natural right. As I will show below, the amount of property acquireable through labour is essentially unlimited. Thus, the law of nature does give individuals a natural right to property, even beyond the level necessary for survival.

The right to private property is based in natural law. Therefore, the legitimate limits to that right must also derive from the law of nature. Government, for instance, cannot limit the right beyond what natural law requires. To ascertain how absolute the right to property in Locke's political theory is, one must therefore assess the alleged natural law limits to that right.


According to the conventional interpretation, Locke asserts three natural law limits to the acquisition of private property. The first is the 'spoilage proviso'. Locke writes:

As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a Property in. Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. (II, 31)

So, for instance, I can legitimately appropriate as many apples as I want to, provided I eat all of them and none of them spoils. In the same way, one may own as much land as one is able to work on; but if you do not utilize the land, it is not your property.

The introduction of money revolutionizes the situation (II, 36; II, 50). Since money does not spoil, there is no longer any limitation on how many apples one may pick, since they can be exchanged for money. Nor is there any limit on how much land one may own - even if you cannot consume all that is produced by the land yourself, you can exchange the produce for money.

The effect of the spoilage proviso is much less than would seem at first. It does not limit the amount of property that an individual may have (Waldron, 1988: 209).

... the exceeding of the bounds of his just Property not lying in the largeness of his Possession, but the perishing of any thing uselesly in it. (II, 46)

Moreover, the definition of what constitutes 'use', i.e. non-spoilage of something, is left to the property holder. What is use to one individual may be spoilage to another. There is no universal definition. Waldron points out that Locke includes "aesthetic uses and the use of the object as a commodity in exchange." (Waldron, 1988: 207)

As we have seen, the spoilage proviso is further undermined once money is introduced. As Waldron points out, Macpherson is wrong in asserting that the proviso is annulled with the foundation of the money economy (Waldron, 1988: 209). It would be absurd to think that the limitation somehow dissappears when money is adopted, since the proviso derives from natural law and thus from God. The limitation is still there. It just doesn't limit anything.


The other supposed natural limitation to private property is the sufficiency proviso. According to the traditional reading, Locke asserts that one has a right to appropriate property from nature only if 'enough and as good' is left for others to appropriate. Waldron has challenged this interpretation, and I think his reading is correct (Waldron, 1988: 209-218; Waldron, 1979; Sreenivasan, 1995: 37-41). Waldron argues that in the passages usually used to base the 'enough and as good' limitation Locke is simply describing what happened when there was plenty of land and other goods to appropriate, not prescribing any limitation on the appropriation (Waldron, 1988: 210-211).

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of Land ...] any prejudice to any other Man, since there was still enough, and as good left ... (II, 33)

Locke is saying that 'enough and as good' was left, not that the proviso limits legitimate appropriation (Waldron, 1988: 211). Locke is simply making an empirical observation (Horne, 1990: 52). Nowhere does he explicitly state the sufficiency proviso; it has simply been inferred by commentators (Waldron, 1979: 321). Locke himself seems to conceive of only one limitation to property, and that is the spoilage proviso (II, 31; Waldron, 1988: 210).

The right to subsistence

The third limitation on private property deriving from natural law is that all men have a right to a bare subsistence (I, 42; Horne, 1990: 57-58). Seemingly Locke is arguing that if an individual has appropriated more property than necessary for his own survival, and another individual has not, the one without property automatically has a right to the other's surplus. This is Ashcraft's interpretation (Ashcraft, 1994: 243; Ashcraft, 1987: 127).

Drawing on Sreenivasan and Waldron's accounts, I would like to suggest a slightly different reading based on the following passage (Sreenivasan, 1995; Waldron, 1988; Waldron, 1979; 2).

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. (my italics) (II, 27)

The crucial bit is the clause "at least" (Waldron, 1988: 210). I think the following rephrasing of the passage is correct: "No one has a right to another's property when there is enough and as good left for others, and perhaps even in that case" (Waldron, 1979: 321) Others have no right whatsoever to an individual's property when 'enough and as good' are left for them to appropriate. Thus, individuals who lack property are not entitled to the surplus of someone else's property as long as 'enough and as good' is left.

Ashcraft cites I 42 in favour of his argument that the law of nature gives the propertyless a right to the surplus of the propertied (Ashcraft, 1994: 243). The passage reads:

... Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another's Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise ...

Ashcraft does quote the part I have emphasized, but ignores its implications. Locke is clearly qualifying the right to another's surplus. The mere fact of poverty gives no such right. It is only when the propertyless has no means of subsistence that he has a right to another's surplus. Thus, Ashcraft's quote from the First Treatise actually undermines his argument and supports mine.

Sreenivasan points out that even when all land has been appropriated, this does not automatically give the propertyless a right to the surplus of the property owners (Sreenivasan, 1995: 45). It is important to separate subsistence itself from the means of subsistence (Sreenivasan, 1995: 41-47). God gives men the means to provide for their subsistence. He does not rain down "... meat, drink, clothing ..." and so forth from heaven (this is Locke's phrase, quoted in Ashcraft, 1994: 244) . God commands men to work, i.e. to produce what they need for their survival themselves (II, 32). When there are plenty of means of subsistence - i.e. 'enough and as good' to appropriate - it is the duty of the propertyless to acquire the means of subsistence by appropriating property rather than the duty of the propertied to provide for the propertyless out of their surplus (3). Even when all land has been appropriated, the propertyless only have a right to the means of subsistence (4). In other words, the property owners do not need to give the propertyless anything out of their surplus if they allow them to work on their land or employ them and pay a wage that is sufficient for survival (Sreenivasan, 1995: 43-46; 5). Only those physically incapable of labour have a right to charity (Sreenivasan, 1995: 45).

When the third proviso does come into effect, men of property are obligated to donate as much out of their surplus as is necessary for the survival of the propertyless. In a primitive society where even the propertied possess little this is perhaps important. If, say, one unit of property is necessary for survival, and the property owner has two, then he is obligated to give one unit to the propertyless individual. The propertied man is reduced to bare subsistence. But in developed societies this limitation amounts to very little. The amount needed to keep the propertyless alive is only a tiny portion of the surplus of the property owners.


In John Locke's political theory, there are two limitations on the right to private property. These are the 'spoilage proviso' and the right of everyone to a bare subsistence, though the latter has a significant caveat. I have demonstrated that the supposed 'enough and as good' proviso is not a limitation at all. I have shown that the subsistence proviso only comes into play when there is not 'enough and as good' left to appropriate. Even then, the propertyless have a right to the surplus of others in very limited cases. The spoilage proviso is always in effect, but it does not amount to much.

C.B. Macpherson famously asserted that "Locke's astonishing achievement was to base the property right on natural right and natural law, and then to remove all the natural law limits from the property right." Formally, Macpherson is mistaken. There are natural law limits on the Lockean property right. But they amount to very little. The substance of Macpherson's assertion is correct. The right to property in Locke's political theory is nearly absolute.


1. References to the Two Treatises of Government are by Treatise and section.

2. I would like to thank Simon Taylor for criticizing my original argument in this section.

3. I think this can be linked to Locke's condemnation of the poor in his recommendations for the reform of the Poor Law. According to Locke, the poor are poor because their idleness, among other things (Horne, 1990:. 64). It is the fault of the propertyless, not the propertied that the former are poor. When there is 'enough and as good' left to appropriate, the responsibility for the subsistence of the propertyless is their own - the ones with property are not obligated to provide for them.

4. This might seem to contradict my earlier contention that the law of nature gives a natural right to property. But the law of nature gives this natural right to an individual through his labour. After mixing his labour with an object, an individual has a natural right to it. Before this, he only has a natural right to acquire the means of subsistence. Thus, when 'enough and as good' is no longer left, the propertyless do not have a natural right to any particular piece of property. But they retain the natural right to the means of subsistence. There is no contradiction.

5. Locke's own recommendations for the treatment of the poor demonstrate how little the subsistence proviso can mean in practice. Locke argued that beggars be put to hard labour, and that children of paupers be sent to 'working schools'. Disobedience by the poor was to be corrected by harsh physical punishments. However, a bare subsistence had to be provided for the poor. This didn't automatically mean charity, though. The poor might be provided for by forcing them to work (Horne, 1990, pp. 64-65; Macpherson, 1968, p. 206).


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Horne, T.A. (1990) 'The Right to Property and the Right to Representation: Tyrrell, Locke, and Sidney' in his Property Rights and Poverty: Political Argument in Britain 1605-1834 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press)

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Zucker, R. (2000) 'Unequal Property and its Premise in Liberal Theory', History of Philosophy Quarterly, 17 (1), pp. 29-47.