Reclaiming John Locke from libertarians

Libertarians have long been partial to what they believe to be John Locke’s theory of property. On first glance, this is understandable: the snippets of John Locke that are most often taught seem very libertarian in nature. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke ostensibly argues that when an individual mixes their labor with an unowned piece of nature, they become the absolute owner of that piece of nature, extinguishing any rights others might have to it. This is a plausible reading of Locke’s very brief property discussion in the Second Treatise, but only reading the Second Treatise is misleading. After reading more of Locke’s writings on property, it becomes clear that although Locke does support private property ownership, it is not the sort of absolute property ownership that the libertarians often attribute to him.

Under libertarian views, property owners are like mini-sovereigns. They exercise complete control over the property that they own, and compelling them to do anything with that property against their will (e.g. giving some of it to others) is unjustified. This is not so for John Locke. In his First Treatise of Government, Locke writes the following:

God, the lord and father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it, and therefore, no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions, since it would always be a sin in any man of estate to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.

For Locke, the needy have a right to some of the property of the wealthy, and denying them that right is fundamentally unjust. This should not be at all surprising. As his invocation of God here reveals, Locke was a Christian who believed his theories to be consistent with Christian doctrine. Libertarian property rights are not at all consistent with the teachings of Jesus with respect to the poor, which is why Locke does not actually support such rights.

Locke is not just a redistributionist either. In the same passage of the First Treatise quoted above, Locke writes:

And a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal by withholding that relief God required him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and, with a dagger at his throat, offer him death or slavery.

Here, Locke argues that it is unjust to use one’s property holdings to economically coerce the propertyless into subordinate economic and social positions. Doing so, he argues, is equivalent to putting a gun to someone’s head and offering them a choice between death or slavery. Locke’s prohibition against owner coercion is strikingly proto-Marxist. In Marxist language, Locke believes it is unjust to use one’s ownership over the means of production to exploit workers who have only their labor to sell. He puts it in terms of vassals and lords instead of wage slaves and capitalists, but the concept is the same.

Ultimately, Locke does support the institution of private property ownership, but not in the absolute sense that libertarians do. He thinks that justice demands redistribution from the wealthy to the very needy and checks on the coercive power that property owners have. This makes Locke a moderate left-liberal on property rights, not a right-wing libertarian.