Locke’s Christian property system

Modern-day libertarians love to pretend John Locke is on their side. But they do so erroneously. I am not sure whether their error comes from anachronistic interpretation, not actually reading Locke, or intentional distortion, but for some reason, procedural justice libertarians often trot out Locke as being one of them, despite overwhelming textual evidence to the contrary.

I wrote about this early last month, pointing out that Locke explicitly argues that needy people have a right to the surplus of the wealthy, and that Locke mandates that wealthier people not use their wealth to coerce those with nothing into subordinate economic and social positions. Locke hardly fits the bill of the modern-day libertarian who thinks the starving have no right to the plenty of others and that contracts between wealthy owners and poor workers are automatically legitimate despite their enormously unequal bargaining power.

Libertarians might and do counter that Locke’s latter requirements come from Christian charity. That is, Locke believes property rights are fundamental and absolute, but also believes separately that it is a Christian sin to not share with your neighbor. This kind of reading totally misunderstands the nature of Locke’s property system.

Locke’s entire property system is rooted in Christianity, as he sees it. All the parts of his system are necessary for the system as a whole to have justification. It’s not that Locke believes individual property rights are justified and that redistribution and non-exploitation are these side things. For Locke, individual property rights are justified only if they go along with redistribution and non-exploitation. If you keep property rights while stripping out redistribution and non-exploitation, the system no longer has any justification because it no longer fits with Christianity.

Consider Locke’s property rights argument in the fifth chapter of the Second Treatise. It goes like this:

  1. Reason and biblical revelation tell us God “has given the earth to the children of men” in common.
  2. Since God gave the earth to everyone in common, “it seems to some a very great difficulty” that any person can come to have private property. After all, God gave the earth to everyone.
  3. However, God gives the earth to humans for their support and comfort, and gives humans rationality, which allows them to take advantage of the earth. So, God must intend that humans have some means to appropriate the common riches of nature.
  4. Thus, people might justifiably privatize parts of the common through mixing their labor with those parts as doing so is necessary for humans to use the earth as God intended, i.e. for comfort and support.
  5. But this appropriation of private property is constrained by the proviso that “there is enough, and as good, [resources] left in common for others.”

For Locke, Christianity is what possibly justifies the necessity of private ownership in the first place. Locke does certainly go on to talk about how one owns their body and their labor and so on. But that discussion only operates within the Christian framework that he establishes first. That is, God gives the world to everyone collectively to use for their comfort and support, and private ownership might be necessary for that end. However, God’s rules on property relationships do not end there.

Locke argues that God also requires property relationships that ensure the welfare of the needy and restrict the power of wealthier individuals to make vassals of the poor. Read together, Locke’s Christian property system must be understood as consisting of 1) private appropriation, 2) the above proviso, 3) redistribution, and 4) non-exploitation. There is no way that Locke would support a private property system that did not include the latter three parts: private appropriation without those safeguards violate Locke’s Christian framework, making it unjustified.