In Locke’s book the 2nd Treatise of Government, he provides an answer to a perplexing problem concerning property rights. What authority grants us the right to own and acquire property? Is it the whim of a benevolent monarch that provides us a right to property? Are we granted a right to property through cultural norms? Is the right to acquire and own property the by-product of legislative fiat? Locke would suggest that none of these factors wholly justifies our right to ownership. He asserts that it is a natural right endowed upon us by our creator. Veering away from the premise that ownership is privileged granted by a ruler or government. Rather, it is the birthright of every free individual. Opposing the convention that the king has dominion over everything within the boundaries of his kingdom.
It could be argued that to some capacity that theorist before Locke had an understanding of property rights Even the famously illiberal Niccolo Machiavelli stated in The Prince:
What makes him hated above all, as I said, is to be a rapacious usurper of the property and women of his subjects. From there, he must abstain, and whenever one does not take away either property or honor from the generality of men…. (Machiavelli, 1532, Transl. Mansfield, 1985).
Machiavelli did recognize property rights based on natural law. He saw respecting the property of a ruler’s subjects as a matter of pragmatism. A ruler cannot get ward off insertions and usurpation plots if he is hated by his people. Demonstrating how the indignation of the people can potentially operate as an informal check on power. Even in illiberal principalities. However, provincial self-interest falls short of a comprehensive ethical argument for the preservation of property rights. This is why this philosophical breakthrough is attributed to Locke. Versus previous thinkers.
The bigger mystery at hand is how did humans end up acquiring private property? In the nascent period of human history, nomadic people did not own land. Moved from location to location searching for various resources. Upon the dawn of the Neolithic period, hunter-gather societies were on the decline. Humans started to form sedimentary communities. Before permanent settlements, all lands and resources were part of a commons. What is known as today as a common-pool of resources. Where the availability of resources is not limited by private ownership. Once humans started to acquire land, they were effectively taking it out of the “commons”. No longer could your neighbor harvest lumber from the thicket of woodlands you now presently own without permission.
How land transitions from the “commons” to private ownership is where Locke’s theory comes into play. We are born free and therefore we own ourselves. Consequently, we own the fruits of our labor. Through our private effects, we effectively take the resource out of the commons by harvesting it.
The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are his property. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state of nature hath, provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in…
(Locke, 1690, P.19. Ed. Macpherson, 1980)
Effectively, if now one else owns the resource and you effectively harvest it or process it for use it is yours. Unfortunately, this method of claiming tangible property is much more complex in the modern era. Most land and resources are under either private or state ownership. There are exceptions. The ocean is one of the few pure tangible commons left. Where fishing rights tend to be delineated by licensing or argument. However, this same principle of ownership can be applied to intangible goods in the form of intellectual property. This explains a plethora of societal sanctions for copyright infringement, plagiarism, and a myriad of other varieties of intellectual theft.
Locke, in his argument, does not condone resource consumption without limits. We can continue to procure resources providing two conditions 1.) we are not letting anything spoil and 2.) we are leaving resources for others (Locke, 1690, P.21). Inferring that God didn’t bless with bountiful resources to squander them nor to be gluttonously hoarded. This demonstrates the fact that there natural limits on consumption. Providing that we stay within these limitations our consumption doesn’t transgress against the rights of our neighbor.
Locke also provides some interesting commentary concerning the introduction of money. Many resources that are harvested are perishable meaning we can only take as much as we intend to personally use. Limiting us to a Robinson Crusoe Economy, laboring for mere subsistence. Any further harvesting would lead to waste. What Ludwig Von Mises referred to as Autistic Exchange. Unlike harvested goods, money does not decompose. This characteristic of money is so salient that it is one of the seven defining features of money. By the introduction of a medium of exchange vastly expands our ability to consume resources by remedying the issue of waste and depletion(Locke, 1690, P.23). Substituting currency for barter we can develop a division of labor. Instead of attempting to produce everything we need, industries emerge that are devoted to food production. Meaning other segments of society can create other goods and services. Using the market as an allocation mechanism we can remedy the waste/ depletion conflict. Producers will tailor production to market demand, limiting the potential for waste. This also provides consumers with the opportunity to freely acquire these resources.
There are two caveats here. One we still see plenty of instances of hoarding in free-market economies. No system is perfect. Hoarding can still transpire with a common-resource pool in a state of nature. A market-based system helps diminish the coordination issues associated with obtaining resources. Also, keep in mind, this treatise was written before the technology that allowed for mass resource extraction. This issue could be mitigated through private harvesting collectives and contractually agreed upon extraction quotas.
The second being is that money helps minimize the number of resources being spoiled. However, it is not a full-proof safeguard against it. Then again, there is never a full-proof method of preventing bad consequences.