Locke discusses and defends the origins of the private property as a universal natural law. His corollary is that every man has a property in his own person: “this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his” (Locke, 1689, sec. 27). Thus, if all things are a common good, given by God for human benefits, any act of transformation or improvements made by human attaches values to object and connects it to its benefactor. That is, “the labour put a distinction between them and the common: that added something to them than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became its private right (Locke, 1689, sec. 28).
For Locke, as soon as a man removes, transports, or transforms any object from its natural state, this object starts to be a property of this man. Since every man is the owner of his own labour, and the labour is dissociable from man, any action to an object or environment is an act of appropriation. Moreover, Locke states that the common (land) has no use at all if not to satisfy the human need. So, it is imperative, and the god’s law that men benefit from the commons transforming every communal object into private property. However, Locke (1689) makes some reservations to the right of enjoyment of the common, such as “no man but [himself] have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good, left in common for others” (sec. 27). That is, a man should take just enough for its own benefits, leaving the rest for others to enjoy.
I see two main problems with Locke’s proposition. First, how much a man can take for its own pleasure without affecting others? How much is enough? Locke’s (1689) answers: “As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Tabour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others” (sec. 31). He assumes the premise that the world has abundant, if not unlimited, resources, and that no man would take more than he thinks it is necessary.
Moreover, Locke’s logic only works for a small number of objects or a small piece of land where one man can handle all the transformation activities. What happens if more than one man is necessary to transform or change the land or remove objects? Can we understand the product of this action as a shared property? Or it will belong to the one that had the major share of the work? Or even to the stronger or richer? What to say to the man who owns a large parcel of land while other men only work at that place? The object, let’s say an apple, is a property of the man that collects the fruit, or the land’s owner’s that improved the terrain?
Perhaps we should consider a third issue, related to the appropriation (or even the expropriation) of any parcel of land. Locke’s (1689) states: “Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left” (Sec. 33). Again Locke assumes that there is plenty of land for all. Nevertheless, other questions are still left unanswered: Which parcel of land can be appropriated by anyone? Based on what type of labour should a man take his portion? Who is allowed to be a landlord? How long after the landowners’ death would the property become a common space again?
Even though Locke’s arguments are simple and clever, it is also simplistic and full of gaps. It is pretty obvious that his goal attempts both to refute previous religious beliefs and to justify the freedom of the recent bourgeoisie athirst to expand its domains.
Locke, J. (1689). “Of property” in Second Treatise of Government.