Locke’s Theory of Property

Despite devoting almost two sessions to it, we really only managed to scratch the surface of Locke’s theory of property. Just use this post for any general comments or questions that occur to you regarding property–whether Locke’s theory specifically, or later interpretations of it.

We spent today’s class trying to nail Locke’s statement of the problem regarding property, why he regards it as a problem, and why the problem is raised in chapter 5. We also discussed the basics of Locke’s theory of initial appropriation of resources from nature:

  • the appropriation must involve an improvement;
  • it must leave enough and as good for others; and
  • it cannot involve “waste.”

Locke’s discussion is essentially limited to an agricultural context. Each element of his theory involves considerable complexity. The one complexity we discussed was the third, but several complexities arise with respect to the first two. (We also discussed A.M. Honore’s famous “fishhook” example, from his famous paper, “Property, Title, and Redistribution” in Carl Wellman ed., Equality and Freedom).

The complexity we discussed with respect to the waste criterion was what, exactly, counts as waste. The issue has pertinence today because “neighborhood blight” is considered a justification for the use of eminent domain. One case we briefly discussed was that of “urban renewal” (or “slum renewal”) in Newark before the 1967 riots. The other case we mentioned was Kelo vs. New London. Here’s the movie trailer we saw:


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