A Note on “Another note on the term ‘private property’”

I posted this reply to Brad Spangler’s “Another note on the term ‘private property.'” I think it’s worth posting here, since it sums up my own present approach to the question of what makes a useful and theoretically “elegant” theory of property:

I’m constantly uncertain why modern Lockeans support Locke’s analysis. It seems to me that the strength of the model is that it gives us a clear mechanism for appropriation (labor mixing), a rationale for that appropriation (extension of the self), and a rule for avoiding the monopolization of property (the provisos.) That’s pretty elegant. Add an active, “unmixing” nature to the picture, and apply some attention and ingenuity to how expropriation will adjust property claims to fit the demands of the provisos, and you have some pretty simple, and fairly sustainable, guidelines. The provisos make the whole apparatus explicitly social in nature; changes of various sorts will require adjustments, expropriations and reappropriations (all of a voluntary sort, if folks are following the “rules.”) What puzzles me is that non-proviso Lockeans don’t seem to admire any of that except the fact that the rule of labor-mixing seems simple. It’s precisely all the dynamic potential, and the elegance of the rationale (the fact that self-ownership and the ownership of chattel or real property don’t have to be treated as separate) that they seem to oppose. What non-proviso Lockeans draw from Locke seems to be a ritual of appropriation with little or no logical connection to even the principles — like self-ownership — that they appeal to. Occupancy and use is certainly a lot less cut-and-dried, but compared to the “correct position” it certainly seems a lot more robust and complete.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. I would suggest that Locke has appeal because his theory allows the exploitation of labour while also apparently sanctifying private property in labour.

    The provisos obviously make this less obvious and if you ignore Locke’s arguments can be used to destroy private property (which was why Rothbard rejected them).

    However, Locke was clear that money made the provisos irrelevant — with money and the industry it allowed the appropriation of all the land did not matter as workers could earn more in wages than they could working the land in common.

    The key is that Locke treats labour as a commodity, something that could be bought and sold. The property-less worker could sell their labour to the boss who then keeps its product. As the amount produced is more than the wages paid (and it has to be, to make it worth while) workers are exploited even though they “own” their labour.

    It is an impressive slight-of-hand, one lost on some of the radicals who appealed to Locke in the name of giving labour its full-product. And I should note that Proudhon saw through this in 1840:

    Proudhon on exploitation

    In a way, the non-priviso Lockeans do us a favour by reminding us of the bourgeois nature of his theory. It strips it of anything which hides its class nature.

    Strange, though, that 170 years after What is Property? and the birth of anarchism, its arguments still come in handy… More people should read it! Hopefully Proudhon anthology will help:

    Property is Theft!

    The political theory of possessive individualism by C. B. Macpherson and The problem of political obligation by Carole Pateman are worth reading on Locke.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. Hey, Iain. It’s clear that Locke’s theory isn’t all of a piece, but, as you make clear, the tensions between the property theory—presumably based on natural principles and mechanisms—and the essentially consequentialist stuff that comes into play with money aren’t hard to see. Locke only deals with the “state of nature,” doesn’t deal with natural un-mixing, and leaves us hanging if we’re looking for anything as elegant as his theory of appropriation in the realm of abandonment, alienation, exchange and such The arguments from the existence of money actually come across as an argument against the “right” to property-as-fact we find in his theory of appropriation. In Proudhon’s terms (which were themselves never quite as consistent as one would like), Locke starts by arguing for appropriation by active “possession” (a matter of fact), and then turns to “property” (in the sense of rights and consequences) in the rest of his analysis. And Proudhon’s early analysis applies. Property ends up being theft, not because the theory of appropriation is bad, but because it’s incomplete.

    Proudhon himself left things incomplete. He was able to reason to the most libertarian uses of antagonistic and potentially exploitative property rights, but he never managed to produce a social scientific account of property, as he did with liberty. That remains for us to do—and the elegance of Locke’s theory of appropriation makes it one place to at least explore our options. If we attempt to straighten out the system with the provisos intact, we end up with something that really does look much like occupancy-and-use. If we confront the difficulties of elaborating the aspects of natural-unmixing, abandonment, the sort of “trans-propriation” that occurs in exchange, and the expropriation that would be required by a generalized neo-Lockean theory, we potentially go a long ways towards a libertarian solution of the “mine and thine” question. Incorporate the theory of collective force and collective persons, and an awful lot of the “synthesis of community and property” is accomplished, I think, without producing the “simple property” that was Proudhon’s target in 1840.

Comments are closed.