Some thoughts on Locke’s proviso

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; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst: and the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.—John Locke, Second Treatise on Government.

Locke’s “enough and as good” proviso is, of course, rejected by most propertarians who call themselves “Lockeans.” It’s not hard to imagine why, given how high it may set the bar for legitimate appropriation. If the individual appropriation of private property really was the equivalent of taking “nothing at all,” if it was a “good draught,” by individual standards, which still left “a whole river,” then we would obviously have a whole lot less to fight about.

It’s interesting to see property limited to what are essentially non-rivalrous goods. That’s certainly not the picture we get from those latter-day “Lockean” propertarians who consider the proviso either unimportant, meaningless outside of “the state of nature,” or necessarily fulfilled by pretty much any kind of free exchange. Indeed, in those circles the norm seems to be to most closely associate private property with rivalrous goods. The market solution is inevitably to put key resources under private control.

I think there are pretty good reasons to suspect that propertarians have pretty well abandoned Locke’s principles, at least with regard to appropriation. The language of the original proviso seems to say: “Sure, you can have private property, as long as it doesn’t matter.” Private property is fine, as long as it does not diminish the store of original resources/common property. I’m sure most of us would be happy to concede an individual right which has neither social costs nor costs to other individuals. That seems like a pretty good selling point for a universal and self-evident right. For those appropriable resources, there is no question of forced “equality:” everyone can take “a good draught” that suits them, as long of the definition of a “draught” and the means of taking it remain roughly “human scale.”

Of course, we don’t need to insist on resources being “common property” prior to appropriation, and there are probably good reasons not to. Very little about this original “common property” and “individual property” seems to indicate a common character, and Locke’s scheme is probably strengthened by not confusing the issue unnecessarily. We have a relatively clear mechanism for individual appropriation in labor-mixing. Nothing is made clearer by assuming an “original mixing” by some collective person (society, humanity, etc.) and much is potentially obscured, since individual appropriation would then appear to be a form of unilateral expropriation, and the claims of the individual to property would be a violation of that previous property in a pretty literal manner: at best we would have a differend between competing property regimes; at worst, (individual) “property is theft,” in a pretty straightforward way. There are certainly potential uses of the notion of “common property” that would not simply involved positing a completely different system under a similar name, but, again, there’s not much about the way Locke poses the issue that helps us think them through, so I’m content to treat resources as initially unowned. This helps salvage the consistency of Locke’s system, and gives the derivative systems at least a fighting chance.

Most contemporary propertarians will probably have already pretty well written off this sort of analysis, since we are, presumably, no longer “in the state of nature,” and all this stuff about appropriation is old news anyway. Labor-mixing and all that stuff are just an origin story. The exchange of properties is justified by the very act of exchange. And, face it, nobody in their right mind is going to drink water from a river anyway.

I’m honestly pretty unimpressed with the tendency of propertarians to assert the supreme importance of a principled belief in property rights, while playing, it seems to me, pretty fast and loose with the details. A proviso is, after all, a condition or restriction–and in the case of Lockean property theory, it seems to be the condition or restriction which makes the right of property self-evident and capable of being universalized. That’s no little thing. The difference between a system of property that seems to apply only to essentially non-rivalrous goods, and one which associates property with rivalry is no little thing. To go from a system which leaves “the whole river” after each appropriation to one which can hardly imagine anything unowned is a pretty remarkable journey. Perhaps I can be forgiven for wishing to linger awhile at the proverbial river’s edge, particularly as it seems to me that this deceptively simple business of taking a drink of water is perhaps not as simple as all that.

Three years ago, almost to the day, I wrote this bit about individualist anarchism and ecology, asking:

“how, given the involvement of the individual in complex, far-flung economic and social networks, is it possible to act as an individual in an ecological sense? What would than entail? Individualists who wish to act only at their own cost can’t stop exploring the costs when they find their “footprint” extends, in however dispersed a fashion, over the horizon.”

I ended the post with a hope of returning to the questions soon. Better late, I suppose, than never.  Over the next week or so, I hope to pick up those threads again, in the context of Locke’s proviso, Leroux’s circulus, Proudhon’s claim that “property is impossible,” and the questions raised by the Gulf oil spill. I want to look closely at the individual taking a drink from a river, and explore some hard questions about ecological footprints, the nature of “individual” action in western societies, and the possibility of a proviso-Lockean property within mutualism.

[to be continued…]

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


  1. You cannot forget the social context of Locke’s ideas, namely to rationalise exploitation of labour and the appropriation of common lands and the dispossession of the native tribes of America.

    This can be seen in Rothbard, who uses Locke’s ideas to justify the appropriation of their land. The Indians, be bemoaned, “laid claim to vast reaches of land which they hunted but which they did not transform by cultivation.” (Conceived in Liberty, vol. 1, p. 187). This meant that “the bulk of Indian-claimed land was not settled and transformed by the Indians” and so settlers were “at least justified in ignoring vague, abstract claims.” The Indian hunting based claims were “dubious.” (vol. 2, p. 54 and p. 59) Hence the ignoring of the previous users of the land… and the handy invoking of “defensive” violence if said users ignore the appropriators…

    As far as exploitation goes, I have mentioned this before. By treating labour as a commodity, it allows Locke to both say that labour if entitled to its product AND that the landlord/capitalist can pay the worker less than the amount they get paid in wages. By selling their labour-power, the worker gets their wages while the capitalist gets the product. As Proudhon argued

    But you are right to question the logic of those who proclaim their Lockean basis and love of property while, at the same time, dismissing Locke’s priviso and the origins of that property.

    As Rothbard put it, Locke was not a consistent Lockean as his work is “riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies” and have been “expanded and purified” by his followers. The real issue is more fundamental: “Locke’s proviso may lead to the outlawry of all private property of land, since one can always say that the reduction of available land leaves everyone else . . . worse off” (The Ethics of Liberty, p. 22, p. 240)

    And you cannot have that now, can you? I think Rousseau make a valid point on this (a point Proudhon expanded upon):

    “That a rich and powerful man, having acquired immense possessions in land, should impose laws on those who want to establish themselves there, and that he should only allow them to do so on condition that they accept his supreme authority and obey all his wishes; that, I can still conceive . . . Would not this tyrannical act contain a double usurpation: that on the ownership of the land and that on the liberty of the inhabitants?”

    A valid point and this issue, of liberty, should be at the heart of any proviso discussiong — it could be argued that appropriation of land lends to more goods be created, but if the cost is liberty should that not be included in the “making people worse off” criteria?

    Locke suggested that in America “a King of a large and fruitful Territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day Labourer in England.” But, unlike the day Labourer, the native American was far freer. Is that not important?

    Anyways, David Ellerman has interesting material and discussion of Locke.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. I’m interested in seeing where this goes but I have some doubts about appropriation being restricted to non-rivalrous goods.

    For one thing property, of all kinds, seems a little redundant if the good is truly non-rivalrous. Why bother even marking it out if there is virtually no chance someone could deprive you of that good?

    More importantly though it doesn’t seem to provide us with many of the things we look for in property norms. With so many goods being rivalrous it’s hard to see how autonomy, conflict resoloution, stability, stewardship etc would be facilitated unless we had some way of (legally) appropriating them.

    Which isnt to say i’m anymore impressed by propertarians than you are but we need a way of universalising property rights without destroying the grounds for them.

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