Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

7.2: John Locke

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    John Locke’s First Treatise on Government was an extended argument against the European system of aristocracy and the alleged divine birth right of rulers. Of course, in a society that had only known government by the rule of kings, this raises an obvious question. If human society is not legitimately organized by the authority of a ruling class, then how is it to be organized?

    Locke’s answer is that the authority of government is entirely derived from the consent of its free and equal citizens. According to Locke, in the state of nature (or in the absence of government) people exist in a state of perfect freedom. They are free to pursue their own happiness and well being. But this perfect freedom is not a license to do whatever one likes or treat others as one likes. Rather the freedom people have a natural and inalienable right to is freedom from domination and coercion by others.

    The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life (The Second Treatise of Government, Chpt. 2 Sect. 6)

    By the moral law of nature, one is not justified in assaulting others except as retribution for an injustice they have committed to one’s self. Likewise, one is not justified in taking another’s property except as redress for that person taking or destroying one’s own property. But this state of nature inevitably leads to a state of chaos because people are not very good arbiters of justice in their own case. They are prone to inflate the wrongs committed against themselves and seek too much in the way of redress or retribution.

    The establishment of government is justified as a more efficient means of preserving the natural rights of individuals. In joining civil society, we voluntarily turn our right to protect and enforce our individual rights over to the state. The legitimate function of the state is to enforce the rights of equality and liberty that people enjoy by nature. This view places rather strict limits on the legitimate functions of civil government. Where a government exceeds these limits, Locke says people are justified in rebelling against the government.

    Just what are the rights and liberties government serves to protect? Self ownership is central to the natural rights equally enjoyed by all. This clearly speaks against slavery and other forms of domination or oppression. If a person own’s herself by natural law, then clearly she can’t also be owned by another. Property rights are then justified as an extension of self ownership. Locke sees all of nature as initially held in common by people. When a person “mixes her labor withthe stuff of the earth,” say by planting a tree or fashioning a tool from a branch, she acquires a right to the fruits of her labor as an extension of her right of self ownership. Here Locke offers a compelling philosophical justification for property rights. But Locke also recognizes limits to the extent of property rights. Specifically, persons do not have a right to more property than they can make use of. Above and beyond what one can make use of, the fruits of one’s labor return to the commons and are to be freely available to others.

    The notion that there is an injustice in funding a social safety net for the less well off with taxes on the more affluent has its roots in a Lockean conception of property rights as natural rights that are closely tied to human liberty. On Locke’s view, when we mix our labor with the stuff of the earth, the fruit of our labor is ours by natural right. It is an extension of our natural right to our own selves. Thus, property rights, on Locke’s view, are closely tied to human liberty. The contemporary philosopher Robert Nozick extends Locke’s line of thought concerning property rights in his entitlement conception of social justice. On Nozick’s view, any distribution of property and wealth, no matter how unequal, is socially just so long as it was arrived at by just means. Acquiring wealth by one’s labor and then building on that through fair trades (those not involving coercion or deception) will be fair. Taxation beyond what is necessary to keep property rights (and hence human liberty) secure will be an injustice. In fact, it will be a variety of theft. Something along the lines of the views of Locke and Nozick has inspired a good deal of the anti-tax, small government sentiment that has been so influential in U.S. politics for the past 30 years or so. Liberty is seen as closely tied to property rights. To the degree that the government taxes citizens, it takes their property and thereby limits their freedom.

    Now we will look at two objections to the Lockean/Nozickian conception of justice. The first is commonly known as the Tragedy of the Commons. The second has to do with the role of various social institutions in how we conduct our business and the mismatch between this and the highly idealized and individualistic picture of property rights advanced by Locke and Nozick.

    Locke takes the natural world and all the resources in it to be a commonwealth. That is, the earth, the waters, skies, and the various systems they contain are taken to be commonly owned by all. I draw from the resources of nature for raw materials when I create something I can then claim as property. Locke lived in a time when natural resources appeared to be endlessly bountiful and any motivated person who wasn’t happy with the available social arrangements could hop a ship to the new world and homestead a piece of land (albeit one that was likely formerly occupied by Native Americans). If natural resources can be regarded as unlimited, then there is not injustice to me if my neighbor has accumulated great wealth while I have little. This is because my neighbor’s great wealth doesn’t place any restriction on me investing my energy in creating wealth of my own. But if natural resources are limited and my neighbor has claimed much of what is available in the creation of his private property, then my opportunities are limited to that degree. We can no longer sustain the illusion that natural resources are unlimited. And as we bump up against those limits, treating Lockean property rights as a kind of sacrosanct expression of human liberty looks less like justice and more like a recipe for increasingly entrenched inequality.

    There is a simple logic to the commons that is worth examining in a bit more detail. Garritt Hardin is well known for his clear articulation of the Tragedy of the Commons in the late sixties. Hardin was mainly concerned about human population, but this is just one instance of a much broader kind of problem. A tragedy of the commons is any case where some commonly held resource gets exhausted to the point where it has little value left to offer. Such a tragedy is bound to occur eventually whenever a commonly held resource is finite and freely utilized by self- interested agents.

    Hardin introduces the notion of the tragedy of the commons with a tale about the fate of herdsmen who share a pasture in common. Each herdsman notes that if he runs one more animal on the commonly held pasture, he will get the full benefit of that animal’s value when he takes it to market, but since the pasture is held in common, he will bear only a fraction of the cost of raising the animal. As a result, each herdsman runs an additional animal on the pasture, and then another and another until the finite commonly held pasture is depleted to the point where it of no use to anyone. Similar stories can be told about fisheries, fresh water supplies, air pollution, and climate change.

    Once we have a clear understanding of the logic of the commons, it is equally clear that there are only a limited number of ways to avoid a tragedy of the commons. Again, a tragedy of the commons is the inevitable result whenever we have a finite commons that is freely utilized by self-interested agents. The only way to avoid a tragedy of the commons is to prevent one or another of the conditions that give rise to one. Perhaps we cannot expect individuals to consistently refrain from acting on their own interests. But there remain the possibilities of regulating access to the commons or expanding the commons in some way. In the case of climate change, some mitigation strategies like carbon sequestration can be seen as ways of expanding the commons. The commons in this case is the atmosphere which we use as a sink for carbon when we burn fossil fuels. The CO2 released by even quite a few cars and furnaces poses no serious problem. But beyond a certain point, carbon emissions become a serious problem. The atmosphere can’t soak up more without disrupting systems we all rely on in many ways. Attempts to capture carbon and sequester it reduce the load on the atmosphere as a carbon sink. One way to think of this is as a strategy for expanding our overall carbon sink by supplementing the atmosphere with underground carbon storage facilities (or, perhaps more realistically, trees and soil that sequester carbon, too). Another example of expanding the commons would be state- run fish hatcheries to rebuild fish populations depleted through fishing.

    In some cases, strategies for expanding the commons aren’t sufficient for avoiding a tragedy of the commons. Given this, only one possible means of avoiding a tragedy of the commons remains and that is regulating the use of the commons. We routinely accept a great number of restrictions on our liberty as a means of avoiding a tragedy of the commons through regulating our use of the commons. In the early 70s, the air in Southern California was barely breathable do the pollution from cars. Since then we’ve been required to drive more efficient vehicles that are equipped with an ever more sophisticated array of pollution control technologies. The air of Southern California is still often smoggy, but not as bad as it once was. Requiring pollution controls on cars is a pretty unobtrusive kind of regulation. Sometimes we regulate the use of a commonly held resource by charging people to use it and this can take many forms from campground fees to special taxes based on use like car tabs that fund public transportation (the roadways are a commons that become much less valuable when too many people drive and too few use transit). Sometimes we do this with added limits on the use of a commonly held resource as in the case of fishing licenses with catch limits. Proposals to put a price on carbon in the form of energy taxes or cap and trade systems for carbon emissions are relatively unobtrusive attempts to regulate the use of the atmosphere as a carbon sink. Energy taxes would regulate use of the atmosphere by charging a fee. Cap and trade systems are a bit more complex and involve limits on emissions together with a market mechanism for rewarding innovative ways of cutting emissions.

    Once we have a clear understanding of the logic of the commons, it seems pretty obvious that regulating the use of a commons is often called for. The problem for the Locke/Nozick line of thinking about social justice is that it affords us no adequate way of justifying the limitations on liberty that are necessary for avoiding a tragedy of the commons. Avoiding a tragedy of the commons sometimes requires that some liberties yield to regulation and that we have government that does more than just guarantee our personal liberties (especially those sacrosanct property rights). While taking such measures can be necessary for avoiding a tragedy of the commons, they may also be difficult to reconcile with the Locke/Nozick conception of social justice. And in some cases, notably climate change, failing to avoid a tragedy of the commons looks like a pretty clear injustice to those who must live with the consequences.

    Here is Garritt Hardin’s article, “The Tragedy of the Commons

    The second objection to the view of social justice advanced in Locke and Nozick is that it doesn’t correspond very well to the realities of our economic lives. We don’t create wealth from our own labor in a social vacuum. With the possible exception of the vegetables I grow in my garden, none of my wealth is entirely the product of mixing my labor with the stuff of the earth. Rather, nearly all of our productive activity is carried out in the context of a complex fabric of social interrelations buoyed by a substantial technological infrastructure. Enjoying the fruits of my labor nearly always requires doing business with someone else and the benefits that accrue to me depend as much on the favorable social environment that makes doing my business possible as it does on the efforts I contribute to the deal. In light of this, the view of property rights offered by Locke is unrealistically individualistic. The Locke/Nozick approach to social justice is like field biologists aiming to secure the welfare of specific cute furry mammals without giving any regard to the health of the ecosystem that sustains them.

    Having a functioning well-ordered community is a necessary condition for succeeding in most lines of business (arguably even for gangsters and pimps). The businessman who has profited from a fair exchange with his customers has not thereby paid his dues in maintaining the social environment that makes it possible for him to do his business in the first place. His success requires a healthy and well educated workforce, stability in the economic system, a citizenry that is well informed enough to politically sustain just social institutions, a citizenry that respects the law, a customer base that is doing well enough themselves to afford his product and so forth.

    Supporting the social institutions that make the success of the affluent possible will only look like “redistribution of wealth” to those who have it in their head that their income before taxes is their own wealth that is being taken from them to pay for the needs of others. People who see things this way already have grabbed more than they are entitled to.

    We live cradle to grave supported by an intricate social and technological infrastructure. As is the want of human beings, we are quick to take all the credit for our success and project all of the blame for our failures onto the external world. Neither inclination is correct very often. But when taking credit for all of our successes manifests itself in reluctance to support the social institutions and arrangements that have made our success possible, we become freeloaders.

    Quite a few institutionalized practices tilt the scales in favor of the well to do in such a way that their affluence is, to a significant degree, the product of those social arrangements. Perhaps the most significant example is public education. The high earners in our society are very often the success stories of public education from K-12 through the state university. Even those who come from a wealthy background and enjoyed the benefits of elite private education have depended on publicly educated employees and associates through all of their business endeavors. Public education plays such a large and pervasive role in the development and sustenance of our affluent high-tech society that virtually no lasting economic achievement in this society could happen without public education. Looking ahead to the innovations and skills that will drive future economic development, we neglect adequately funding education at our own peril.

    Much the same could be said for publicly financed research at our universities. We frequently look to the achievements of information technology companies like Microsoft as models of private sector initiative and wealth creation. But the very possibility of businesses like Microsoft is the product of decades of public investment in basic research by public institutions like universities and the military. More specifically, the development of information technology is also the product of public investment in basic research by, yes, philosophers. We could not have information technology as we know it and all of the economic growth it has brought over the past few decades without having paid the salaries of philosophy professors like Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead who developed the formal logic that provides the theoretical foundation for programming languages.

    Once the Lockean conception of property rights as sacrosanct expressions of human liberty is uprooted, we need to reconsider just how we ought to think of property rights. I think Locke is on to an important piece, namely that we should get to enjoy the fruits of our efforts without others freeloading off of our efforts. But the question of who is freeloading under what circumstances is much more subtle and complex than Locke could have imagined in the absence of more contemporary sociological factors and insights. As we’ll see shortly,the most influential liberal political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls, incorporates this anti-freeloading piece into his conception of justice as fairness.

    This page titled 7.2: John Locke is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Russ W. Payne.