Early Modern Texts
John Locke?s Second Treatise of Government Chapter 5: Property
Pages 10-18 i.e., #37 Start of Gold standard
Copyright ? 2010?2015 All rights reserved. Jonathan Bennett
First launched: January 2005 Last amended: March 2008

Original document can be found

25. God, as King David says (Psalms cxv.16), has given the earth to the children of men?given
it to mankind in common. This is clear, whether we consider natural reason, which tells us that men, once they are born, have a right to survive and thus a right to food and drink and such other things as nature provides for their subsistence, or ?revelation, which gives us an account of the grants that God made of the world to Adam and to Noah and his sons. Some people think that this creates a great difficulty about how anyone should ever come to own anything. I might answer ?that difficulty with another difficulty, saying? that if the supposition that God gave the world to Adam and his posterity in common makes it hard to see how ?there can be any individual ownership, the supposition that God gave the world to Adam and his successive heirs, excluding all the rest of his posterity makes it hard to see how ?anything can be owned except by one universal monarch. But I shan?t rest content with that, and will try to show ?in a positive way? how men could come to own various particular parts of something that God gave to mankind in common, and how this could come about without any explicit agreement among men in general. [Here and throughout this chapter, ?own? will often replace Locke?s ?have a property in?.]
26. God, who has given the world to men in common, has also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience. The earth and everything in it is given to men for the support and comfort of their existence. All the fruits it naturally produces and animals that it feeds, as produced by the spontaneous hand of nature, belong to mankind in common; nobody has a basic right?a private right that excludes the rest of mankind?over any of them as they are in their natural state. But they were given for the use of men; and before they can be useful or beneficial to any particular man there must be some way for a particular man to appropriate them [= ?come to own them?]. The wild Indians ?in north America? don?t have fences or boundaries, and are still joint tenants ?of their territory?; but if any one of them is to get any benefit from fruit or venison, the food in question must be his?and his (i.e. a part of him) in such a way that no-one else retains any right to it. [The last clause of that is puzzling. Does Locke mean that the Indian can?t directly get benefit from the venison except by eating it? That seems to be the only way to make sense of ?part of him?; but it doesn?t fit well with the paragraph as a whole.]

27. Though ?men as a whole own the earth and all inferior creatures, every ??individual? man has a property in his own person [= ?owns himself?]; this is something that nobody else has any right to. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own; and in that way he makes it his property.
He has removed the item from the common state that nature has placed it in, and through this labour the item has had annexed to it something that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour is unquestionably the property of the labourer, so no other man can have a right to anything the labour is joined to?at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. [Note Locke?s statement that every man ?has a property in his own person?. He often says that the whole point of political structures is to protect ?property?; which might be sordidly mercantile if he weren?t talking about the protection not just of man?s physical possessions but also of his life and liberty.]

28. Someone who eats the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the forest, has certainly appropriated them to himself! Nobody can deny that the nourishment is his. Well, then, when did they begin to be his?

when he digested them?
when he cooked them?
when he brought them home?
when he picked them up ?under the tree??

It is obvious that if his first gathering didn?t make them his, nothing else could do so. That labour ?marked those things off from the rest of the world?s contents; it ?added something to them beyond what they had been given by nature, the common mother of all; and so they became his private right.

Suppose we denied this, and said instead:
He had no right to the acorns or apples that he thus appropriated, because he didn?t have the consent of all mankind to make them his. It was robbery on his part to take for himself something that belonged to all men in common.

If such a consent as that was necessary, men in general would have starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had provided them with. We see ?the thesis I am defending at work in our own society?. When there is some land that has the status of a common?being held in common by the community by agreement among them?taking any part of what is common and removing it from the state nature leaves it in creates ownership; and if it didn?t, the common would be of no use. And the taking of this or that part doesn?t depend on the express consent of all the commoners [= ?all those who share in the common ownership of the land?]. Thus when my horse bites off some grass, my servant cuts turf, or I dig up ore, in any place where I have a right to these in common with others, the grass or turf or ore becomes my property, without anyone?s giving it to me or consenting to my having it. My labour in removing it out of the common state it was in has established me as its owner.

29. If the explicit consent of every commoner was needed for anyone to appropriate to himself any part of what is given in common, children couldn?t cut into the meat their father had provided for them in common without saying which child was to have which portion. The water running in the fountain is everyone?s, but who would doubt that the water in the pitcher belongs to the person who drew it out?. . . .

30. Thus this law of reason makes it the case that the Indian who kills a deer owns it; it is agreed to belong to the person who put his labour into it, even though until then it
was the common right of everyone. Those who are counted as the civilized part of mankind have made and multiplied positive laws to settle property rights; but ?even? among us this original law of nature?the law governing how property starts when everything is held in common?still applies. [Locke concludes the section with examples: catching a fish, gathering ambergris, shooting a hare.]

31. You may object that if gathering the acorns etc. creates a right to them, then anyone may hoard as much as he likes. I answer: Not so. The very law of nature that in this way gives us property also sets limits to that property. God has given us all things richly. . . . But how far has he given them to us? To enjoy [= ?to use, to get benefit from?; this what ?enjoy(ment)? usually means in this work]. Anyone can through his labour come to own as much as he can use in a beneficial way before it spoils; anything beyond this is more than his share and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy. For a long time there could be little room for quarrels or contentions about property established on this basis: there was an abundance of natural provisions and few users of them; and only a small part of that abundance could be marked off by the industry of one man and hoarded up to the disadvantage of others?especially keeping within the bounds (set by reason) of what he could actually use.

32. But these days the chief issue about property concerns the earth itself rather than the plants and animals that live on it, because when you own some of the earth you own what lives on it as well. I think it is clear that ownership of land is acquired in the same way that I have been describing. A man owns whatever land he tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the products of. By his labour he as it were fences off that land from all that is held in common.

Suppose someone objected:
He has no valid right to the land, because everyone else has an equal title to it. So he can?t appropriate it, he can?t ?fence it off?, without the consent of all his fellow-commoners, all mankind.
That is wrong. When God gave the world in common to all mankind, he commanded man to work, and man needed to work in order to survive. So God and his reason commanded man to subdue the earth, i.e. to improve it for the benefit of life; and in doing that he expended something that was his own, namely his labour. A man who in obedience to this command of God subdued, tilled and sowed any part of the earth?s surface thereby joined to that land something that was his property, something that no-one else had any title to or could rightfully take from him.

33. This appropriation of a plot of land by improving it wasn?t done at the expense of any other man, because there was still enough (and as good) left for others?more than enough for the use of the people who weren?t yet provided for. In effect, the man who by his labour ?fenced off? some land didn?t reduce the amount of land that was left for everyone else: someone who leaves as much as anyone else can make use of does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think he had been harmed by someone else?s taking a long drink of water, if there was the whole river of the same water left for him to quench his thirst; and the ?ownership issues concerning? land and water, where there is enough of both, are exactly the same.
34. God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit and for the greatest conveniences of life they could get from it, he can?t have meant it always to remain common and uncultivated. He gave it for the use of the reasonable and hard-working man (and labour was to be his title to it), not to the whims or the greed of the man who is quarrelsome and contentious. Someone who had land left for his improvement?land as good as what had already been taken up?had no need to complain and ought not to concern himself with what had already been improved by someone else?s labour. If he did, it would be obvious that he wanted the benefit of someone else?s work, to which he had no right, rather than the ground that God had given him in common with others to labour on. . . .

35. In countries such as England now, where there are many people living under a government, and where there is money and commerce, no-one can enclose or appropriate any part of any common land without the consent of all his fellow-commoners. That is because land that is held in common has that status by compact, i.e. by the law of the land, which is not to be violated. Also, although such land is held in common by some men, it isn?t held by all mankind; rather, it is the joint property of this county or this village. Furthermore, after such an enclosure??such a ?fencing off??what was left would not, from the point of view of the rest of the commoners, be ?as good? as the whole was when they could all make use of the whole. This is quite unlike how things stood when that great common, the world, was just starting and being populated. The law that man was under at that time was in favour of appropriating. God ordered man to work, and his wants forced him to do so. That was his property, which couldn?t be taken from him wherever he had fixed it [those five words are Locke?s]. And so we see that subduing or cultivating the earth and having dominion [here = ?rightful control?] are joined together, the former creating the right to the latter. . . .

36. Nature did well in setting limits to private property through limits to how much men can work and limits to how much they need. No man?s labour could tame or appropriate
all the land; no man?s enjoyment could consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man in this way to infringe on the right of another, or acquire a property to the disadvantage of his neighbour. . . . This measure confined every man?s possessions to a very moderate proportion, such as he might make his own without harming anyone else, in the first ages of the world when men were more in danger of getting lost by wandering off on their own in the vast wilderness of the earth as it was then than of being squeezed for lack of land to cultivate. And, full as the world now seems, the rule for land-ownership can still be adopted without harm to anyone. Suppose a family in the state people were in when the world was first being populated by the children of Adam, or of Noah: let them plant on some vacant land in the interior of America. We?ll find that the possessions they could acquire, by the rule I have given, would not be very large, and even today they wouldn?t adversely affect the rest of mankind, or give them reason to complain or think themselves harmed by this family?s encroachment. I maintain this despite the fact that the human race has spread itself to all the corners of the world, and infinitely outnumbers those who were here at the beginning. Indeed, the extent of ground is of so little value when not worked on that I have been told that in Spain a man may be permitted to plough, sow and reap on land to which his only title is that he is making use of it…. Be this as it may (and I don?t insist on it), I venture to assert boldly that if it weren?t for just one thing the same rule of ownership?namely that every man is to own as much as he could make use of?would still hold in the world, without inconveniencing anybody, because there is land enough in the world to suffice twice as many people as there are. The ?one thing? that blocks this is the invention of money, and men?s tacit agreement to put a value on it; this made it possible, with men?s consent, to have larger possessions and to have a right to them. I now proceed to show how this has come about.

37. Men came to want more than they needed, and this altered the intrinsic value of things: a thing?s value originally depended only on its usefulness to the life of man; but men came to agree that a little piece of yellow metal?which wouldn?t fade or rot or rust?should be worth a great lump of flesh or a whole heap of corn. Before all that happened, each man could appropriate by his labour as much of the things of nature as he could use, without detriment to others, because an equal abundance was still left to those who would work as hard on it. ?Locke now moves away from the just-announced topic of money, and won?t return to it until section 46.? To which let me add that someone who comes to own land through his labour doesn?t lessen the common stock of mankind but increases it. That?s because the life-support provisions produced by one acre of enclosed and cultivated land, are (to put it very mildly) ten times more than what would come from an acre of equally rich land that was helkd in common and not cultivated. So he who encloses land, and gets more of the conveniences of life from ten ?cultivated? acres than he could have had from a hundred left to nature, can truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind. For his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres that would have needed a hundred uncultivated? acres lying in common. I have here greatly understated the productivity of improved land, setting it at ten to one when really it is much nearer a hundred to one. [Locke defends this by comparing a thousand acres of ?the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America? with ?ten acres of equally fertile land in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated?.]
[He then starts a fresh point: before land was owned, someone could by gathering fruit or hunting animals come to own those things, because of the labour he had put into them.
But] if they perished in his possession without having been properly used?if the fruits rotted or the venison putrified before he could use it?he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished. For he had encroached on his neighbour?s share, because he had no right to these things beyond what use they could be to him to afford him conveniences of life.

38. The same rule governed the possession of land too: he had his own particular right to whatever grass etc. that he sowed, reaped, stored, and made use of before it spoiled; and to whatever animals he enclosed, fed, and made use of. But if the grass of his enclosure rotted on the ground, or the fruit of his planting perished without being harvested and stored, this part of the earth was still to be looked on as waste-land that might be owned by anyone else?despite the fact that he had enclosed it. Thus, at the beginning, Cain might take as much ground as he could cultivate and make it his own land, still leaving enough for Abel?s sheep to feed on; a few acres would serve for both. But as families increased and by hard work enlarged their stocks, their possessions enlarged correspondingly; but this commonly happened without any fixed ownership of the land they made use of. In due course they formed into groups, settled themselves together, and built cities; and then eventually they set out the bounds of their distinct territories, agreed on boundaries between them and their neighbours, and established laws of their own to settle property-rights within the society. ?These land-ownership developments came relatively late?. For we see that in the part of the world that was first inhabited and was therefore probably the most densely populated, even as late as Abraham?s time they wandered freely up and down with the flocks and herds that they lived on; and Abraham did this ?even? in a country where he was a foreigner. This shows clearly that a great part of the land, at least, lay in common; that the inhabitants didn?t value it or claim ownership of it beyond making use of it. But when there came to be insufficient grazing land in the same place, they separated and enlarged their pasture where it best suited them (as Abraham and Lot did, Genesis xiii. 5). . . .

39. The supposition that Adam had all to himself authority over and ownership of all the world, to the exclusion of all other men, can?t be proved, and anyway couldn?t be the basis for anyone?s property-rights ?today?. And we don?t need it. Supposing the world to have been given (as it was) to the children of men in common, we see how men?s labour could give them separate titles to different parts of it, for their private uses; with no doubts about who has what rights, and no room for quarrelling.

40. It isn?t as strange as it may seem at first glance that the property of labour should be able to outweigh the community of land. For labour affects the value of everything. Think of how an acre of land planted with tobacco or sugar, sown with wheat or barley, differs from an acre of the same land lying in common without being cultivated; you will see the improvement brought about by labour creates most of the extra value of the former. It would be a very conservative estimate to say that of the products of the earth that are useful to the life of man nine tenths are the effects of labour. Indeed, if we rightly estimate the various expenses that have been involved in things as they come to our use, sorting out what in them is purely due to nature and what to labour, we?ll find that in most of them ninety-nine hundredths ?of their value? should go in the ?labour? column.

41. [Locke here contrasts various ?nations of the Americans? with England; they have equally good soil, but an American ?king? lives worse than an English ?day-labourer?, because the Americans don?t improve their land by labour.]

42. This will become clearer if we simply track some of the ordinary provisions of life through their various stages up to becoming useful to us, and see how much of their value comes from human industry. Bread, wine and cloth are things we use daily, and we have plenty of them; but if it weren?t for the labour that is put into these more useful commodities we would have to settle for acorns, water and leaves or skins as our food, drink and clothing. What makes bread more valuable than acorns, wine more valuable than water, and cloth or silk more valuable than leaves, skins or moss, is wholly due to labour and industry. . . . ?One upshot of this is that? the ground that produces the materials provides only a very small part of the final value. So small a part that even here in England land that is left wholly to nature, with no improvement through cultivation. . . .is rightly called ?waste?, and we shall find the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing.
This shows how much better it is to have a large population than to have a large country; and shows that the great art of government is to have the land used well, and that any ruler will quickly be safe against his neighbours if he has the wisdom?the godlike wisdom?to establish laws of liberty to protect and encourage the honest industry of his people against the oppression of power and narrowness of party. But that is by the way; I return now to the argument in hand.

43. [Locke again compares uncultivated American land with cultivated land in England, this time putting the value ratio at one to a thousand. He continues:] It is labour, then, that puts the greatest part of value upon land, without which it would scarcely be worth anything. We owe to labour the greatest part of all the land?s useful products; it is labour that makes the straw, bran, and bread of an acre of wheat more valuable than the product of an acre of equally good land that lies waste. The labour that goes into the bread we eat is not just the ploughman?s efforts,the work of the reaper and the thresher, and the baker?s sweat, but also the labour of those who domesticated the oxen, who dug and shaped the iron and stones, who felled and framed the timber used in the plough, the mill, the oven, or any of the vast number of other utensils that are needed to get this corn from sowable seed to edible bread. All this should be attributed to labour; as for nature and the land?they provided only the materials, which were almost worthless in their raw condition. Imagine what it would be like if every loaf of bread came to us along with a catalogue of all the contributions that labour had made to its existence! It would have to include the labour components in relevant pieces of iron, wood, leather, bark, timber, stone, bricks, coals, lime, cloth, dyes, pitch, tar, masts, ropes, and all the materials used in the ship that brought any of the commodities used by any of the workmen in any part of the work. It would take far too long to make such a list, if indeed it was even possible.

44. All this makes it clear that though the things of nature are given in common, man had in himself the great foundation for ownership?namely his being master of himself, and owner of his own person and of the actions or work done by it; and that most of what he applied to the support or comfort of his being, when invention and skills had made life more comfortable, was entirely his own and didn?t belong in common to others.

45. Thus labour in the beginning gave a right of ownership wherever anyone chose to employ his labour on what was held in common. For a long time the common holdings were much greater than what was individually owned, and even now they are greater than what mankind makes use of. At first, men were mainly contented with what unassisted nature offered to meet their needs, but then: In some parts of the world (where the increase of people and animals, and the use of money, had made land scarce and thus of some value) various communities settled the bounds of their separate territories, and by laws within themselves regulated the properties of the private men in their society, and in this way by compact and agreement they settled the property rights that labour and industry had begun. And the leagues that have been made between different states and kingdoms, either explicitly or tacitly disowning all claim to one anothers? land, have by common consent given up their claims to their natural common right in ?undeveloped? land in one anothers? domains, and so have by positive agreement settled who owns what in various parts and parcels of the earth, ?so that, for instance, no Englishman can claim to own an acre of France because (i) it was uncultivated until he worked on it and (ii) he was not a party to ?internal? French laws giving its ownership to someone else?.
Even after all this, however, there are great tracts of ground that still lie in common ?and so could legitimately be claimed on the basis of labour?. These are in territories whose inhabitants haven?t joined with the rest of mankind in the consent of the use of their common money [Locke?s exact words, starting with ?joined?], and are lands that exceed what the inhabitants do or can make use of. Though this can hardly happen among people who have agreed to use money.

46. Most of the things useful to the life of man?things that the world?s first commoners, like the Americans even now, were forced to seek for their sheer survival?are things of short duration, things that will decay and perish if they are not consumed soon. ?The much more durable? gold, silver and diamonds are things that have value by agreement rather than because there is a real use for them in sustaining life. ?I shall now explain how those two kinds of value came to be linked?. Of the good things that nature has provided in common, everyone had a right (as I have said) to as much as he could use. Each man owned everything that ?he could bring about with his labour, everything that ?his industry could alter from the state nature had put it in. He who gathered a hundred bushels of acorns or apples thereby owned them; as soon as he had gathered them, they were his. His only obligation was to be sure that he used them before they spoiled, for otherwise he took more than his share, and robbed others. And indeed it was foolish as well as dishonest to hoard up more than he could use . ?Now consider a graded trio of cases?. (i) If he gave away some to someone else, so that it didn?t perish uselessly in his possession, that was one way of using it. (ii) And if he traded plums that would have rotted in a week for nuts that would remain eatable for a year, he wasn?t harming anyone. As long as nothing perished uselessly in his hands, he wasn?t wasting the common stock, destroying goods that belonged to others. (iii) If he traded his store of nuts for a piece of metal that had a pleasing colour, or exchanged his sheep for shells, or his wool for a sparkling pebble or a diamond, and kept those??the metal, shells, pebbles, diamonds??in his possession all his life, this wasn?t encroaching on anyone else?s rights. . . . What would take him beyond the bounds of his rightful property was not having a great deal but letting something spoil instead of being used.

47. That is how money came into use?as a durable thing that men could keep without its spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful but perishable supports of life.

48. And as differences in how hard men worked were apt to make differences in how much they owned, so this invention of money gave them the opportunity to continue and enlarge their possessions. Consider this possibility: An island separated from any possibility of trade with the rest of the world; only a hundred families on the island; but enough sheep, horses and cows and other useful animals, enough wholesome fruits, and enough land for corn, for a hundred thousand times as many; but nothing on the island that is rare and durable enough to serve as money.
On such an island, what reason could anyone have to enlarge his possessions beyond the needs of his household, these being met by his own industry and/or trade with other house- holds for similarly perishable and useful commodities? Men won?t be apt to enlarge their possessions of land?however rich and available extra land may be?if there isn?t something durable and scarce and ?counted as? valuable to store up. Suppose someone has the opportunity to come to own ten thousand (or a hundred thousand) acres of excellent land, already cultivated and well stocked with cattle, in the middle of the interior of America where he has no hopes of commerce with other parts of the world through which to get money through the sale of the product. What value will he attach to this estate? It wouldn?t be worth his while to mark its
boundaries; he will hand it back to the wild common of nature, apart from what it would supply for the conveniences of life to be had there for him and his family.

49. Thus in the beginning all the world was America?even more so than America is now, because in the beginning no such thing as money was known anywhere. Find out something that has the use and value of money among a man?s neighbours and you?ll see him start to enlarge his possessions.

50. [In this section Locke goes over it again: by tacitly agreeing to attach value to gold, silver or other money, men have found a way for someone to own more than he can use. He concludes with the remark that ?in governments, the laws regulate the right of property, and the possession of land is determined by positive constitutions? (see note on ?positive? at the end of section 1).

51. It is easy to conceive, then, how labour could at first create ownership of some of the common things of nature, and how uses we could make of those things set limits to what could be owned ?by any individual?. So there couldn?t be any reason for quarrelling about title, or any doubt about how much could be owned. ?Right and ?convenience went together; for as a man had a ?right to all he could employ his labour upon, so he had ?no temptation to labour for more than he could use. This left no room for controversy about the title, or for encroachment on the rights of others: what portion a man carved out for himself was easily seen; and it was useless as well as dishonest for him to carve out too much or take more than he needed.