Second Treatise of Government | Study Guide

John Locke

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Second Treatise of Government | Chapter 5 : Of Property | Summary

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Summary

Locke begins this lengthy chapter by quoting scripture to the effect that God has given the Earth to mankind in common (see Psalm 115:16). This poses a problem for Locke: how can any individual own anything if all things are held in common?

Locke sets out to answer this dilemma by introducing another key assumption. In Section 27, he declares that every individual has a property in his own person. This property includes the labor of his body and the work of his hands. It is this labor which, joined or "annexed" to what man removes from the common store, makes that object or article properly his. Property, then, comes into existence through individual action and labor. Locke gives the example of someone who gathers acorns or apples from the forest. The labor of gathering marks those acorns or apples off "from the rest of the world's contents."

Someone might object that this rationale would make hoarding lawful. Locke answers that "the same law of nature that does, by this means, give us property, does also bound that property too" (Section 31). Reasonable use without waste is the common-sense limitation on hoarding.

Locke then proceeds to discuss specifically the ownership of land. Land is considered according to the same rationale as acorns and apples. If an individual mingles his labor with a plot of land—for example, by building on it or cultivating it—the land becomes his property. Locke discusses land held jointly or in common in England. Nature has wisely set limits to private property by limiting the amount of men's labor and also the amount of men's need. Individual men's possessions are limited to a very moderate proportion.

Locke then turns to the invention of money and men's tacit or implied agreement to place value on it. Money developed because of men's wants, which began to exceed their needs. Value, which used to be correlated with usefulness, was now thrown out of kilter. When money came into use, it also altered the general truth that most things useful to mankind were of brief duration. It also changed the idea that goods would decay or perish if not consumed within a relatively short time. The invention of money gave men the chance to expand their property. People became able to own more than they could use.

Analysis

Property is one of the cornerstones of Locke's thought in the Second Treatise. An essential ingredient in Locke's explanation of property ownership is labor or industry. Locke uses this factor, or contribution, to reconcile mankind's ownership of the Earth in common with individual ownership.

A second prominent aspect of this chapter is Locke's explanation of the emergence and effects of money. The invention of money changed the property equation. Through a mutual, tacit acceptance of an essentially artificial value, human beings were able to accumulate more than they could use. Money brought a solution to the problems created when human wants exceeded human needs. Money could function to prevent the waste occurring when superfluous goods decayed or perished because of lack of use.

Locke's references to America in this chapter are intriguing. Does he refer primarily to the British colonies in the New World? Twelve of the original 13 colonies (all except Georgia) were in existence when the Second Treatise was published. The oldest colony, Virginia, had been founded in 1607 at Jamestown. Possibly, Locke is also referring to South America, where Spanish colonial enterprises had been in existence for well over a century. In any case, for Locke America seems to represent a vast, primeval region in which land and other goods were what economists would call "non-rivalrous." They were so extensive that individual ownership would not deprive anyone else of possession. Note Locke's pithy characterization of America as almost symbolically primeval: "Thus in the beginning all the world was America" (Section 49).

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