3 Şubat 2011 Perşembe

John Locke's Private Property Theory

Having private property is very usual, normal thing for our 21st century liberal minds. We all live in houses, use technological devices belonging to us. We all go to shopping, spend a lot of money for having new clothes, furniture to look more stylish. However, humans did not reach easily today’s understanding of having right to have private property. Socialism and some kinds of authoritarian regimes in the past were trying to restrict our freedom of having private property in the name of preventing economic injustices. Many philosophers have tried to create a coherent theory for the fair criterion of possessing a property. John Locke who was a famous English philosopher known with his work Two Treatises on Government (1690) has also dealt with this issue and created a theory. This paper aims to present John Locke’s theory of private property. In order to fully understand his theory, I will explain a case with regard to Locke’s views: “If I carefully poured my glass of orange juice into the Mediterranean Sea would I own the sea?”

John Locke who was considered as the father of liberalism claims that before the emergence of laws, regulations about private property there was a natural law. His idea about the natural law is also related to his conception of state of nature, a period of time in history in which humans lived freely without any kind of central, binding power. Locke reveals that according to this natural law, the labour of a person’s body should be his or her property. In other words, if a person mixes his/her labour with a thing that nature has offered for humans, he/she has right to possess this thing. “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (Locke, p. 274). In Locke’s idea, nature provided everything for humans; fruits, animals, water etc. and humans are free to acquire what they need from nature by mixing their labour to that specific thing. (For example by gathering apples from trees.) Natural materials are common to all people and the mixture of labour of a person will make that material a private property. “That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right” (Locke, p. 275). Locke goes further in this argument and suggests that even the grass that a man’s horse has bit would be that man’s property like the ore a man has digged. “Thus the grass my horse has bit, the turfs my servant has cut, and the ore I have digged in any place where I have a right to them in common with others become my property, without the assignation or consent of anybody. The labour was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them” (Locke, p. 275). Locke believes that positive laws should be based on this natural law of property and all regulations should be made according to this principle. He thinks that civilized countries do this. “And amongst those who are counted the civilized part of mankind, who have made and multiplied positive laws to determine property, this original law of nature for the beginning of property in what was before common, still takes place; and by virtue thereof, what fish anyone catches in the ocean, that great and still remaining common of mankind, or what ambergris anyone takes up here is by the labour that removes it out of that common state nature left it in, made his property who takes that pains about it” (Locke, p. 276)

The idea looks very exaggerated but we should not forget that Locke lived in 17th century in a world less organized, less institutionalised and less populated. His theory can be understood in a way that the one who first acts will have the benefit. “I grabbed this land first so it belongs to me”. However, it is not that simple. Locke insists on mentioning that a person should mix his labour in order to own a natural material that is common, public. Locke does not clearly explain the fair criterion of mixing labour. A man should exclude the natural thing from common use by mixing his labour and also should improve the characteristics of that thing. “God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour” (Locke, p. 277) In Locke’s understanding, the conditions of human life and nature make private possession inevitable. However, man should not act greedily in possessing natural materials especially when they are in shortage. So, let us analyse our case study. If I carefully poured my glass of orange juice into the Mediterranean Sea would I own the sea?”

In my opinion, in our example by pouring a glass of orange juice into the Mediterranean Sea I would not own the sea. It is true that even pouring a glass of orange into the sea is a kind a labour. So, we can say that in our example there is a mixture of labour. Also, the Mediterranean Sea is not owned by anyone and common to all people. However, I think by doing this I would not possess the sea. First of all, pouring a glass of orange would not improve the characteristics of Mediterranean Sea. Although orange juice contains vitamins especially C vitamin, few drops of orange juice will not improve the huge sea. We can even claim that this may spoil the natural equilibrium of the sea. We know that there are many kinds of livings (animals, organisms) in the sea and the nature in its perfect harmony continues to preserve its balance by itself although humans make everything to spoil it (pollution). In my opinion, our act would not improve the sea. Secondly, if a person would own the sea this would be harmful for many other people. Seas are very beneficial for people. People find many things to eat by fishing. In addition, they use the water of sea for cleaning, laundry and also for fun. So, thousands of people will be deprived from these benefits if a person would own the Mediterranean Sea. Thirdly, the private ownership of Mediterranean Sea by a person would not increase the common stock of people but rather decrease it. For all these reasons I believe that Locke in our case would not accept the private ownership of the sea. However, I must say that his theory is not very clear and the criterion for mixing labour and improving the characteristic of a common natural thing is not mentioned explicitly.

Finally, in my opinion although we have right, freedom to own things individuals should not own some key materials. Sea is a good example for this. Sea is a part of nature and should be common, open to public use. Land can be owned by individuals, enterprises but even this creates some problems like we know from problematic foundation of Israel issue. This kind of critical materials must be in the possession of all humanity or at least nation-states. Also, some key industries crucial for nation-states must not be owned by individuals for security purposes. I do not know the exact frontier for restricting private ownership but I am sure of one thing; there are things that should not be owned individuals and should be for all people, humanity. I hope one day we will live in a peaceful, less money oriented, less competitive world…

BIBLIOGRAPHY· Locke, John, 1993, “Political Writings”, London: Penguin Groups
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