What is the basis of property rights?

John Locke

Of Property


In this small extract from the “Two treatises of Government”, John Locke explains how property rights transfer from being owned by everyone to 1 individual through their “mixing” of labour with those goods.

He acknowledges that to start with we all have the same right to everything on this earth given to us by God. Though it seems intuitive to us that we own out own bodies and our own labour, the idea we own certain pieces of land is less clear.

The key explanation for this is that when we “mix” our labour with something, it is only fair that we reap the benefits of the work that we have put into it. Though initially land is in the “common” and owned by everyone, through working on it we start of cultivate it and then have a right to it.

Locke does agree that a person cannot take land for himself without “the consent” of all other parties who have a right to it. The duty that we all have to cultivate and improve the earth is one that is given from God, as so the argument follows that by taking the land out of the commons and improving it, we are providing a key service to God, but also to other humans by creating wealth from otherwise unused land.

The conclusion heavily revolves around this idea that we are providing a service to God and other people, and it also successfully seems to explain the strange concept of the right people have to property and the benefits such a system has.

David Hume

Of Justice of Property


This paper sets out to prove that public utility is the only use of justice, and without this justice is rendered irrelevant. Public utility is seen to be the use of anything for the general population of a community, society, world et.c.

We start the paper with 2 different scenarios. One where everyone is so kind and generous to each other and goods and land is infinite. In this case, justice is seen to be irrelevant as people have no need work out who own what as everyone has all they need. The second scenario is where everyone is so desperate, hungry and poor that they use any means necessary to preserve themselves and their families. Here justice is ignored as everyone is concerned with simply looking after themselves. He finishes this analogy by saying that our world is usually in between these two extremes.

He then goes on to look at how best to distribute lands and resources in this world. He first dismisses the idea that it should be distributed equally and then kept that way because it would not reward virtuous behaviour. By this he means working hard and using one’s land to the best of one’s ability. If all land is equally distributed and kept, then there is no incentive to look after the land or to increase wealth or prosperity for yourself or your society.

He acknowledges that strange nature of “property rights”, which seem so complex that there is no way that nature or God could have intended them to be made in such as way. It is also strange that we do not feel that we have innate ideas on the role of judges, kinds et.c have in justice adding to the idea that justice is a meaningless human construct. However, he says that the reason that they need to be so detailed is that this ensures fair and maximum public utility. To show this, he compares superstition and justice. He says one is ridiculous and meaningless, whereas the other has real and tangible impacts on the lives of humans.

For example, if a person builds a house on one side of the river, it is a crime as it is not his property whereas for another it is supported by the law; superstition does not have this universal and tangible impact. Justice is also increased in validity through education and tradition that could make seemingly ridiculous ideas of justice widely accepted and respected.

In conclusion, through education and tradition, we develop property rights into something that has no basis into a universal system that ensures that land is put to best use by the best use to maximise public utility.

Extract from Capital: “Primitive Accumulation”


Karl Marx

The extract aims to set out the injustice caused through capitalism of the removal of serfs from their lands as workers to free individuals in the open marketplace without any support. He defines capital as human-created assets that allow people to benefit economies.

This first begins with a look at what capital is. Marx argues that it is at its core “primitive accumulation”, which is the gathering of resources. This then goes to the creation of large amounts of capital and workers which drives value and then also profits. This complicated chain is argued to be what capital is and then what also leads to wealthy elites and oppressed masses who live in poor conditions.

He argues that this is exacerbated by the fact that wealthy investors rob free labourers of the wealth that they create. Though it is only through the production of the goods that the wealth is created, the labourer has no right to it and instead becomes a wage-labourer, payed not for what he creates as value but for pre-determined wages.

He sees this as a great loss from the previous feudal agreements where people had a right to what they produced. Instead now they face a wealthy and powerful elite that is set on exploitation. In these cases, people lose their subsistence and become “unattached”, which to Marx means uncared for.

Instead of seeing the period where serfdom was abolished, saw it as a great loss of freedom for the people, who lost their substance and care from their overlords and where thrown into the free markets, uncared for.

Agrarian Justice


Thomas Paine

This extract from “The writing of Thomas Paine” explores the possibility of having a a commonwealth fund for all members of a society so that they be no less well off in a civilised state then a natural one. A natural state is when land has not been cultivated and a civilised is where it has and some in the society reap the benefits.

The first part of this argument is that despite being called “civilised”, societies with that description often have the worst kinds of poverty then anywhere else in the world. Though it is true that the rich lead incredibly luxurious lives compared to people living in a natural state, the poor live in terrible conditions.

From this, Paine argues that this is extremely unjust. From previous arguments, we have seen that all people have a right to a part of the earth’s land. This must mean that those who have taken it have an obligation to return to them their dues. It is not through charity, but through justice that the poor of this “civilised “society must looked after.

Consequently, he argues for a common wealth fund where each person (rich or poor) is given a regular and living wage as recompensation for their rights. This would be funded from a 100% inheritance tax that would go to this fund.

Building from the principles that Hume argued earlier on, he acknowledges that taxing the cultivated is wrong as previous owners mixed their own labours with these resources to make them their own and give them the value they currently have. Regardless, they were at one point owned by all in society and so all deserve a part of its current value.

He then counters a popular argument that those who can manage resources ought to get them and those who cannot ought not, to maximise public utility. Instead, he argues, with this common wealth pot, a treasurer manages this wealth for those people and ensures that they use it well.

Overall, this idea of returning to people what they used to rightfully own through a very simple measure of 100% inheritance tax seems to solve many immediate problems of poverty. However, the long-term impacts of such as plan are very much up for debate.

The institution of property


David Schmitz

This paper aims to explain why private ownership and the ability to enjoy the fruits of your own labour is essential for a prosperous society. It first tackles criticism to this idea and then further explains its point of view.

A defence of the “Lockean Proviso”, which means that all people should leave “enough and as good” resources for other, is made. It revolves around the idea that this is possible as privatising land is positive sum gain. Instead of stopping people from accessing common land, it unlocks a great deal of wealth through better use and more incentive to preserve the land. Often, the issue with commons is that those that look after it pay the costs of those that exploit it.

This is well shown through the example of coral reefs, whereas they are owned by all, some decide to add chemicals to decrease fishing costs; meaning that those that are responsible pay for the “externalities” or losses of others. This is an unsustainable system that also damages the land as people do not feel a responsibility to look after it. Privatising land can in fact better preserve land, as those that overuse it need to pay the costs themselves.

However, the paper has a very nuanced view and also agrees that public land can be beneficial. It is inevitable however, that due to some enjoying that benefits but not paying the costs that the system becomes unsustainable and people desire a more “exclusive” system of organisation.

The paper then also explores the potential of communes as a way of regulating resources with a certain group of people with agreements of conduct. For this kind of system, 2 examples are given. The first is the Hutterite communes that exist to this day which are close knit communities that share the fruits of their labour, whilst secluding themselves from the outside world. The second is living rooms in family homes, which through custom and the enforcement of societal (or familial in this case) norms, a resource is not heavily exploited by some while others bear the cost.

The conclusion is that though encouraging others to look after each other’s resources is not sustainable as it relies on good will as opposed to self-interest. Private ownership is needed to encourage prosperity and mutual benefit for all parties.

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