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John Locke


What Locke said in the Second Treatise, Chapter V (On Property) [sec. 25] was:
"God, as king David says, Psal. cxv. 16. has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common."
Sec. 26. God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho' all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state:...

Sec. 27. Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: ...

For his labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. — John Locke (1690)

Incidentally, a statement from John Stuart Mill is often erroneously attributed to John Locke:

When the sacredness of property is talked of, it should be remembered that any such sacredness does not belong in the same degree to landed property.


D. C. MacDonald: Preface (1891?) to Ogilvie's Essay (circa 1782)

But why not utterly destroy this monster? What better service for our soldiers, blue-jackets, and policemen, than to employ themselves in destroying this common enemy of mankind? Parliament could do it, a royal warrant could do it, the sufferers have a right to do it, nay “every man hath a right” to destroy such monsters. “In transgressing the law of Nature,” says John Locke, “the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security, and so he becomes dangerous to mankind; the tie which is to secure them from injury and violence being slighted and broken by him, which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and safety of it, provided for by the law of Nature, every man upon this score, by the right he hath to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where it is necessary, destroy things noxious to them, and so may bring such evil on any one who hath transgressed that law, as may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and, by his example, others from doing the like mischief. And in this case, and upon this ground, every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be the executioner of the law of Nature.”*
*The renowned George Buchanan, the great-grand-father of British Liberty, puts it even stronger than this.   ...   Read the entire preface

Dan Sullivan: Are you a Real Libertarian, or a ROYAL Libertarian?
John Locke is often misrepresented by royal libertarians, who quote him very selectively. For example, Locke did say that:
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.

But Locke condemned anyone who took more than he needed as a "spoiler of the commons":

...if the fruits rotted, or the venison putrified, before he could spend it, he offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished; he invaded his neighbour's share, for he had no right, farther than his use called for any of them, and they might serve to afford him conveniences of life.

The same measures governed the possession of land too: whatsoever he tilled and reaped, laid up and made use of, before it spoiled, that was his peculiar right; whatsoever he enclosed, and could feed, and make use of, the cattle and product was also his. But if either the grass of his enclosure rotted on the ground, or the fruit of his planting perished without gathering, and laying up, this part of the earth, notwithstanding his enclosure, was still to be looked on as waste, and might be the possession of any other.

Locke also restricted appropriation of land by the proviso, ignored by royal libertarians, that there must be still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself: for he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all.

Now if the situation is that there is enough free land, and as good, left after you take and cultivate your land, than your land has no market value, for who would pay you for land that is not better than land that can be had for free? So, besides the fact that Locke's justification of privatizing land is far more limited than royal libertarians portray it to be, it is irrelevant to the question of land value tax, as it applies only to land that has no value.

Furthermore, Locke based his scenario on pre-monetary societies, where a landholder would find that "it was useless, as well as dishonest, to carve himself too much, or take more than he needed." With the introduction of money, Locke noted, all land quickly became appropriated. Why? Because with money, those who can take more land than they have personal use for suddenly have reason to do so, as between them they will have taken all the land, and others will have to pay rent to them. So, with the introduction of money, the Lockean rationale for landed property falls apart, even according to Locke.

And while Locke did not propose a remedy specifically for to this problem, he repeatedly stated that all taxes should be on real estate. ... Read the whole piece

Bill Batt: How Our Towns Got That Way   (1996 speech)
Rutgers Professor of Urban Planning Donald Krueckeberg more recently explained how real property became for the first time a "commodity," much as the market gives personal property exchange value. Native Americans tied the concept of property not to ownership but to use. "One used it, one moved on, and use was shared with others." But the colonists took their notion of real property from evolving British legal tradition, defined largely in terms of what its owners could subdue and control against challengers. John Locke's conception of property was, in one sense, more akin to the Indian notion in as much as one owned it only to the extent that one "mixed one's labor" with it.  ... read the whole article
These components of the classical liberal conception of justice are held by two groups that hold conflicting views on a companion issue of great importance: how are claims of exclusive access to natural opportunities to be established?

John Locke qualified his statement that we own what we produce with his famous "proviso" that there be "as much and as good left in common for others." A few pages later, writing in the last decade of the seventeenth century, he said that private appropriations of land are actually not restricted, because anyone who is dissatisfied with the land available to him in Europe can always go to America, where there is plenty of unclaimed land.[12] Locke does not address the issue of rights to land when land is scarce.

One tradition in classical liberalism concerning claims to land is that of the "homesteading libertarians," as exemplified by Murray Rothbard, who say that there is really no need to be concerned with Locke's proviso. Natural opportunities belong to whoever first appropriates them, regardless of whether opportunities of equal value are available to others.[13]

The other tradition is that of the "geoists," as inspired if not exemplified by Henry George, who say that, whenever natural opportunities are scarce, each person has an obligation to ensure that the per capita value of the natural opportunities that he leaves for others is as great as the value of the natural opportunities that he claims for himself.[14] Any excess in one's claim generates an obligation to compensate those who thereby have less. George actually proposed the nearly equivalent idea, that all or nearly all of the rental value of land should be collected in taxes, and all other taxes should be abolished. The geoist position as I have expressed it emphasizes the idea that, at least when value generated by public services is not an issue, rights to land are fundamentally rights of individuals, not rights of governments.

There are two fundamental problems with the position of homesteading libertarians on claims to land. The first problem is the incongruity with historical reality. Humans have emerged from an environment of violence. Those who now have titles to land can trace those titles back only so far, before they come to events where fiat backed by violence determined title. And the persons who were displaced at that time themselves had titles that originated in violence. If there ever were humans who acquired the use of land without forcibly displacing other humans, we have no way of knowing who they were or who their current descendants might be. There is, in practice, no way of assigning land to the legitimate successors of the persons who first claimed land. And to assign titles based on any fraction of history is to reward the last land seizures that are not rectified.

The second fundamental problem with the position of the homesteading libertarians is that, even if there were previously unsettled land to be allocated, say a new continent emerging from the ocean, first grabbing would make no sense as a criterion for allocating land.

It would be inefficient, for one thing, as people stampeded to do whatever was necessary to establish their claims. But that is not decisive because, if we are concerned with justice, it might be necessary for us to tolerate inefficiency. But the homesteading libertarian view makes no sense in terms of justice. "I get it all because I got here first," isn't justice.

Justice -- the balancing of the scales -- is the geoist position, "I get exclusive access to this natural opportunity because I have left natural opportunities of equal value for you." (How one compares, in practice, the value of different natural opportunities is a bit complex. If you really want to know, you can invite me back for another lecture.)

Justice is thus a regime in which persons have the greatest possible individual liberty, and all acknowledge an obligation to share equally the value of natural opportunities. Justice is economic reform--the abolition of all taxes on labor and capital, the acceptance of individual responsibility, the creation of institutions that will provide equal sharing the value of natural opportunities. ...   Read the entire article

Nic Tideman: Applications of Land Value Taxation to Problems of Environmental Protection, Congestion, Efficient Resource Use, Population, and Economic Growth

The idea that natural opportunities are everyone's common heritage is often defended with religious language. John Locke said:

Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us that men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their sustenance, or revelation, which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah, and his sons, 'tis very clear that God, as King David says, Psal. CXV. xvi. has given the Earth to the children of men, given it to mankind in common.2

John Locke did not advocate land value taxation. Writing in about 1690, he said that there was so much unclaimed land in America that no one could properly complain about the private appropriation of land in Europe.3 Writing nearly 200 year later, when it was becoming impossible for people to appropriate good unclaimed land in America, Henry George said:

If we are all here by the equal permission of the creator, we are all here with an equal title to the enjoyment of his bounty -- with an equal right to the use of all that nature so impartially offers. This is a right which is natural and inalienable; it is a right which vests in every human being as he enters the world, and which during his continuance in the world can be limited only by the equal rights of others. There is in nature no such thing as a fee simple in land. There is on earth no power which can rightfully make a grant of exclusive ownership in land. If all existing men were to unite to grant away their equal rights, they could not grant away the right of those who follow them.4

George preceded this argument with a psychological and linguistic one. He said that our conception of property, of a right of exclusive possession, is based on the idea that each person has a right to his or her productive powers, and therefore to what he or she produces. Since no one produced land, no one can properly claim to own it.5 ... read the whole article

Three hundred years ago virtually no one questioned the propriety of slavery. Even John Locke, that most articulate advocate of human freedom, invested in slaves. But over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, amid extreme controversy in some times and places, slavery was nearly eliminated from the world. With a bit of a lag, a consensus gradually evolved among humanity that slavery was wrong, indeed that no distinctions in civil rights based on race could be justified.

Two hundred years ago almost no one thought that women should be allowed to vote. Amid extreme controversy in some times and places, they were granted voting rights. Now virtually no one argues that women should be denied any rights that men have. We have not yet arrived at a consensus about what equality of the sexes means, but we are near a consensus that we should strive for it. ...

The Complementary Right of Equal Access to Natural Opportunities

One of the factors that makes the case for secession difficult is the problem of regional inequality in natural resources. When the people who called themselves Biafrans sought to secede from Nigeria in the 1960s, the morality of their claim was undermined by the fact that, if they had succeeded, they would have taken disproportionate oil resources from the rest of Nigerians. The limited support for the efforts of the Chechins to separate from Russia is explained in part by the understanding that, even though the Chechins have been abused by Russians for centuries and have never fully acceded to their incorporation into Russia, if Chechniya were allowed to separate from Russia, that would create a precedent that would make it difficult to oppose an effort by the people of the sparsely populated Yakutsia region of Eastern Siberia, rich in oil and diamonds, to insist that they too have a right to be a separate nation.

Perhaps, a general recognition of a right of secession will need to wait for another component of moral evolution: a recognition that all persons have equal claims on the value of natural opportunities. If this were recognized, then any nation or region with disproportionately great natural resources would be seen to have an obligation to share the value from using those resources with those parts of the world that have less than average resources per capita. This would eliminate the desire to appropriate natural resources as a reason for secession and as a reason for opposing secession. Signs of a recognition of the equal claims of all persons on the use of natural opportunities are slim. One can point to John Locke:

Whether we consider natural Reason, which tells us, the Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation, and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence: Or Revelation, which gives us an account of those Grants God made of the World to Adam, and to Noah, and his Sons, 'tis very clear, that God, as King David says, Psal. CXV. xvi. has given the Earth to the Children of Men, given it to Mankind in common.2

Locke goes on to say that every person has a right to himself, and therefore to the things of value that are created by combining his efforts with natural opportunities, "at least where there is as much and as good left in common for others." He then argues that with so much unclaimed land in America, no one can justly complain if all of Europe is privately appropriated. Locke does not address the question of how rights to land should be handled if there is no unclaimed land. ... read the whole article

John Locke, the natural-law philosopher whose thought is reflected in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, wrote, “the things of nature are given in common”11 and “no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land ...”12 Locke recognized the benefits of private ownership of land and the right of individuals to possess land — a right he contended came about when an individual mixed his labor with the land. But Locke, in his famous “proviso,” stipulated that such private ownership would be held on the condition “where there is enough and as good left in common for others.”13 Though Locke did not explicitly state how that condition could be met, the payment to a community of the rent, which measures the extra productivity of superior relative to inferior land, would seem to satisfy the condition, since this would keep in common the benefits of holding the better lands. ...

Natural-law philosophers such as John Locke have reasoned that all human beings have a natural ownership right to their labor and the products of that labor. The fundamental equality of humanity means it is fundamentally wrong for some to take away the labor done by others.31 That notion is almost universally recognized today with respect to slavery, and some folks are beginning to recognize that the current tax system—which taxes our earnings and taxes how we invest or spend those earnings—also violates man’s natural right to the fruits of his labor. ... read the whole document

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 2: A Short History of Capitalism (pages 15-32)

In the seventeenth century, John Locke sought to balance the commons and private property. Like others of his era, he saw that private property doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it exists in relationship to a commons, vis-à-vis which there are takings and leavings. The rationale for private property is that it boosts economic production, but the commons has a rationale, too: it provides sustenance for all. Both sides must be respected.

Locke believed that God gave the earth to “mankind in common,” but that private property is justified because it spurs humans to work. Whenever a person mixes his labor with nature, he “joins to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” But here Locke added an important proviso: “For this labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer,” he wrote, “no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” In other words, a person can acquire property, but there’s a limit to how much he or she can rightfully appropriate. That limit is set by two considerations: first, it should be no more than he can join his labor to, and second, it has to leave “enough and as good” in common for others. This was consistent with English common law at the time, which held, for example, that a riparian landowner could withdraw water for his own use, but couldn’t diminish the supply available to others.

Despite Locke’s quest for balance, the English commons didn’t last. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the movement to enclose and privatize it accelerated greatly. According to historian Karl Polanyi, this enclosure was the great transformation that launched the modern era. Local gentry, backed by Parliament, fenced off village lands and converted them to private holdings. Impoverished peasants then drifted to cities and became industrial workers. Landlords invested their agricultural profits in manufacturing, and modern times, economically speaking, began. ... read the whole chapter

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 5: Reinventing the Commons (pages 65-78)

Organizing Principles of the Commons Sector

Property rights, especially the common kind, require competent institutions to manage them. What we need today, then, along with more common property, is a set of institutions, distinct from corporations and government, whose unique and explicit mission is to manage common property.

I say set of institutions because there will and should be variety. The commons sector should not be a monoculture like the corporate sector. Each institution should be appropriate to its particular asset and locale.

Some of the variety will depend on whether the underlying asset is limited or inexhaustible. Typically, gifts of nature have limited capacities; the air can safely absorb only so much carbon dioxide, the oceans only so many drift nets. Institutions that manage natural assets must therefore be capable of limiting use. By contrast, ideas and cultural creations have endless potential for elaboration and reuse. In these commons, managing institutions should maximize public access and minimize private tollbooths.

Despite their variations, commons sector institutions would share a set of organizing principles. Here are the main ones.


As Locke argued, it’s okay to privatize parts of the commons as long as “enough and as good” is left for everyone forever. Enough in the case of an ecosystem means enough to keep it alive and healthy. That much, or more, should be part of the commons, even if parts of the ecosystem are private. In the case of culture and science, enough means enough to assure a vibrant public domain. Exclusive licenses, such as patents and copyrights, should be kept to a minimum.


Corporations put the interests of stockholders first, while government puts the interests of campaign donors and living voters first. No one at the moment puts future generations first. That’s Job Number One for the commons sector.

In practice, this means trustees of common property should be legally accountable to future generations. (We’ll see how this might work in chapter 6.) They should also be bound by the precautionary principle: when in doubt, err on the side of safety. And when faced with a conflict between short-term gain and long-term preservation, they should be required to choose the latter.


Whereas private property is inherently exclusive, common property strives to be inclusive. It always wants more co-owners or participants, consistent with preservation of the asset.

This organizing principle applies most clearly to commons like culture and the Internet, where physical limits are absent and increasing use unleashes synergies galore. It also applies to social compacts like Social Security and Medicare, which require universal participation. In these compacts, financial mechanisms express our solidarity with other members of our national community. They’re efficient and fair because they include everybody. Were they to operate under profit-maximizing principles, they’d inevitably exclude the poor (who couldn’t afford to participate) and anyone deemed by private insurers to be too risky.


Modern democratic government is grounded on the principle of one person, one vote. In the same way, the modern commons sector would be grounded on the principle of one person, one share. In the case of scarce natural assets, it will be necessary to distinguish between usage rights and income rights. It’s impossible for everyone to use a limited commons equally, but everyone should receive equal shares of the income derived from selling limited usage rights.

Currently, private property owners enjoy a near-monopoly on the privilege of receiving property income. But as the Alaska Permanent Fund shows, it’s possible for common property co-owners to receive income too.

Income sharing would end private property’s monopoly not only on liquidity, but also on attention. People would notice common property if they got income from it. They’d care about it, think about it, and talk about it. Concern for invisible commons would soar.

Common property liquidity has to be designed carefully, though. Since common property rights are birthrights, they shouldn’t be tradeable the way corporate shares are. This means commons owners wouldn’t reap capital gains. Instead, they’d retain their shared income stakes throughout their lives, and through such stakes, share in rent, royalties, interest, and dividends. ... read the whole chapter

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 7: Universal Birthrights (pages 101-116)

The Idea of Birthrights

John Locke’s response to royalty’s claim of divine right was the idea of everyone’s inherent right to life, liberty, and property. Thomas Jefferson, in drafting America’s Declaration of Independence, changed Locke’s trinity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These, Jefferson and his collaborators agreed, are gifts from the creator that can’t be taken away. Put slightly differently, they’re universal birthrights.

The Constitution and its amendments added meat to these elegant bones. They guaranteed such birthrights as free speech, due process, habeas corpus, speedy public trials, and secure homes and property. Wisely, the Ninth Amendment affirmed that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In that spirit, others have since been added.

If we were to analyze the expansion of American birthrights, we’d see a series of waves. The first wave consisted of rights against the state. The second included rights against unequal treatment based on race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. The third wave — which, historically speaking, is just beginning — consists of rights not against things, but for things — free public education, collective bargaining for wages, security in old age. They can be thought of as rights necessary for the pursuit of happiness.

What makes this latest wave of birthrights strengthen community is their universality. If some Americans could enjoy free public education while others couldn’t, the resulting inequities would divide rather than unite us as a nation. The universality of these rights puts everyone in the same boat. It spreads risk, responsibility, opportunity, and reward across race, gender, economic classes, and generations. It makes us a nation rather than a collection of isolated individuals.

Universality is also what distinguishes the commons sector from the corporate sector. The starting condition for the corporate sector, as we’ve seen, is that the top 5 percent owns more shares than everyone else. The starting condition for the commons sector, by contrast, is one person, one share.

The standard argument against third wave universal birthrights is that, while they might be nice in theory, in practice they are too expensive. They impose an unbearable burden on “the economy” — that is, on the winners in unfettered markets. Much better, therefore, to let everyone — including poor children and the sick — fend for themselves. In fact, the opposite is often true: universal birthrights, as we’ll see, can be cheaper and more efficient than individual acquisition. Moreover, they are always fairer.

How far we might go down the path of extending universal birthrights is anyone’s guess, but we’re now at the point where, economically speaking, we can afford to go farther. Without great difficulty, we could add three birthrights to our economic operating system: one would pay everyone a regular dividend, the second would give every child a start-up stake, and the third would reduce and share medical costs. Whether we add these birthrights or not isn’t a matter of economic ability, but of attitude and politics.

Why attitude? Americans suffer from a number of confusions. We think it’s “wrong” to give people “something for nothing,” despite the fact that corporations take common wealth for nothing all the time. We believe the poor are poor and the rich are rich because they deserve to be, but don’t consider that millions of Americans work two or three jobs and still can’t make ends meet. Plus, we think tinkering with the “natural” distribution of income is “socialism,” or “big government,” or some other manifestation of evil, despite the fact that our current distribution of income isn’t “natural” at all, but rigged from the get-go by maldistributed property.

The late John Rawls, one of America’s leading philosophers, distinguished between pre distribution of property and re distribution of income. Under income re distribution, money is taken from “winners” and transferred to “losers.” Understandably, this isn’t popular with winners, who tend to control government and the media. Under property pre distribution, by contrast, the playing field is leveled by spreading property ownership before income is generated. After that, there’s no need for income redistribution; property itself distributes income to all. According to Rawls, while income re distribution creates dependency, property predistribution empowers.

But how can we spread property ownership without taking property from some and giving it to others? The answer lies in the commons — wealth that already belongs to everyone. By propertizing (without privatizing) some of that wealth, we can make everyone a property owner.

What’s interesting is that, for purely ecological reasons, we need to propertize (without privatizing) some natural wealth now. This twenty-first century necessity means we have a chance to save the planet, and as a bonus, add a universal birthright. ... read the whole chapter

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 8: Sharing Culture (pages 117-134)

The Statute of Queen Anne, passed by the English Parliament in 1710, gave authors, not printers, title to their works. Such title was in the form of an exclusive right for fourteen years, with an option to renew for the same period. Thereafter, works would enter what we now call the public domain, and anyone could reprint them without further compensating the author. The idea was to reward authors sufficiently to induce them to write, but once they’d been fairly paid, to have literature circulate as widely and as cheaply as possible.

A leading advocate of this new arrangement was John Locke. As with landed property, Locke sought to balance the interest of the laborer who adds value with that of the commons that stores and shares value. In a memorandum to Parliament, he argued that it was “unreasonable and injurious to learning” to grant exclusive rights to print classic texts; the “liberty, to any one, of printing them, is certainly the way to have them the cheaper and the better.” As for “authors that now live and write,” he proposed “to limit their property to a certain number of years after . . . the first printing of the book.”

In this spirit, the U.S. Constitution gave Congress authority “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Shortly thereafter, in 1790, the first American copyright law gave authors the same deal as in Britain: exclusive rights for fourteen years, with an option to renew for another fourteen. After that, their work entered the public domain. The idea wasn’t so much to expand intellectual property rights as to set boundaries on them. Indeed, what we call intellectual property today was then considered a monopoly privilege granted by the state, not a right belonging to a creator.

For nearly two centuries, this arrangement worked brilliantly. There was no lack of creativity on either side of the Atlantic. But starting about thirty years ago, large entertainment companies began tipping the balance from the public domain to the private. Led by the Walt Disney Company, the corporations pushed Congress to extend copyright terms, first to seventy-five years and then to ninety-five. (The extensions occurred whenever Mickey Mouse was about to enter the public domain.) One consequence is that the public domain has been marginalized; corporations now take from the commons and give nothing back. Another is that the experience of culture has been altered; we’re now consumers of culture rather than participants. ... read the whole chapter






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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper