What is the Origin of Property, Part 1 of 4

This is the beginning of a series of (probably) 4 posts about property – what it is, why it exists, what bit of the human condition it relates to. Posts 1 and 4 will probably be most philosophical, post 2 most historical, and post 3 most anthropological/zoological.

The first post in this series will be a critique of John Locke. Locke famously argued that property was a natural right (i.e. a right existing independently of laws and society) based in individual labour as an extension of self-ownership. I’m going to refer to this as the ‘Fruits of Labour’ principle, or ‘the FOLP’. Something like this is the standard line taken by right-wing libertarians and by many defenders of capitalism. My conclusion will be that while there is a meaningful idea here, it doesn’t account for the reality of what property is and has been.

Locke’s approach dwells on the ‘state of nature’, and its account need not be historically accurate to be philosophically valid. The discussion of property can be read as a philosophical justification, about what rights we have, a conceptual genealogy, about the real nature of the concepts we have, or as a historical explanation, about the origins of an institution we have. I shall not try to decide which of these purposes is primary – I will take them as intertwined, and argue that they are all failed.

The idea of ownership often seems eminently simple: what could be simpler than this computer being ‘my’ computer? Few political concepts have their own pronouns, as property has possessive pronouns. And shouldn’t it be no harder to understand why one particular mother is my mother, than to understand why one particular computer is my computer?

I want to suggest that actually the simplicity of property ownership is a product of it bringing multiple ideas together. Just as ‘all cats are stupid’ is simpler, easier to understand, than ‘this cat is stupid but not that one’ or ‘black cats and tabby cats are stupid’, so property rights have the simplicity of being ‘all rights’. Because I own my computer, I have the right to use it, but also the right to exclude others from its use; the right to move it from place to place and stop others moving it, the right to destroy it and stop others destroying it, the right to paint it bright pink and to stop anyone else painting it. And I have the right to pass it on to whoever I want. Moreover, these rights are not temporary, but last indefinitely. And this ‘ownership’ can apply to a bewildering array of objects – those I have never seen, those I see every day, those I use once, those I keep forever, those I physically need and those I happen to fancy.

In the notion of property a large number of things are rolled up into one, and this must be borne in mind when considering arguments about it. That an argument applies to individual rights of some kind to something does not mean it relates to property, i.e. all rights to things of all kinds.

Locke famously writes:

“[E]very man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands…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.”

That is: I own myself, hence I own my body, hence I own my body’s labour, hence I own whatever has ‘absorbed’ my labour by acquiring value from it.

To fully understand this we need to also bring in Locke’s discussion of slavery. Locke denies that anyone has the right to sell themselves because:

““[A] man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.”

That is, we cannot give away the right of our own life because we do not have that right – we are the creations of God and must live, as God commands us, and promote God’s will. So our self-ownership is really more of a stewardship, a limited right. Consequently our property ownership, derived from it, is also a limited right, bound by God’s goal of promoting general wellbeing.

But if self-ownership is not absolute then we might wonder about the sort of ownership transmitted to property. As noted above, property ownership involves a great number of distinct rights – use, exclusion, destruction, relocation, alienation. But Locke has just said, for example, that we do not have alienation or destruction rights over our own bodies and lives. That is, self-ownership does not include the right to transfer that ownership to others by trade or gift. The reason being that we have no right to destroy ourselves wantonly – though we do have a right to sacrifice ourselves for a reason, for the greater good. Now certainly it is possible to destroy possessions for the greater good, but Locke strongly suggests that it is not permissible to wantonly destroy them – by calling it illegitimate to appropriate so much that it spoils before being consumed.

If our rights to property derive from self-ownership, then we should expect that the same sort of rights be held in both cases. That implies that alienation of one’s property should have the same status as alienation of one’s life and liberty. If we have the unlimited right to sell or give away our possessions to whomever we like, we should also have the right to sell ourselves, to give away the right to parts of our body. If we think that our lives, our liberties, and our bodies, are inalienably ours, that we always own them, no matter what happens, that any contract by which we sign away our right to not be tortured, raped, or killed, is void – then property ownership derived from self-ownership should have the same character, the same fixedness in the immediate objects of our labour. I.e. it should be nothing like the actual ownership that exists.

There is a sense in which it seems reasonable to say that we own ourselves, but that sense is very limited, for once we unpack what ownership really means we see that its actual nature is completely different from our relationship to ourselves and our bodies – a difference which is masked by the apparently simple and basic concept of ownership.

The argument given also doesn’t explain why we have, more or less, a single category of things that are ‘mine”. We own things because we have mixed our labour with them: but surely we’ve mixed different amounts of labour with different things? Something that we collect from the ground only includes the labour of bending down and standing up again, while something we craft may take hours of strenuous exertion. Shouldn’t we own some things ‘more’ than others? After all, the intuitive backing for this argument is the natural sense of unfairness that attaches to the idea of unrewarded labour – but isn’t it strongly intuitive that there is more unfairness, more harm done, in taking something that incorporates hours or days of strenuous effort than something that was easily stumbled across? Yet ownership doesn’t (and because it contains all the different rights we might have over an item, arguably cannot) admit of degrees. Once again, the arguments presented don’t match up to the reality of what property ownership is.

In conclusion: Locke’s account doesn’t talk about property but rather a collection of partially related concepts – people deserving a benefit from their labour, people’s inherent sanctity and so forth.

Because the idea of property is so established and so familiar, the account can slip into it, assuming without argument that people deserve to own what they labour on, that they own themselves. Consequently, the account is satisfactory neither as a philosophical justification nor as a conceptual genealogy, and certainly not as a historical explanation.

I believe there is some truth in focusing on the FOLP, but I think different issues are primary in understanding property as an actual historical phenomenon. Over the next few posts I would like to discuss an alternative genealogy of ownership, which I’ll sketch out now. It’s not at all novel or surprising, but I think it deserves to be developed and defended against attempts to link the FOLP with private property.

What we have noted is that ownership brings together a great variety of goods and a great variety of rights – that it seems to involve an impulse towards totality. I would suggest that concern with the enjoyment of things is not the real issue here, but control. To say that something is ‘mine’ is to demand that nothing, no events, needs, desires, or decisions from outside interfere with my control over it and spoil my sense of power. The basis and origin of property is part of a continuum with political power: the property-owner is a microcosm of the king. Property contains an impulse towards totality – to assert my authority as fully as possible – because its heritage is that of kings, lords, and other rulers whose desire for power contained a similar impulse towards totality.

3 Responses to “What is the Origin of Property, Part 1 of 4”

  1. Why Liberals Should Support the Dictatorship of the Proletariat « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] I’ve argued before, at length, that this view is mistaken (especially in this post). In contrast, I defended the idea that property-ownership is a form of political dominion – that […]

  2. lostinsilence Says:


    Accidently landed in your blog to find a discussion which has been one of my own ‘problems of philosophy’, and should say well argued. I would like to go through the rest of the series and come back again, but for the time being let me shoot one contention, which I think is important.

    Locke’s argument is not consistent and you have established it with reason. But his primary reservation against selling own body or liberty derives from a religious idea; i.e. there exist a God.

    Now, what if that conditional clause is removed. i.e. if the argument is that ‘I own my body’, therefore I can do whatever with it. I can commit suicide, I can willingly allow myself to be tortured, raped or killed? Will it be a consistent argument in that case (its social implications apart)?

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    hi Lostinsilence,
    I think if you make that adjustment, you do resolve that particular issue, but there are two big buts:

    Firstly, there’s still the other half of the argument: why go from what I here call the Fruits-of-Labour Principle, that people have some sort of right, to some degree, over things that they expend labour on, to the conclusion that people have full ownership, permanently and alienably, over all objects on which they’ve laboured to any degree, except not at all if that thing was already someone else’s?

    That is, even if full ‘ownership’ rights are there in the person’s self-ownership, there’s a big question over how they get transferred.

    The other ‘but’ is that the premise that’s been made stronger – that we own ourselves in a full, literal, ‘I am property for myself’ way – is then much less plausible and intuitive. It can no longer get support from the vague sense that we should have special rights over ourselves.

    So I think Locke can solve one problem of inconsistency, but at the cost of greatly weakening the plausibility of his premises.

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