John Locke: From Self-Preservation to Private Property

John Locke is one of the most important modern philosophers.  He contributed, most famously – though often misunderstood by people who name-drop him – to political philosophy; but Locke also made important contributions to philosophy more broadly (including epistemology, theology, and labor theory in economics).  I have a comprehensive summary of Locke’s Second Treatise which you can begin to read here.  In this post I would like to examine the internal logic of Locke’s core argument that runs throughout the book: how the law of nature is the law of self-preservation and how this becomes the basis of property and that all politics is about the preservation of property which is why property is really the only “natural right” in Locke because life and liberty are intertwined with it.

Locke is famously remembered for stating that man’s natural rights are “life, liberty, and property.”  At first glance it would seem as if he settles on three natural rights.  In reality they are all intertwined together – a result of the implicit monistic materialism of Locke’s broader metaphysical and ontological philosophy.  While Locke is, properly a dualist, the internal logic of his theories tend to reduce toward materialistic hedonism at every corner of life.  Life is only possible with property, and the right to property constitutes man’s freedom, which is to say man’s freedom is tied to property which allows him to live.

Most people inaccurately think that Locke’s state of nature is radically different from Hobbes’s portrait of the state of nature.  Hobbes is famous for having said the state of nature is a “war of all against all” leading to an existence that is “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”  Initially one is seduced by Locke’s tranquil state of nature of atomized individuals each pursuing their own interests.  However, this tranquil state of nature quickly reduces itself into a state of war as competition for consumption between individuals leads to conflict.  The state of nature is the state of war for John Locke.  And the state of war is not an ideal state to be in.

According to Locke all human activity is undertaken under the law of self-preservation.  Even the activity of human procreation – sex – is about self-preservation, the perseveration of one’s seed through the birth of a child.  Man’s natural freedom is his right to self-preservation.  But since we’re all self-interested individuals, my bid for self-preservation runs into conflict with another’s bid for self-preservation.  The result is conflict as self-preservation meets self-preservation and fear takes hold of the individual who deems the other as an enemy.

However, Locke also says that human reason alters the game.  People realize that we ought not to kill each other in the name of self-preservation.  Rather, self-preservation reaches its fullest actualization in the commonwealth through the formation of the social contract (constitution) which will guarantee our right to self-preservation.  This is why government is instituted among all men.

Humans cannot survive without the ability to consume.  In order to consume they must produce.  Society – the commonwealth – moves us beyond the hunter-gatherer stage of bare subsistence living and into a network of private produces and consumers who produce through the toil of their hand goods for either their own consumption, or for barter and trade with others who consume those products produced by the producer wherein the producer receives something in compensation which is his form of consumption.  In order for this network of producing-consuming society to come into fruition Locke maintains that property ownership is necessary.

The reason why private property is a good thing in Locke is that property ties man down to a particular quadrant of land.  “Good fences make good neighbors” is the libertarian motto that draws from Locke’s basic economistic anthropology.

The reason why the state of nature descends into the state of war is because there is no statutory property laws in the state of nature.  It is simply the law of self-preservation at work.  Humans instinctively know that they must utilize the earth in order to survive.  Locke basis this basic and intuitive understanding through Scripture.  That God created man and placed him into the garden to be steward of, yes, but more importantly to work and till so that he may live.  Even after the expulsion from Eden, God’s basic command to humanity never changed – now we just struggle in this labor of toil for consumption.  But the problem with “universal” or “common” ownership (which is to say no ownership) is that it reduces itself into conflict.  My drive for self-preservation leads to me to eat the berries from that bush.  Your drive for self-preservation leads you to eat the berries from the same bush.  Since self-preservation is about the self, there is no sharing.  I want it.  You want it.  We both need it to survive.  You can see how this becomes a problem.

The problem is resolved through the formation of the social contract because we don’t want to live a life of perpetual fear of danger and violent death as Locke says.  Here he is in total agreement with Hobbes.  Locke maintains, during his time it was seemingly reasonable to think this, that because the world was expansive and large there was enough land for everyone.  He points to America for his evidence.  “In the beginning all the world was America.”

This is not a statement of “American exceptionalism” as American “conservatives” like to claim.  What Locke was saying that America is the state of nature – the original state of the world and of man’s place therein.  America was the land of vast rolling hills and forests and meadows.  Its land was abundant.  People could always move westward to satisfy their desire of self-preservation.  There’s enough room for everyone.

But the drive to property ownership is the instinctive drive of self-preservation.  Self-preservation and property acquisition and consumption are really identical in Locke’s philosophy because they serve the same end: self-preservation.  Property serves the end of self-preservation.  Consumption serves the end of self-preservation.  Production serves the end of self-preservation.  The commonwealth serves the end of self-preservation.  Government is instituted to serve the end of peaceable self-preservation (avoidance of war).  Man’s freedom is his ability to self-preserve himself.  For Locke, the right to own and use property is the culmination of the law of nature writ large!

(This is also why Locke says that one of the responsibilities, or tasks, of government is to decide the (additional) rights of its subjects.  The only truly natural right in Locke, and in liberalism, is the right to property because this is what the law of nature is: Self-preservation.  Technically by following this logic you’ll also see, as Locke implies many times in Two Treatises, that you also have a right to your own body because your body (and you are nothing but a body) is necessary to further the end of self-preservation.  Lack of “ownership” of one’s body means you are subjugated to another and therefore your ability to preserve yourself is limited.  All other “rights” are otherwise arbitrarily decided by the state for you.  Just as the state grants them, the state can also take them away.  The state can never take away the right to property though.)

Therefore, following from Locke’s logic of self-preservation writ large, society is regulated by property itself.  The right to property is a form of regulation.  Locke defends the right to regulation.  This is not an illiberal aberration as “libertarians” sometimes like to claim.  Locke states in Two Treatises that the right to property ownership only extends to as much as is necessary for him to be fulfilled.  Locke believes that we should leave enough land for others.  (But one questions if the desiring consumerist anthropology can ever be fulfilled except at extinguishment in death; thus, people will never be satisfied with what they have and must always have more…)

This may seem counterintuitive at first.  But it follows from the state of nature that Locke had outlined earlier.  In the state of nature there is no “private property.”  There is just property, or material things.  These material things are necessary for our self-preservation via consumption.  Therefore, we struggle over material things for our self-preservation.  This struggle over material things for our self-preservation leads to a degeneration of the state of nature into a state of war because I am not the only self who exists, there are other individuals who exist following the same law of self-preservation leading to a conflict over material things.  This conflict over material things is subsided by the regulatory aspect of private property.  This is my property.  That is your property.  We can use our property to further our own self-preservation purely atomistically, or we can also further our own self-preservation cooperatively through a means of trade and exchange (this is the basis of the “law of comparative advantage” in economics – you have something that I want and you excel at making this good; I have something you want and I excel in making that good; thus we will produce these goods which we excel at making and trade with each other which enhances our self-preservation).

Locke’s account of property regulating conflict is, of course, radically rejected by Rousseau.  Rousseau claimed that the rise of private property is what brought about exploitation and war from the otherwise harmonious state of nature which we all shared.  But that is a different topic and thinker for another time.  In sum, we should see – or the careful reader will see – how the law of nature, which is self-preservation, leads to the rise of property in Locke’s political theory and becomes the basis for liberalism.  This right to property, which is what freedom is in its most natural form because freedom is the right to self-preservation, is the primary reason for the establishment of government.  You have no natural rights besides this one.  All other “rights” that the government decides to grant are conventional and completely arbitrary.  According to Locke, any government that denies the right to property, or tries to seize one’s property, forfeits its status as legitimate government – thereby dissolving because of its illegitimacy – from which individuals are allowed to “rebel” or “revolt” not to overthrow the government (it cannot be overthrown if it is theoretically dissolved because of its illegitimate actions) but to restore or establish anew a government that will uphold the right to property, which is upholding the law of nature.


This essay was adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, 12 March 2018.

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