Locke on property: what belongs to me, and where I belong

by lizmckinnell

What do philosophers of mind and divorce lawyers have in common? They both make money from arguing about other people’s properties.

Pretty lame joke, I know, but it plays on two distinct usages of the same word. We can talk about the properties of objects (their attributes, qualities or characteristics) or about the political and economic notion of property, in the sense of what is owned or possessed. Philosophers are concerned with both senses of the word, although the philosophers concerned with each one don’t talk to the philosophers concerned with the other as much as they perhaps should.

Property in the latter sense is most often discussed by political philosophers. One of the famous figures in the canon is John Locke, whose account of property ownership has influenced figures as diverse as Jean Jacque Rousseau, Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Robert Nozick.  Locke is responsible for the now notorious ‘labour mixing’ view of property.

The labour mixing argument is supposed to answer a simple but tricky puzzle. Humans have not been around since the dawn of time, and did not come into existence with private entitlements to bits of the world already doled out, so how things move from a state of not being privately owned to being the property of some person or other?

This is what Locke says:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every 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, 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.’ (Second Treatise of Government, section 26)

This argument is often spelled out like this:

1. I own my body


2.            I own the labour of my body.

3.            I can come to own something by mixing what I own with what I do not yet own,


4.            When I mix my labour with something unowned, I come to own the finished product.

This has raised all manner of criticisms. For example, why suppose that I can come to own something by mixing it with what I already own rather than dissipating my property? Also, what is meant by mixing my labour with something? Labour here seems to be something of an abstraction, while the thing is sitting there for all to see – is there some sort of a category error going on there? And how do we explain this seemingly magical process of coming to own things? Some have explained this in terms of the idea of adding value to what was originally there, and this has led to a labour-mixing theory of value hotly debated, and largely maligned, by contemporary economists.

But the bit that I am interested in here is the first premise: do I actually own my body?  It is a common assumption in some circles that I do.  For example, bodily self-ownership is taken to be a central element of liberal feminist arguments about reproduction.  It also plays a central role in many arguments against slavery: nobody else can claim possession of my body, or any other aspect of my being, because I can only belong to myself.

Once we look at this a bit closer though, it seems as though our normal use of the notion of private property doesn’t do a very good job when it comes to the relationship in which we stand to our own bodies. In legal and political theory, a property right, like many other rights, is usually analysed as a complex bundle of entitlements, prohibitions and privileges.  In front of me right now are the remains of an Aero chocolate bar, which I own. My ownership of it means that I can use it, consume it, break it up, surrender ownership of it to others (my partner has been eyeing it longingly) or sell it for profit (which I might do if I were in a bad mood with my partner).

Things to which I have private property rights stand at some distance to me, and can be surrendered or transferred through legal or conventional processes.  This, for most legal and political theorists, is part of what it means to have a property right over an object.  This does not describe, in any serious way, the intimate relationship in which I stand to my own body or person.  This is one of the reasons why recent arguments comparing rape to theft, and more generally crimes against the person to crimes against property, don’t even begin to get to the heart of things.

Looked at like this, it seems hard to see how the Lockean argument can get off the ground – it seems that it is false from the outset.

But it would be wrong to assume that Locke is stupid, and as with many historical texts, it is best to look beyond our crude reconstruction of his argument to what he actually said, and the historical and linguistic context in which he was saying it.

The (pretty poor) joke that I used at the start of this piece would have been even less funny in Locke’s day, the reason being that the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘property’ that it relies on were far less distinct.  Locke does not say that I own myself, or my body, but rather that ‘every man has a property in his own person’.

The notion of having a property in one’s own person relates to ownership, but is also to do with having a sort of unity or integrity conferred through one’s properties.  This explains why the ‘property in one’s own person’ is such a significant idea: it expresses the idea that the integrity of the person should be respected, that they should be treated as a person rather than as a mere thing.  Having a property in one’s own person means that one cannot be put to use by another (enslaved, exploited etc.)

By mixing one’s labour with something, Locke seems to be suggesting that one makes that thing an extension of oneself.  This does not seem to be such a crazy idea.  When we work in a place, toil on a piece of land, craft an object, cook a meal, or simply walk regularly in a park, there is a sense in which we incorporate elements of our external environments into our identities, just as we become incorporated in the identity of the object or place with which we interact.  This helps to explain why the spaces that we occupy and the objects that we create are not merely externally and arbitrarily related to us – they come to have an integral significance to the nature of the self.  Things that once seemed meaningless can take on new meanings and speak to us in different ways in virtue of the roles that they play in our projects and activities.

Sometimes institutions of private property and monetary exchange can be tools to safeguard the significance of such things, and give us a kind of autonomy over them.  Equally though, money and private property, like other mechanisms of power, can rob places and objects of the significance that they have for people by making them fungible objects of exchange, or by placing them in the hands of those who stand at a distance to them and do not share the intimate relationship that we have with them (Locke’s thought was used to justify enclosure of the commons, although James Tully has forcefully argued that Locke was opposed to imposing such measures on people by act of parliament).

Locke’s argument then does seem to get us somewhere, although perhaps not as far as Locke would like, and certainly a very long way from the views of many of Locke’s contemporary advocates, who would appear fairly alien to Locke himself. He begins with a premise about personal self-identity, rather than personal self-ownership, and thus fails to explain how the whole bundle of entitlements, privileges and prohibitions associated with private property arise.  What he does give us is an extension of the notion of identity beyond the bare individual understood as wholly separate from the world that she inhabits.

Locke can help us think about the significance of objects – and particularly places – to human lives.  People and places cannot be shifted around like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to solve logistical and economic problems.  This helps us to articulate how a park became the focus of resistance to autocratic oppression in Turkey – it is not an arbitrary sign.  It also explains some of the injustice of the bedroom tax, whose implementation treats the absence of private ownership as justification for the uprooting of people from the environments and communities to which they belong.  It is almost invariably those who are poorest and most vulnerable who are subject to such treatment in their countries, homes and places of work and rest.

‘Belonging’ is a concept that brings us closer to the more ambiguous sense of ‘property’ that was around in Locke’s day.  You cannot simply overlook where we belong, just because where we belong does not belong to us.