Analysis of Second Treatise of Government by John Locke

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The purpose of this paper is to scrutinize John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, specifically his argument on the right to property. Locke’s primary aim in the Second Treatise is to prove that an absolute monarch government is illegitimate. He believes that the best form of government is one that protects its citizens’ unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the most important, property. “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke 271).

The argument I wish to produce is the drawbacks of Locke’s beliefs on the right to acquire property. My analysis of Locke’s right to acquire property shows that his property theory is infeasible, to say the least. Locke’s property theory would demand aid needed for the poor, who would request a program of progressive taxation, and the solution to these problems would result in an agreement with John Rawls’ difference principle.

First, to clearly understand Locke’s theory of property rights it is necessary to analyze his arguments about the subject. Locke argues that we, as individuals, are all born without property and would remain so if we did not do something to acquire it. He argues that the earth originally belongs to mankind in common. He says, “That if it be difficult to make out Property, upon a supposition, that God gave the World to Adam and his Posterity in common; it is impossible that any Man, but one universal Monarch, should have any Property, upon a supposition, that God gave the World to Adam, and his Heirs in Succession, exclusive of all the rest of his Posterity.

But I shall endeavor to shew, how Men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to Mankind in common, and that without any express Compact of all the Commoners” (Locke 286). Here, Locke is saying that God has given the earth to the common good of mankind in a way that individuals can acquire private property ownership. He argues that God would not have given earth to mankind in common and established commandments that would want us to starve in the midst of plenty. Locke believes that God has given earth to mankind and land is unowned and not one individual has any more right to it than another. He also believes man can use this unowned land without permission from anyone else.

Given this, Locke does not clarify what the premise to acquire property factually is. Locke states that man can acquire private property through the use of laboring on it “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, is 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” (Locke 288).

However, he still only defines labor in a very broad manner. Labor, according to Locke, is characterized as picking up acorns from the ground, picking apples he gathered from the trees, grass his horse has bit or a hole he has dug in the ground. “He that is nourished by the Acorns he picked up under an Oak, or the Apples he gathered from the Trees in the Wood… thus the Grass my Horse has bit; the Ore I have digg’d in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, become my Property, without the assignation or consent of anybody. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common State they were in, hath fixed my Property in them” (Locke 289).

Locke argues that each man owns his labor, and if he mixes this “owned” labor with a piece of property, which is unowned, this property is now his possession. He asserts that if one man puts time and labor into a piece of property, then another man has to respect the right to not make use of that property any longer. The objection I wish to make with this is; what determines the extent of what one can own with the use of mixing one’s own labor? For example, Robert Nozick makes the point that, if “[he] can own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so [he] can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, [does he] thereby come to own the sea, or have [he] foolishly dissipated [his] tomato juice?” (Nozick 175).

To dispute Nozick’s argument about the tomato juice, Locke says, “As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils; so much he may by his labour fix a Property in” (Locke 290). Locke’s insinuation that the right to acquire property is only limited as long as it doesn’t compromise anyone else’s right to possess the same kind of property for himself.

In other words, given that every man has equal access to and equal opportunity to acquire property, and each person’s labor is rightfully his, this property becomes a possession. However, the next point I wish to make is that, even though Locke asserts that the natural right to acquire property is equally fair, this property will not be forever unlimited. As mentioned above, Locke says one can acquire as much property as one desires so long as it does not spoil before being put to use. If man is acquiring more and more property each day and using it each day without it spoiling, then the abundance of property will eventually run out. I’d also like to make the consideration that a society can undergo a change that no longer grants the acquisition of as much property as one may desire. For example, if a monetary value is placed on a piece of property it would be difficult for the poor to acquire property.

Locke himself asserts how the use of money can replace the natural right to acquire property. “A man may fairly possess land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus, Gold, and Silver” (Locke 302). The introduction of money changes the natural limits Locke has previously set. For the wealthy, acquiring land has now become a walk in the park. For the poor, the options are limited. The use of money opens the door to many possibilities but also presents its own problems. Acquiring property for the wealthy has now become so easy it would no longer be feasible for the poor. Locke understands that the introduction of money changes the circumstances in which individuals operate.

Locke makes the assertion that man is allowed to “Make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils” (Locke 290). Given this, money permits individuals to trade goods before they “spoil” and therefore accumulate wealth. Locke’s leading claim that he makes in the Second Treatise of Government is that our natural rights include the right to acquire property. However, his claim is altered when money is introduced into the equation. Money is a means to barter and exchange possessions. Locke doesn’t quite establish what would happen to society from the accumulation of wealth.

The first problem money creates for Locke’s natural right to acquire property is the inequality between the rich and the poor. It seems obvious that the wealthier would obtain and possess more property than the poor. The poor wouldn’t have the same possessions, resources, or property rights as the wealthy would. Locke claims that the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom and equality. However, since the state of nature no longer exists due to the accumulation of wealth a civil society would need to be established.

Through the use of money and the growing accumulation of property, Locke argues that first; a system government would need to be established to protect one’s unalienable rights. Locke believes that if men establish a government they could come together to form into a civil society. “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions” (Locke 271). Due to this new system of government, and creating a civil society, an allocation of taxes would need to be recognized.

Without a comprehensive system of taxation, a system of government would not be able to function effectively. Locke recognizes taxes as a necessity. He says, “Governments may secure rights to charity by taxing the surplus of property to provide relief for the poor” (Simmons 333). A program of progressive taxation would be the only solution to bridge the gap between the wealthy and the poor and promote the overall common good. Locke believes that “Men, have a right to their Preservation, and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence” (Locke 285). He views that common resources must remain for all individuals, including the less fortunate.

The problem that arises with this, as Robert Nozick points out, is that “progressive taxes are unacceptable because they involve an unjust theft by the state of an individual’s property” (Nozick 171). It would not be fair for the wealthy to have to pay for the poor’s needs, “some modern-day natural rights theorists have argued that using tax as a distributive mechanism acts as an unacceptable intrusion upon an individual’s inalienable property rights; they reject the view that taxes should be used as a mechanism to redistribute wealth from wealthier taxpayers to those taxpayers with less wealth” (Cockfield 2001).

“Achieving social justice is primarily a matter of morally proper distribution of basic rights and good within a society” (Simmons 307). John Rawls’ difference principle offers the resolutions needed to achieve social justice in Locke’s theory of property. Rawls defines a society as a system of persons with an agreement or a set of rules that are designed to produce an advancement of society through cooperative interaction (Rawls 62). Rawls doesn’t believe that justice is arbitrary, prejudiced, or preferential. Rawls begins in the ‘original position’ where society is structured as a hypothetical and is behind the ‘veil of ignorance’. The veil of ignorance strips away all elements of one’s social and moral identity leaving him/her perfectly equal to everyone else.

Rawls establishes two principles of justice. The first principle states, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others “ (Rawls 62). The second principle, the difference principle, pertains to John Locke’s property theory. This principle states, “an inequality is allowed only if there is reason to believe that the institution with the inequality, or permitting it, will work out for the advantage of every person engaged in it. In the case of the basic structure this means that all inequalities which affect life-prospects say the inequalities of income and wealth which exist between social classes, must be to the advantage of everyone” (Rawls 62).

Given this, it’s made clear how Rawls’ difference principle would be a solution to Locke’s right to acquire property. The first concern with Locke’s property theory is that he doesn’t establish a definite amount on how much property one can acquire. He only states that a person may acquire as many things as he or she can reasonably use to their advantage – without it being “soiled”. Through the use of Rawls’ difference principle, an individual can only acquire the same amount of property as another. Nobody would have more or less than his or her neighbor.

Rawls identifies “income and wealth” as goods that must be to the advantage of everyone (Rawls 62) which corresponds to Locke’s issue of money. The use of money expands the right to acquire property beyond the limits of nature. This results in the poor constantly being at a disadvantage with the wealthy. However, to aid to the poor and set up a system of government the only proposition would be to progressively tax the wealthy. Without Rawls’ difference principle to offer a resolution to the drawbacks of Locke’s property theory, the natural resources that Locke offers would eventually run out.

Rawls’ difference principle would keep Locke’s property theory in the state of nature for good. No individual could acquire more property, or accumulate more wealth than another in his/her society. Therefore Locke’s statement about how “there cannot be a clearer demonstration of anything, than several Nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in Land, and poor in all the Comforts. of Life; whom Nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of Plenty, i.e. a fruitful Soil, apt to produce in abundance” (Locke 297) would be proven factual.

By now, it has been made obvious what conclusions I wish to draw from Locke’s theory of property. I hope the drawbacks of Locke’s beliefs on the right to property have been made clear. Locke’s account of property ownership is neither sustainable nor feasible without the Rawls’ difference principle. Locke fails to provide answers on how money proposes a threat on the right to acquire property nor does he offer a solution to fix the problems that would arise from it. “Locke tells us very little in the Treatises (or elsewhere) about how he understands the principles of natural property to be affected by the institution of political society” (Simmons 307).

My analysis of Locke’s right to property shows that his property theory is impractical. Locke’s property theory would demand aid needed for the poor, who would request a program of progressive taxation, and the solution to these problems would result in an agreement with John Rawls’ difference principle. Locke’s arguments on private property can be found in chapter five in his Second Treatise of Government.


Cite this paper

Analysis of Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. (2021, Apr 18). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/analysis-of-second-treatise-of-government-by-john-locke/



What are the principles of government described in the book The Two Treatise of government?
The Two Treatises of Government outlines the principles of limited government, natural rights, and the social contract theory. It argues that government's power should be derived from the consent of the governed, and that individuals have the right to overthrow a government that violates their natural rights.
What are two core principles of Locke's Two Treatises of government?
Locke believed that people are born with certain natural rights and that the government exists to protect these rights.
What is Locke's claim regarding the state of nature in this paragraph?
John Locke believes that the state of nature is a state of war. He believes that people in the state of nature are in a constant state of conflict with one another.
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