Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government Summary and Analysis of Chapter V: Of Property


Locke begins his discussion of property by alluding to Filmer’s theory of patriarchalism, which suggested that only an absolute monarch descended from Adam would have any right to property because God gave Adam dominion over all the land. Locke disagrees and writes that he will spend the rest of this chapter demonstrating how God provided for mankind in common to have property, even if they do not form a compact.

The fruits of the Earth, including animals, land, and vegetation, are to be enjoyed by all men because, as Locke points out in Chapter II, no one man is born with dominion over another. Of course, there must be some way to appropriate these necessities of life to men in order for them to be as beneficial as possible and to avoid conflict.

The first topic Locke addresses is that of man’s own person, or, the labor of his body. This belongs exclusively to him and he may reap the work of his hands. When he removes something from nature through his hard work, it is no longer the common property of all mankind but belongs to himself exclusively. If a man picks up acorns under a tree, they belong to him at the moment of their gathering (as opposed to when he ate them, digested them, cooked them, etc.) because this labor of gathering is what legitimates their possession. The gatherer of acorns does not need to receive the permission of all other men before he takes something from the common into his own possession because this would be completely unrealistic- men would starve trying to make sure every other man approved of his actions. Locke uses other examples to reinforce this point- an Indian who kills a deer is entitled to that deer, a man who catches a fish is entitled to that fish, and a hunter who chases and captures a hare is entitled to that hare. It is the labor that legitimates the possession, even when the property, be it an animal or land, was held by the commons.

Locke then addresses the question of to how much property men are entitled, and examines the supposition that they will overreach themselves in taking God’s bounty. He points out that the Bible says God gave man the Earth to enjoy, and that when man first walked upon it he was so scarce and nature so vast, that there was never any problem with rapaciousness or conflict. The issue now is not food or animal but land. Any piece of land that a man labors upon is his. Scripture validates this because God commanded man to labor as part of his punishment for sin. Initially this was not problematic because there was plenty of land for everyone. God gave the land to the industrious and diligent, not to the “quarrelsome and contentious.” Anyone who desired another’s land was no doubt seeking to benefit from another’s hard work.

In a land like England where there is a government in place, the compact necessitates the approval of one’s fellow man before appropriating and enclosing land. The land does not belong to all mankind but to an individual parish or county. When God commanded man to subdue and cultivate, He also introduced the concept of dominion. Human beings were commanded to labor; this is the condition of life. This labor thus gives men private possessions.

This measure of labor meant that men could only cultivate as much land as was physically possible and his enjoyment derived from this cultivation. He did not need to take an immoderate amount of land or encroach upon that of his neighbor. Locke wrote that this was actually still the case at the time of the writing of the Second Treatise, as there were still vast unclaimed areas of land in America and even Spain where a man could claim, plow, cultivate, and utilize the fruits of the soil without incurring the displeasure of others.

Unfortunately, the invention of money made this impossible. Once men assigned value to some agreed-upon method of currency, larger possessions became de rigueur. Claiming that a piece of gold had intrinsic value and could buy food or people or land meant that men desired more. This is unfortunate, Locke writes, because when a man labors on the land it yields something beneficial to mankind. When many acres are enclosed but lie wild and uncultivated simply because they are held by a man’s title to the land, this is extremely wasteful. If a man gathers too much fruit and it rots, this is not only wasteful but a violation of the common law of nature because that rotted fruit did not provide sustenance to anyone. Locke writes that since Adam and his heirs did not have exclusive dominion over the earth, many men could have distinct titles to it through their labor.

Locke continues his discussion of how only labor provides value, asserting that nine-tenths of the products of the earth that men find useful come from labor and are not entirely natural. The Americans have a multitude of uncultivated land but merely eke out an existence because land is not improved by labor. Bread, wine, and cloth serve the same purposes as acorns, water, and leaves/skins, but are vastly superior. The things that men enjoy and that improve their lives derive from labor. The labor put into a loaf of bread, for example, includes that of the ploughman, reaper, thresher, oxen-breakers, baker, and more.

History reveals that men were initially content to use of nature only what they needed. As communities began to organize into states and kingdoms and create laws, they began regulating the land and negotiating the boundaries of their land with other communities. There were still open tracts of land where communities had not formed, but this was impossible in communities that adopted the idea of money (e.g., gold, silver, and diamonds). While men knew it was unwise to hoard things like fruit and nuts, which would rot and expire, it was definitely possible to hoard money because it would not spoil. In the beginning of the world when the land was vast and commerce was impossible, there was no system of money. Men’s voluntary consent to this system began the inequality of private possessions and the right of the government to regulate the right of property. Locke concludes by summarizing the state of property before money and government- only labor created value, men did not take more than they needed, and conflict and controversy over land did not exist.


“Of Property” is one of the most significant and controversial chapters in the Second Treatise. It contains the same theme of personal liberty found throughout the Second Treatise. Here Locke makes clear that a man’s individual labor is his own and the laws of nature dictate that he reap the rewards of his hard work. If he picks an apple or kills a hare for sustenance, no one else can claim that it does not belong to him. With this autonomy must come an understanding of the law of nature, which sets forth that a man should not take more than is necessary. It is wasteful to gather more apples than one can eat, or to enclose acres of land that lie uncultivated. This is the only way conflict will be avoided in a state of nature, and it requires reason on the part of mankind.

The scholar Robert Novick found Locke’s idea of taking what one owns- his labor- and mixing it with something he does not own problematic. He used the example of mixing tomato juice that he owned with the ocean- does he now own the ocean? Or did he simply lose his tomato juice? Why would Locke assume that mixing what one owns with what owns result in his gaining of what he did not own? This a provocative question, and scholars such as James Tully have critiqued Novick’s assertion in turn. Tully said that men, because they were created in the image of God who creates and shapes the natural environment, have the same sort of power to a lesser degree.

One further note on the idea of labor, as put forth by scholar David Russell: labor can be defined as an activity with the goal to turn some material that could meet our needs into something that actually does. This definition reinforces the idea that men are working to preserve themselves and then to help preserve others in society. In Chapter III, Locke wrote that the fundamental law of nature was “men being to be preserved as much as possible.” He was there addressing the state of war, but it is not far from the ideas set forth in this chapter. When one man takes more than he needs and it goes to waste, he is violating another man’s need to preserve himself.

Locke contrasts the state of affairs before and after the evolution of money. Before an agreed-upon currency, such as gold and silver, is implemented, man’s equality of birth is mirrored in the equality of property. In a state of nature, men did not fall prey to excess because they were only entitled to what their labor yielded. Hoarding was unwise because the fruits of the earth rotted. There was no need to own vast tracts of land, as in 17th century America, because they were essentially useless when labor could not produce anything from them. Money, however, placed value in a piece of gold or silver that did not rot. Men could amass larger and larger tracts of land because they possessed a currency that did not expire. The existence of money, the increase in men and the decrease in available resources, and the proliferation of conflict over such resources necessitate the creation of a civil government.

Finally, scholars argue over whether or not Locke was a proto-capitalist who was supportive of the amassing of unlimited property; C.B. Macpherson asserts that yes, Locke was a proto-capitalist, while Tully claims that Locke viewed the money system and its concomitant difference in equality of property as problematic and dangerous. The term “capitalism” did not exist at the time of Locke’s writing and publication of the Second Treatise, but the argument has come to be an important one in the literature surrounding Locke and his work. The fact that Locke continues to be debated in earnest reveals just how significant he was and is to political and economic thought.