Locke`s Theory of Property Analysis of Three Interpretations


Locke’s Theory of Property: Analysis of ThreeInterpretations

Locke’s theory of property: Analysis of threeinterpretations

Political philosophers recognize John Locke as one of the mostinfluential persons in the field. In one of his works, he advancedthe idea that men are naturally free, and that they were all createdsubject to a monarch (Lloyd 2007). In his sense, all people haverights, which have an independent foundation from the laws of anysociety in particular. This is the basis upon which he constructedhis theory of property i.e. consent, rights, and social contract. Inthis regards, analysts have considered his theory one of his mostvital contributions to political thought, although some have trashedthe theory as weak and wanting. This work addresses the question onhow much property men are entitled to, and how some are trying totake the same in excess. He gives his perception of how God regardsproperty and ownership, and how man has interpreted the right toownership of property. In his analysis, Locke contends that therationalization for comprehending legitimate ideological, partisan,or political administration as the result of the social contractbetween states and people give people the impartiality and freenessto property. As such, his work delves much on property, lives, andliberty, and the social contract that exist between states andpeople. This work has received a lot of criticism from many politicalphilosophers. In this regards, the paper will look at theinterpretation of Alan Ryan, MacPherson, and Martin Seliger as wellas deconstruct some of the mistakes that arise from their arguments.For instance, MacPherson’s understanding of Locke rests on a numberof incorrect conventions such as the assumption that inheriting landis a way of giving express consent. This paper analyses theinterpretations of John Locke’s theory of property by Alan Ryan,Martin Seliger and MacPherson.

Analysis of the interpretations

Macpherson (2011) perceives Locke as a defender of unobstructedcapitalist accretion. In this regards, MacPherson interprets Locke’stheory on property as hinged on accumulation without undue coercionor restriction to own as much property as one desires. As such,MacPherson (2011) perceives Locke’s theory as construing threeboundaries on the accretion of property in the state of nature i.e.one must leave good and adequate for others, one may only take/divideas much as one can utilize before the property spoils, and one maypurportedly only take through one’s labour. However, Macphersoncontends that with the progression of the arguments, each of therestriction is transcended. On the other hand, Alan Ryan criticizesMacPherson’s claim on Locke’s theory by maintaining that sinceproperty comprises liberty, life, and estate, then people withoutland could still be affiliates of political community. As such, theirdispute puts an argument forward on whether Locke used property in amore expansive sense in the most crucial passages of his theory or hemeant property to mean the current meaning.

Seliger provides a detailed critique of Locke’s theory, especiallyabout the need to regulate the politics of property ownership. Inorder to achieve this, he uses the approach of modern liberalpolitical thinking. Unlike Ryan and MacPherson, Seliger criticizesthe uncertainty in Locke’s theory, especially his attitude towardsequality amongst men. According to Seliger as Steiner (2008) putforward, Locke did not sufficiently provide the separation betweenthe perception of political equality and the equality of possessions.MacPherson’s analysis go beyond the law of nature in justifyinginequality in wealth distribution, while Seliger’s analysis doesnot. Critically analysing the two reveals that the main argument iswhether Locke felt that differing natural capacities would lead tomen accumulating wealth in different capacities, and that moneyplayed the sole role of expanding the wealth base of different men,or not. Seliger’s analysis agrees with Locke’s assumption thatmen have the natural desire to increase their wealth (Vaughn 2014).In defending his thoughts, he disapproves MacPherson’s idea ofinferiority of wage labour as postulated by Locke.

It is important to note that in the modern day world, the mainrelationship between employers and the employees they hire is whethertheir productivity of the employees is worth the payment theyreceive. Therefore, Seliger is technically reasonable in supportingLocke’s idea. Locke’s idea of social and economic mobilitysupports the argument by Seliger. Despite the fact that this papersupports the criticism of MacPherson, there are points of weakness inhis own criticism. Notably, Seliger’s work asserts that theagreements made between men are determinants of the economy andpolitics. He has, however given more significance to the politicalset limits and their effects on the economy. This means that hedisregards the emphasis that Locke put on the right to property.According to Locke, special status is not as important as theenjoyment of that property.

MacPherson seriously questions the extent to which Locke considersthe facts in his theory of property. His argument is understood to becentred on the fact that the typical feature of individualism waspassive in nature, as postulated by classical liberal philosophy.This puts focus on the importance of private property. He evaluatesLocke’s work by focusing on the idea of private property asoutlined in Locke’s theory. According to MacPherson, Locke’spolitical philosophy is a manifestation of the spirit of capitalismand its implementation in the seventeenth century England. Thisthought shows that MacPherson intends to supply the moral basis ofeconomic advancement, which is a state of unrestrained capitalism.There is a similarity between this thinking and that of Ryan. Ryandescribes this spirit of unrestrained capitalism as being brutalamongst the labouring classes, ruthless in the destruction oftraditional values and continuing social ties that hinder ownershipof property (Ryan 1965). In this regards, Ryan considers therestricted accumulation of property as inconsistent with theimpartiality of men.

Another significant area, which contains similarities and differencein interpretation of Locke’s theory, is about money and capitalism.Ryan gives a thoughtful reaction about the role of money in acapitalist economy. He asserts that money was created to help in thedevelopment of the economy. This means that a labourer, within thecontext of a society, does benefit from the activities of thecapitalists, thus providing the rationale of capitalism. However, theincentive of a capitalist is questioned. Macpherson thinks thatcapitalists are there to develop their personalities in capitalism(MacPherson 2011). However, nothing of the sort is mentioned inLocke’s’ work. This means that MacPherson gives the mostinaccurate interpretation of Locke’s theory amongst the threephilosophers reviewed in this paper. However, there are certainexpenses to which Locke’s theory itself is confusing. This may bethe reason why MacPherson is providing a misguided interpretation.Looking at his theory, there is a point he suggests that there isnothing more than a fanciful liking of gold at the heart ofcapitalism (Vaughn 2014). However, he also goes ahead to pile upprettily coloured stones and metals irrationally, making his argumentunclear. Ryan understands that the value of cmoney in a capitalisteconomy is not just a ‘fanciful’ one, rather one that has beengiven an agreed or conventional value. He seems to correct Locke’sfailure to equate this as having no value at all. In order toevaluate Ryan’s thinking, reference is made to a point where Lockesays that ‘For as to money, and such riches and treasure takenaway, these are none of nature’s goods…’. This is the pointwhere the three agree that Locke confused conventional value andtotal lack of value.

There are three elements, which compose the explanation of the goodsense of capitalism to which Lock hints at. The first element is thatgiven the possessive nature of man, he has come to have more thannature provided him. This can be supported by the idea of otherphilosophers that man desires absolutely more than he needs (Steiner2008). Macpherson strongly rejects Ryan’s explanation of theinducement to becoming capitalist. To comprehend the source of thisdisagreement, reference is made to Locke’s theory that explains thedesire of men to have more than what he needs. This is based ongreed. Given this, Locke said that the pre-monetary state of naturewas a golden age. Summarizing the interpretations by MacPherson andRyan, it is clear that they suggest that capitalism is not onlyirrational and lacks morality, but also positively corrupt. Beyondthis, MacPherson defends his interpretation that greed has to becondemned amongst capitalists and those who do not own property atall. The second element, as per Ryan’s interpretation, is thatcapitalists are bound by morals to promote the general wellbeing ofthe entire society (Ryan 1965). This is quite similar to the thirdelement. This interpretation qualifies the ideology of Locke that manwill always fulfil the obligation of taking care of those under hisresponsibility, and those to whom he intends to offer services andgoods.

Seliger does a more detailed analysis of the role of the state andits laws in Locke’s theory than MacPherson and Ryan. Locke arguesthat state regulations of economic activity are justified (Norton2014). He also goes further to explain that aliens have an obligationto obey the laws of the states where they reside for the period theyare there. Seliger interprets this thinking by Locke that thesupposed superiority of the political order over the economic orderis the reason why Locke favours regulation of economic activity. Thisinterpretation w
eveals the difference between philosophers, giventhat Locke explicitly did state that labour gives title to propertyin the state of nature, and that governments have the power toregulate the right of property. Looking at the modern day world,every country has its own rules that govern its economic policies.Just as Locke had proposed, ownership rights are subject to theprotection of the laws of the civil society.

The approaches the three philosophers take in analysing the Locke’stheory have their distinctive strengths and differences. Seliger’smajor weakness is that his approach makes far less significantimportance in practice. Locke’s theory is based on the content ofwhat governments are likely to be as defined by their laws. However,he makes it clear for the reader to understand the role of thegovernment and what matters the most in property ownership, asoriginally postulated by Locke. Seliger also tactically criticizesLocke’s lack of attitude towards equality, specifically byexplaining how Locke’s theory does not satisfactorily differentiatepolitical equality and equality of possessions. Ryan’s approachmain strength is that it strongly criticizes the interpretation ofMacPherson regarding capitalism and social politics. It opens up theminds of upcoming philosophers regarding how to constructivelycriticize the works of others in order to improve the quality andaccuracy of information in literature. MacPherson’s majorlimitation of the Locke’s work is that it fails to read theChristian elements, more so about the importance of labouring.However, MacPherson generally argues that there is a mutual agreementamong philosophers that there is need to regulate the governmentcontrol over property.


The three critics agree on the single fact that Locke’s mainintention was to justify property ownership based on the socialbenefits that come with it. The practicality of the arguments byMacPherson, Ryan and Seliger is that they provide a natural argumentfor property and ownership. Locke’s justification of unequalownership, which is the sole cause of political disagreements, hasbeen concluded to be the basis of the argument that only propertyowners are full members of the society and that those withoutproperty have fewer rights. MacPherson concludes that this is thereason Locke gave proposed that there are two types of people in thesociety, capitalisms and labourers. The existence of wage labour isbased on the ideology that landless labourers are forced to selltheir labour to those with property, hence continuing the alienationof labour for subsistence wage, a fact Locke says influences thecondition of wage-labourers. Ryan and Seliger conclude that innature, the morality of men is influenced by ownership and enjoymentof property. According to Locke, once men receive dividends of theirproperty, the ground is set to the emergence of two classes ofpeople, the capitalists and the labourers.


Lloyd, M, (2007) Prologue to a Farce: Communication and democracyin America. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Macpherson, C.B, (2011) The political theory of possessiveindividualism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Norton, B.G, (2014) The preservation of species. Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ryan, A, (1965) “Locke and dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie”,Political Studies 13 (2).219-230.

Steiner, R, (2008) Intuitive thinking as a spiritual path.Radford, VA: Wilder Publications.

Vaughn, K, (2014) Locke on property: A bibliographical essay byKaren Vaughn. [Online]. Available at:&lthttp://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/locke-on-property-a-bibliographical-essay-by-karen-vaughn&gtAccessed 24 November 2014].