John Locke Says Everything Belongs to Everyone

If you say that, deep down, everything belongs to everyone, or that the world belongs to all in common, people act as if you are crazy. Yet, this was Christian orthodoxy for millennia. When scholars remark on the abandonment by Christians of this long-standing view, they sometimes point to John Locke, claiming that he infected the Church’s doctrines on such matters.

As a historical matter, this may have been true. Some ideas attributed to Locke may have influenced the Church to depart from its traditional and biblical understanding of who the earth belongs to. I will defer to those who know the history on such things.

However, it would be wrong to say that Locke himself abandoned prevailing Christian ideas regarding property. As I’ve pointed out before, people misread Locke as if he is some kind of hardcore absolute propertarian, but he simply isn’t.

In the very first sentence of his treatment of property, Locke cites to Psalm 115:16 and remarks that “it is very clear, that God … has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.” Locke reaffirms that the earth belongs to everyone in common over and over again in the ensuing paragraphs: “God, who hath given the world to men in common”, “the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common”, “the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,” etc.

That Locke says everything belongs to everyone is not surprising, as it would have been a massive break with Christian tradition to say otherwise.

From the starting point that the entire world is owned in common, Locke then argues for creating and respecting property institutions as being instrumentally valuable for administrating the use of the collectively-owned earth. He notes that, although the world belongs to everyone, it is intended that people “make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience” and “for the support and comfort” of human beings. Accordingly, “there must of necessity be a means to appropriate” the earth to mobilize its resources towards these ends.

So, on the abstract normative framework level, Locke’s view is that the world belongs to human beings in common, that we need some mechanism to allow for the utilization of its resources, and that a propertarian system “might” serve that instrumental end. If this seems familiar to you, it’s because that’s the Thomist view, which, again, was fairly prevalent at the time.

From there, Locke goes on to do his labor mixing stuff, in which he says that working on some piece of the earth entitles you to exclude others from it without their consent. It is this labor mixing stuff that tends to get most of the focus for whatever reason. I don’t have a gauge on how seriously people take this labor mixing part of Locke, these days. Libertarian Robert Nozick, who seems to be popular among the Serious Libertarian crowd, famously slammed it as silly, as well as other parts of Locke’s property theory.

But whatever one thinks of the subsequent parts of Locke’s treatment of property, the point is that they all take place within the normative framework he established at the top: everything belongs to everyone but establishing property might be instrumentally useful to allow for the utilization of earth in accordance with its purpose for humanity.

Crucially, the purpose of the earth for humanity (under this Thomist Christian lens) is not to adhere to some misguided notion of absolute laissez-faire property rights for their own sake. It would be impossible to reconcile any view that elevated the procedural justice of property rights over the needs of the poor and propertyless. Such a view would allow the invention of property institutions to contravene their instrumental purpose, which again is to “make use of [the earth] to the best advantage of life, and convenience … for the support and comfort” of human beings.

Locke’s other writings on resource rights make this all very clear. In addition to the famous Lockean Proviso (which requires that property cannot be appropriated unless there is enough left in common for others), Locke straightforwardly claims that the poor have a right to the “property” of the rich:

God, the lord and father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly be denied him when his pressing wants call for it, and therefore, no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions, since it would always be a sin in any man of estate to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.

If ever there was a clearer call for the right of redistribution, I haven't seen it. And, of course, this too was the prevailing Christian thought on this matter at the time. Locke's musings on property have acquired a radical character more so from anachronistic misreads and half-reads than what Locke actually wrote.