The Role of “Property” in the Theories of Locke and Rousseau

John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century political theorists are known for their social contract theories. The social contract theories assume that initially people used to live in a ‘State of Nature’ without the presence of a state. The common theme visible in the theories by Locke and Rousseau is that State is a man-made institution, which came into existence by a voluntary contract among individuals who wanted to escape the State of Nature.

Where the theories of Locke and Rousseau differ is in their respective conceptualisation and characterization of this state of nature, human nature and the processes that catalysed the formation of a social contract. For example, for Rousseau, the state of nature was pre-political as well as pre-social, but for Locke, it was only pre-political implying the existence of a civil society in Locke’s paradigm. Similarly, Locke conceptualises a rational human being who is bound by the ties of family and society, and thereby loves peace and harmony, whereas, Rousseau conceptualises a human nature which is carefree, innocent and stupid without knowledge of good or evil.

But in this essay, we’re more interested in what the theories by Locke & Rousseau state about “property” and how they diverge on the question of what came into existence first - property or state? This essay unearths the role played by the two philosopher’s conception about the origins of property rights upon the legitimate functions of a state in their corresponding social contract theories. This essay also addresses how differing notions about property are manifested in Locke’s ‘Civil Society’ and Rousseau’s ‘General Will’. While on one hand, Locke’s ideas about property rights consolidate natural inequality, on the other, that of Rousseau promote state-induced civil equality. Now, whether the ideated role of property as per the two philosophers is appropriate or not is a separate matter, something that this essay addresses in its critique.

Locke’s views regarding the role of “Property” and its implications

In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke asserts that property rights owe their existence to nature just like right to life and liberty, and thereby, precede a state formed by social contract. According to him, property rights are an important aspect of natural rights as they are entitlements over “common” resources that have been bestowed upon the mankind by God. He states, “God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience”, suggesting that these resources exist for the very purpose of being utilized and improving the quality of life of human beings.

For Locke, the origins of property can be traced back to one’s exclusive right over one’s physical body such that “every Man has a property in his own person: this no body has the right to but himself”. Subsequently, when an individual uses his “Labour” or “work of hands” to combine the sole ownership over his own efforts with some “common” resource, he infuses and adds value to that “common” in a way that nature – “the common mother of all” - could not. Thus, by taking that raw source out of its ‘State of Nature’ and transforming it unilaterally like no one could, the individual makes it his own property.

It’s interesting not only how Locke explains the process of acquiring private property but also how he does not see any need for consent or a collective agreement to legitimise this acquisition. Labour grants property the requisite legitimacy. “It is the labour then which puts the greatest part of the value upon land, without which it would scarcely be worth any thing”. What’s even more interesting is that in Locke’s views, this property need not only be land but can also be intellectual property like one’s ingenuity and innovation. He remarks that the reason a bread is worth more than acorn and wine more than water is because someone’s labour and creativity has been invested into it, thereby, rendering it as someone’s private possession.

By assuming property rights to be natural, not requiring any endorsement from a political authority, Locke makes it “obvious” for himself that property precedes that state. But this gives rise to a plethora of doubts concerning the need for humans to draw up a social contract and enter into a civil society at the first place. When confronted with these questions, Locke argues that while property exists as a natural right, its enjoyment in a state of nature remains uncertain. In such a scenario, individuals find it convenient to get into a social contract to form a state (through ‘civil contract’) and government (through ‘political contract’), which can protect their pre-existing natural rights. Thus, Locke’s ideas about property in his theory play a crucial role in determining what constitute as legitimate functions of a government.

It is evident from the Locke’s views about property that he does not see creation of property rights as a legitimate function of a government. For him, a government should only be concerned with preservation of natural rights and must ensure that no state agency seizes it from its rightful owner. He states, “Supreme power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his consent”. Moreover, Locke’s conception of property gives rise to a state’s role in addressing class differences. Locke is mindful that the super-rich in a state should not be hogging all the land & riches for themselves, and should accumulate, “as much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils.” Both these aspects lend the much necessary rationale to Locke’s social contract theory, lest the people should have no reason to escape the previous arrangement, which was mostly peaceful and harmonious, and surrender their natural rights to the restrictions of a civil society.

Rousseau’s views regarding the role of “Property” and its implications

Rousseau’s take on property is in stark contrast to that of Locke. In his anarchist state of nature, no individual owes anything to any other individual. This implies that no one’s claim to any common in the state of nature can constitute one’s natural right. In fact, Rousseau emphasises on the non-existence of any natural right in the state of nature except absolute “liberty”, which he describes as “unlimited right to everything that tempts [the human nature] and that [the human being] can acquire”. Thus, Rousseau finds nothing natural in the possession of private property and instead claims it to be a human instrument backed by the force of the state.

For Rousseau, it is very clear that property rights arise post social contract and formation of a state & its society. No reason or natural law could have given shape to an “adroit usurpation” like private property. In fact, he sees some sinister plot – “most thought-out project that ever entered the human mind” – behind the existence of private property. Rousseau believes that some ambitious individuals are pushing for private property theory for their own profit, indirectly hitting out on Locke’s social contract.

Explaining the process of acquisition of property, Rousseau suggests that while claims to physical control of land or holdings begin in a state of nature, these claims are not maintainable. Rousseau terms it as the “right of first occupant”, wherein contrary to the right of might, anyone who stakes claim over the land or property first gets it. Yet, the mere possession of property is not sufficient in Rousseau’s paradigm to garner its ownership rights. Any possession of property in the state of nature is eventually sustained and superseded by exercise of power, therefore, it cannot possibly constitute a protected right. The right of first occupant “becomes a true right” only after the “establishment of the right to property”, i.e., once the social contract has been effectuated.

So, what role does Rousseau’s conceptualisation about property play in determining the state’s legitimate functions and how does it compare to Locke’s theory? Since the need for a social contract arose in Rousseau’s state of nature because of property wars, the primary role of the state is to mitigate the social differences and govern by the “General Will”. The “General Will” refers to the common will of the community for the greater good of all as compared to the private will of an individual for the betterment of a few. Rousseau genuinely believes that needs of the community should always gain preference over the needs of one person. This communitarian perspective of Rousseau is conscious of the sufferings and inequality emanating out of private property, and therefore, puts the onus on the collective to determine how rights, such as of property, should be allocated.

Critique of Locke and Rousseau

Comparison of Locke and Rousseau’s stance on the issue of “property” yields several similarities but even more glaring dissimilarities. Talking about the similarities first, both Locke and Rousseau have a broad consensus that private property originated when some additional value was added to a piece of land. Locke calls it the “fruits of labour” whereas Rousseau puts it as agriculture. They both also concur with the idea of a social contract to protect or enforce the rights over one’s holdings.

As far as dissimilarities are concerned, we’ve already shown over the course of this essay how different chronologies for property rights with respect to the formation of state dramatically reorients the legitimate functions of the state. For Locke, property rights exist naturally. State exists to just ensure its enjoyment. Whereas for Rousseau, state matters not only for the enjoyment but also the creation of legitimate rights.

Another major divergence that exists between the two philosophers, something that this essay hasn’t addressed until now, is in their respective outlooks towards the moral righteousness of the after-effects of private property. The contention exists in their perception of the resultant inequality as legitimate or illegitimate. Locke finds the inequality emanating out of private property rights to not only be legitimate but also divine. He considers it to be an outcome of God’s mandate under which humans are entitled to utilise the commons as they wish by combining it with their labour. On the other hand, Rousseau finds such a proposition to be atrocious. He asserts that a state backed by social contract should not preserve natural inequality and instead create a new and just equality.

At the face of it, Locke’s standpoint appears to be more pragmatic but less convincing whereas Rousseau’s position, while more convincing, appears to be less realistic. Eventually, which of the two convince more is highly subjective as it depends on an individual’s preference for either procedural or substantive schools of thought.

A procedural school of thought, generally used in matters of law, contends that till the time the procedure for a law is found to be legitimate, the outcome of the law is also to be assumed as legitimate, irrespective of its variations. Whereas if the procedure adopted to pass a law is illegitimate, no matter whether the outcome of that law is preferential or not, it is also rendered illegitimate. Put simply, this school of thought may argue that as Locke’s pre-political state of nature provides legitimacy to property rights, that too mandated by the divine force, the procedural requirement is satisfied. The following inequality is only an outcome of difference in relative efforts (“labour”) and therefore, a legitimate unavoidable evil.

Substantive schools of thought may counter-argue in a two-pronged manner. The first leg of their argument would highlight the implausibility of natural property rights and natural liberty co-existing in a state of nature, unlike Locke’s contention. Natural liberty fundamentally refers to the freedom of an individual or animal to do as they may like, unrestrained by laws or any regulatory authority. Unlike other natural rights like right to life, absolute liberty is difficult to sustain under a statist mechanism where rule of law is upheld. Given this proposition, the property rights of an individual in Locke’s state of nature are bound to come in contravention of someone else’s natural liberty. Despite bearing the force of God’s mandate, chances are that such property rights are infringed upon by someone’s free will. How can such property rights, which are so tenuous, then be natural and thereby legitimate at the first place? The only tenable natural right then is natural liberty, just as Rousseau suggests. Therefore, since Locke fails to provide legitimacy to the property rights in his state of nature, the theory does not stand even by his own procedural dynamics.

The second leg of the argument may be built over and above the first line of argumentation. It can be argued that Locke is misplaced in granting a natural right to ownership to anything that is worked upon by one’s hands. Logically speaking, if one’s labour was the sole determinant of one’s ownership rights, would working on river embankments also turn a river into someone’s exclusive property? Reason fails to convince oneself of the legitimacy of property rights backed solely by one’s labour, without any regard for the commons like air and water that are meant for common enjoyment by all. Thus, only the community driven by the majority, i.e., the ‘General Will’ is the ideal entity to frame laws and limitations concerning one’s private property.


In summation, this paper started out by providing a brief overview of the social contract theories by the 18th century philosophers - John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It talked about what bridges the two social contract theories as well as the distinct assumptions about the ‘State of Nature’ and ‘Human Nature’ in the two. The centre of focus though for this paper was the question of “property” and the role it plays in affixing the legitimate duties of a civil state formed by social contract. For Locke, property rights, which were natural and pre-existent in the state of nature, required a civil state so that they could be enjoyed to the fullest. Whereas for Rousseau, property rights were not pre-existent in a state of nature and fructified as legitimate rights only when the ‘General Will’ recognised it. The last part of the paper focussed on the critique of the two distinct roles and origins of private property – one that legitimizes natural inequality and other that tries to amend it. The two ideas regarding private property were evaluated and analysed from the procedural and substantive perspectives. A strictly procedural lens made Locke’s perspective on property more appealing as well as practical. It iterated that since property rights were backed by the mandate of God in a state of nature, they were legitimate. This automatically qualified the outcomes of this private property – the pervasive inequality – as the hard truth of life. The substantive lens, on the other hand, was utilised to counter-argue this position. It forwarded two arguments. The first focussed on proving wrong the assumption made by Locke that property rights are “natural” and backed by God, thereby can exist alongside natural liberty in the state of nature. This served to nullify Locke’s procedural premise. The second argument used practical examples to argue why one cannot be given an entitlement to a property simply because he applied his labour upon it. This instinctively necessitated a ‘General Will’ to frame laws regarding the allocation of property.

07 July 2022
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