John Locke: Owning property to keep government in it’s place

Government has no other end, but the preservation of property. — John Locke

I think this quote means that government has no other purpose but to help it’s citizens acquire property and to protect them from anybody that might try to take it from them.

Wow.  If you’ve ever followed politics, this is definitely not the focus of our government today!  Imagine someone advocating this on Fox News or radio talk show.  They’d cut him right off.  Who is this Locke dude?  Before learning about him this week I did not know anything about him.  I want to share with you why I instantly admired his views and his life’s work.  In particular, I am intrigued by his thoughts on private property

John Locke


John Locke was a 17th Century philosopher who believed in the state-of-nature, a time before societies and government and most definitely not the type of society we humans now live in. Locke believed that private property was one of the best aspects of the state-of-nature.  However, Locke believes that there’s a catch to private property — You can’t just say that the property or item is yours.

Why not?

He argued that you can only claim ownership of something if you ‘homestead’ or improve the item.  In other words, in the case of property ownership, you can’t say: “Well, nobody is using this property so I guess I’ll just take it for myself!”  You must do something to the it, whether it be a house, a car or a piece of land.  According to Locke,  turning property into privately owned property requires making improvements upon the land.

For example, cultivating the land, growing crops, or building a house improves the land for your benefit and makes it yours.  My instructor, Dr. Tom Woods gives this scenario as another good way to understand this principle.  He asks,  “What about all the European explorers hundreds of years ago? When they stuck a pole in the ground of the New World or any new piece of land and claimed it in the name of their monarch and ruler, was that a true claim to the land and was it truly theirs?”  The answer is no,  it couldn’t be theirs because they didn’t do anything to improve the land.  Besides, sticking a flag in the ground doesn’t count as improvement because it is not permanent!

Locke’s reasoning seems pretty straight-forward — if it’s not yours, work to claim it and make it yours. His thinking was way ahead of his time as no one else was working to create a vision of what the world would look like with little or no government involvement in private property matters.  Just like today, everybody was busy and too accustomed to living under the government’s structure.

As you read at the top of this post, Locke believed that government should only be allowed to control certain things and not very many of them, one of them being private property.  He knew all too well that governments, especially when allowed to control everything it wants to, become corrupt.  His philosophic contributions to Western Civilization were his best answers for combating unlawful rule.

Quinn Palmer

RPC Student


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