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Private Property as Seen by Locke and Rousseau Essay

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Updated: Jul 1st, 2021


Private property is one of the concepts that have been viewed differently at certain periods of the development of human society, which lays the ground for the evolution of countries’ economic and political agendas. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were prominent philosophers who had a considerable effect on the way the attitude towards the concept crystalized (Capaldi and Lloyd 10). The two thinkers agreed on some basic features of private property but had opposing opinions concerning the conditions under which its acquisition could be legitimate. This paper includes an analysis of the two frameworks and the justification for the adoption of one of the perspectives.

Labor as a Legitimate Way to Acquire Private Property

As mentioned above, the two philosophers agree that labor is one of the primary elements of property. Locke state that when a man takes a natural resource and “he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property” (118). The thinker stresses that land, as well as anything in the world, was given to all mankind, so every person has the right to use everything the planet has to offer.

However, only invested efforts can make a natural resource somebody’s property. According to Locke, a person can claim the right to own some land if the individual is ready to make this part of the world flourish (118). A simple illustration of the property consistent with Locke’s view is the situation when a woman picks an apple, the fruit becomes her property as she invested her labor in order to enjoy it.

Rousseau also places a significant value on labor, but this element is not central when it comes to the justification of the acquisition of private property. The philosopher puts this component into the social context stressing that the community has to be the defining force that justifies people’s right to acquire property (Goldoni 234). This element of private property acquisition will be discussed below. Jean-Jacques Rousseau adds that the right to own property is not given by “an empty ceremony” but “by virtue of” people’s “intention of work and to cultivate it” (172). It is emphasized that the person can be granted the right to own land if he/she can make it flourish and evolve.

Limits of Property

The two thinkers also stress that the boundaries of private property are critical for ensuring just ownership. Locke and Rousseau agree that an individual should not try to own more that he or she can manage properly (Pierce 5). If the land given to a person does not bring any fruit or the produced riches are spoiled, the individual should lose the right to own this property. It is noteworthy that the two philosophers see the consequences of spoiled resources a bit differently (Miah and Suzuki 15).

Locke concentrates on the impact on nature and evolutionary aspects. The thinker emphasizes that rotten products do not lead to further development and do not encourage people to work. The thinker refers to Christian values and stresses that the world was given to humankind for further development and improvement. Locke argues that when people failed to use “the products of nature” that rotted, they “offended against the common law of nature” and were “liable to be punished” (121). Therefore, private property is just until the owner manages to bring improvement and development.

Rousseau also states that wasted resources make ownership unjust, but the philosopher views the issue from the social context perspective. Rousseau emphasized that one of the central elements of property is the possession of “only so much of it as is necessary for his subsistence” (172). He argues that spoiled resources mean that a member of the community limited other people’s access to products as he or she wasted products that could have been utilized by his peers (Capaldi and Lloyd 18). This situation leads to people’s overall disapproval that is undesirable for those living in communities.

The Rule of First Occupancy

Another important facet to consider when analyzing private property is related to the exact method it is acquired. The two philosophers have quite similar opinions regarding the way people come in possession of resources, although certain differences are still present. Rousseau uses the term “first occupancy,” claiming that this right overrides the right of the strongest (172). He states that an individual can acquire a resource if it does not belong to anyone.

Provided a man wants to occupy some land, this occupancy is possible if the land is not someone’s property. The right to use resources is guarded by the community as the person starts owning a product if other members of the community do not object. This social context makes the right of first occupancy prevailing. The community can prevent a usurper from taking someone’s property due to the existence of a certain social compact. Hence, Rousseau places the greatest value on the social context, making it central to the concept of private property.

Locke also mentions the need to use resources that are not other people’s property. He refers to first peoples who were able to occupy vast territories that were free from anyone. In modern times, when only some territories are available for use, people still have an opportunity to acquire property (Locke 121). The natural law comes into play again as, according to Locke, the land is given by God to be cultivated, so if no one invests labor in its improvement, it is free to be acquired.

The power of the community and social contract is a part of Locke’s framework as well. The philosopher admits that the land, as well as other resources, has become scarce, so people had to agree on the boundaries and limits of their property. Kingdoms and other divisions exist, and individuals obey the rules developed within certain geographic or political boundaries. However, the natural law remains strong because some resources are yet to be used, and those who invest their labor can own those products.

Property and Inequality

Although Locke and Rousseau have a similar perspective concerning some aspects of private property, they have opposing opinions regarding the outcomes associated with private property. Rousseau sees private property as one of the vices of society, while Lock believes that it leads to development and progress (Goldoni 238). Rousseau builds his argument on the nature of the economic order that existed during that period.

He claims that the ownership of private property results in inequality since certain groups have excessive resources and others are deprived of the products of their own labor. The rule of first occupancy accounts for the increase in the gap between the rich and the poor as those who owned land could accumulate resources. It is noteworthy that, according to Rousseau, property corrupts people and leads to conflict (Pierce 4). The philosopher even refers to the fall of Adam and Eve as a result of a disagreement over the property, the apple.

The only viable method to address the conflict, as seen by Rousseau, is a social contract that can prevent quarrels and wars. The “general will” can be instrumental in achieving the common good and ensure equality and the satisfaction of the members of the community (qtd. in Pierce 4). However, it is noted that only direct democracy can be utilized since no other type of general will exists. No representatives can ensure complete adherence to the principles of democracy, especially if property issues arise. Therefore, Jean-Jacques Rousseau has a negative view of private property and its effects on society rather.

On the contrary, John Locke argues that private property is a positive concept that can and does bring development to human society. Based on his focus on the natural law, the philosopher states that natural resources are given to humankind to be cultivated and utilized (Capaldi and Lloyd 8). Locke believes that resources are given to “the use of the industrious and rational… not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious” (119). Hence, people who are able to till the land and multiply resources have the right to won property.

Moreover, the philosopher finds the creation of money to be one of the premises for the advances of human society. This view may seem rather controversial, specifically when the Lockean paradigm regarding excessive goods is considered as something that cannot be consumed is wasted. Nevertheless, the thinker admits that some people are more capable of accumulating resources than others, which results in certain disproportions in available resources. In order to make access to the necessary items easy, money was introduced, and this advancement also led to development and growth (Locke 120).

Industrious people’s diligence and hard work lead to progress because people are always in search of more effective methods to increase their property’s value. Notably, for Locke, competition is the driver of evolution, which is an opposing view to Rousseau’s ideas of constant conflicts. Lockean society is based on the collaboration of people who are eager to help each other achieve certain goals, which ensures the attainment of their objectives as well.

A More Compelling Perspective

Both Rousseau and Locke provide comprehensive explanations and define concepts in a detailed manner. It is important to state that the two thinkers share certain ideas in common, especially when it comes to the features of property. However, the Lockean framework is more compelling due to several reasons. First, the philosopher provides a justification for private property and the characteristics of the society where it can be most beneficial for all. The thinker manages to explain the nature of the relationships between people in diverse situations and in regard to private property.

Private property is associated with the investment of labor, which is also accepted by Rousseau. In simple terms, owning a private property means making an effort to improve its qualities or enlarge produced valuables (Pierce 4). Clearly, improving and increasing the number of products has a positive effect on the development of society as people create new items to address their needs. The Industrial Revolution can be regarded as one of the brightest illustrations of the benefits of private property since people introduced various technological tools to cultivate the land and generate goods.

The twentieth century is another example of the way private property can affect the development of countries. Americans proved that competition is the central pillar of progress as it results in evolution. The most recent advances in science, medicine, education, and art are all fruit of competition and people’s desire to improve their property.

Locke pays little attention to such phenomenon as conflict and its influence on the individual, community, or country. Rousseau stresses that private property is one of the major reasons behind various instances of disagreement that occur in human society (Goldoni 241). However, Rousseau overestimates the power of conflict over the development of societies. The thinker concentrates on inequality and domination that tend to have adverse effects on people and communities. Although Locke often escapes from explaining the nature and the impact of conflicts, he provides his view of the world where people tend to collaborate rather than disagree.

This hypothesis is rather viable since it is supported by numerous examples that can be found in past epochs and modern times. Clearly, it is impossible to deny that there has been no disagreement over private property in the history of humanity. On the contrary, people have fights and quarrels, while countries are often in a state of war due to certain conflicts related to resources. Nevertheless, the struggle always ends in agreement and treaties. People choose to collaborate rather than remain in conflict since clashes lead to degradation. Wars result in devastation and the waste of numerous resources.

Communities or countries built on the principles of the conflict rather than the values of collaboration are doomed. People are not concerned about creating new strategies to produce more and address their needs in diverse ways. They focus on defeating their opponents with the help of the available resources that become scarce due to the lack of proper management. Countries that are in the state of war have ruined economies and devastated territories. People leave such areas to start a new life where they can realize their full potential.

Therefore, the Lockean view of the property is more compelling than that of Rousseau’s paradigm due to its focus on the nature of relationships between individuals and communities. Rousseau provides numerous valuable insights addressing such aspects as conflicts, inequality, and rights. However, the philosopher’s disbelief in people’s ability to collaborate in order to achieve progress makes his perspective less feasible than Locke’s view.


On balance, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed highly influential theories regarding private property. Numerous philosophers created their frameworks based on the ideas of the two prominent thinkers. Moreover, countries developed their political and economic agendas in accordance with the paradigm they chose. Both frameworks have certain strengths and weaknesses, but they define property as a notion closely related to labor. This feature makes the property an important stimulus for the development of humanity. Although it has a darker side, humans are able to overcome challenges and concentrate on collaboration and evolution.

Works Cited

Capaldi, Nicholas, and Gordon Lloyd. Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke Versus Rousseau to the Present. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2016.

Goldoni, Marco. “Rousseau’s Radical Constitutionalism and Its Legacy.” Constitutionalism Beyond Liberalism, edited by Michael W. Dowdle and Michael A. Wilkinson, Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 227-254.

Locke, John. “On the Social Contract.” Social and Political Philosophy: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Andrea Veltman, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 111-138.

Miah, Mohammad Dulal, and Yasushi Suzuki. Power, Property Rights, and Economic Development. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Pierce, Stephen. “Locke vs. Rousseau: Revolutions in Property,” The Histories, vol. 15, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1-5.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “On the Social Contract.” Social and Political Philosophy: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Andrea Veltman, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 163-186.

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