Locke’s Right to Theft of Private Property?

Is “theft” ever just?  Is the right to private property absolute?  That is to say, does a man in urgent need have a right to the means of his sustenance so that he is entitled, if necessary, to take what he needs from a person who has more than enough?  Regular readers of this blog will recall that this has been a frequent theme of discussion here in the past year.  In the past, however, it was Aquinas who was commonly referenced as the chief example of this concession, this limitation of private property rights (common though it was in the classical Christian tradition).  But although John Locke often figures in such discussions as the symbol for the development of modern, capitalistic, increasingly absolute property rights, it turns out that this theme is not alien to his thinking either.  He remains more traditional than we might expect.  

Locke shares with Aquinas and the tradition the belief that in the beginning, the world and its goods were created for the common enjoyment and sustenance of all mankind, each of whom had an equal right to be nourished by the earth’s fruits.  Although he gets from this point to the lawful existence of private property via a significantly different route than Aquinas, this starting point means that he can hardly allow that anyone’s subsequent private property rights could extend to the point of denying basic sustenance to the starving.  

In his meticulous summary in The Right to Private Property, Jeremy Waldron states that according to Locke, private property rights “are themselves constrained by a deeper and, in the last resort, more powerful general right which each man has to the material necessities for his survival.  This forms the basis of what one might refer to as entitlements of charity in Locke’s system.”  Waldron expounds further: according to Locke, everyone has a responsibility, second only to the preservation of his own life, to preserve the lives of others.  This of course imposes the negative duty not to harm others,

“but Locke quickly makes it clear that the duty has a positive side to it as well.  When it is put together with premisses (1) and (2), it generates the following claim-right as the substantive basis of the Lockean theory of property: ‘Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation, and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence’ (II. 25).  That this doctrine imposes positive duties on men to satisfy others’ needs (or at least stand aside while the needy make use of property  acquired by those who are not needy), and that these duties are correlative to the rights of the needy, is emphasized in the following important and often-overlooked passage from the First Treatise: 

‘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. . . . As Justice gives every Man a Title to the product of his honest Industry, . . . so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty, as will keep him from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise. (I. 42)’

Locke, in other words, is not prepared to concede absolute rights to any owner, no matter how respectable the [147] pedigree of his endowment.”  

Of course, we may notice the oddity of the term “entitlement of charity” and the clause, “so Charity gives every Man a Title to so much out of another’s Plenty…”  This seems a bit oxymoronic, as the whole point of “charity,” one would have thought, was that it was free and voluntary, extending beyond the obligations imposed by justice.  Justice involves strict rights and obligations, it concerns what a man has a “title” to, but charity operates at the less clear-cut level of moral obligation, where one’s duty to render something to another does not necessarily correspond to any right that he has to expect it from you.  Needless to say, the dividing line between these two, particularly on this question of economic justice, has been bitterly contested.  For, if an obligation is one of justice, then, on standard definitions, one has recourse to the justice system in case the obligation is not performed.  And thus, on our particular example, the hungry man would presumably be exonerated in court for taking the loaf of bread from the rich man’s larder.  But if the property owner merely has a charitable duty to forgo his rights in favor of the needy man, then he could still prosecute the thief.  On a wider level, if the right to sustenance is a right of justice, then a government may have some role in restricting property rights accordingly.  Waldron clearly takes the right to sustenance as a fully-fledged right that can genuinely override the right to private property, but the actual language is a bit fuzzy.

Of course, Locke’s ambiguity at this point is not uncommon.  Even in Aquinas, there is a confusing tangle of duties of charity and justice governing the limitations on property rights (though John Finnis has helpfully untangled these–see here); in Leo’s Rerum Novarum, more influenced by Locke than Aquinas, he says “if the question be asked, how ought man to use his possessions? the Church replies without hesitation: ‘As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need.’ Wherefore the Apostle says: ‘Charge the rich of this world…to give readily, to share with others.’”  But, he goes on, “these are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action,” a point that has proved contentious in subsequent Catholic Social Teaching.  However, it is worth noting that Leo does make the case of extreme need–of basic sustenance–which is the proviso under discussion in Locke, a matter of justice, and so an actual structural limit on property rights.


One other interesting point on which Locke does not advocate absolute private property rights–he does not believe one has a right to use or abuse one’s property.  C.B. Macpherson claims that according to a modern understanding of property rights (with which he groups Locke), “It is a right to dispose of, or alienate, as well as to use; and it is a right which is not conditional on the owner’s performance of any social function.”  James Tully argues however, that for Locke, property rights “are not rights of abuse; on the contrary, a man ‘has not the Liberty to destroy . . . so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare preservation calls for it’ (II. 6).”

6 thoughts on “Locke’s Right to Theft of Private Property?

  1. Kent Will

    Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry;But if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.–Proverbs 6:30-31


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Kent,Yes, Donny has brought up this very passage in the comments sections of previous discussions on this point. My tentative reply then, which I am more confident in now, is that that verse is best read (as so much in Proverbs) as descriptive, not prescriptive. Many times Proverbs discusses what the social consequences of actions are, without thereby saying that those consequences are right–its point is merely, "Look, here's the way the world works. Be prepared for it." So here, it is saying that, in the way the world works, although people won't despise a starving thief, they'll still take every penny from him if they catch him; it's not saying that they are right to do so.


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