Smith and Locke on Property

Aeon J. Skoble for AdamSmithWorks

July 31, 2019
Separated by less than a century, John Locke and Adam Smith are both philosophers associated with the liberal tradition. Different aspects of their thought have come to be almost synonymous with classical liberalism, yet there are interesting methodological differences between them. There really are not many instances where one could say, “well, as Locke and Smith both say,….” and then describe some substantive point. Furthermore, Smith is associated with the “Scottish Enlightenment” school of thought, which also included Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, and which is often presented as being opposed to the “natural rights” tradition with which Locke is associated. So, can we assess Locke’s and Smith’s respective views on property for compatibility? 

In introductory textbooks, we often see something like the following: “Locke thought people had natural rights to property, whereas Hume argued that property is useful social convention.” We wouldn’t expect to see Smith mentioned at all in this context, as his role in philosophy is often overlooked, but if he were, he would be associated with Hume. Of course there’s no contradiction between saying we have a right to X and saying that it’s useful for society to recognize X. But the contrast is often invoked to show that people like Hume and Smith were practical empiricists who didn’t need rights theory. This distinction is not obvious – Locke, too, was an empiricist, and Smith, while he doesn’t present himself as a rights theorist, talks about property in a way that a Lockean can appreciate.

To begin, let’s have a look at Locke on property. Most of us hear in school that Locke thought we had rights to “life, liberty, and property,” as if these were three items to which we’re entitled. But Locke’s theory of property is a little more subtle. Rather than think of them as three items, it is better to think of them as ramifications of each other.

Locke is unambiguous about the meaning of “property.” In Chapter IX of his Second Treatise he specifically says that he means the word to include one’s life and freedom as well as one’s physical possessions. All of Chapter V is devoted to explaining what property is, and here too, his quite clear that “every man has a property in his own person.” So at least some property rights are natural, in the sense of being conceptually prior to government. He means this to be a direct contrast with the then-prevailing concept of property rights as grants from the monarch. Pre-liberal society certainly had property rights – if the king grants me all the land from here to coast, then it’s my property, and I am entitled to lord over it (subject, one imagines, to one’s continued fealty). So on this model, property rights are civil rights, legal entities established by royal decree. Not just property rights, either; the same would be true of the medieval right to bear arms or the medieval right of way. 

Locke’s radical move was to claim that some rights must necessarily have conceptual priority over royal decree. He argues that each person has a property right in his own self. This forms the basis of his argument for how it is that we can come to acquire external property, and be said to have a right to that also. When we transform the raw materials of the natural world into tradeable value through the mixing of our own powers, that tradeable value becomes part of our property. This is what leads him to argue that the very purpose of government is to protect rights, as opposed to seeing government as the origin of rights. Locke is offering a rational justification for a moral claim. We are naturally entitled to our own selves, and we may thereby come to justly own external objects. 

When people talk about a “Lockean approach” to property rights, they are generally referring to the idea that we’re naturally entitled to own property, but this is often presented in simplistic caricature. It’s not that whatever property I happen to have can be retroactively justified as a natural right. The “natural” in Locke’s natural rights means conceptually pre-political. He argues that if we had no political authority at all, as in the “state of nature,” no one could justifiably claim to have lordship over another. Although one individual may be stronger than another, everyone is of equivalent moral status. This means everyone has a right (a rationally justifiable moral claim) to live and be free. If I own my body, then I own the labor of my body, so when I use that labor to transform unowned resources in nature, I own the transformed product as well. Obviously, Locke’s famous “mixing one’s labor” argument applies to unowned natural resources – it’s not as if I could acquire a right to your house by sneaking over in the middle of the night and painting it. But I can also acquire new resources by trading for them. If I own something, I may trade it for another thing. I can trade eggs for cheese, but I can also trade time spent laboring for cheese - or for money. If we can acquire rights to objects by trading labor for them, we can also acquire rights to money, which Locke notes can “keep without spoiling” (47).

Locke’s “state of nature” isn’t meant as anthropology – it’s a thought experiment. What would it be like if there were no political authority? When we look around and see peasants and aristocrats and kings, we see a hierarchy of personhood which is passed off as natural but is in reality artificial. If we had no feudal system, no political structures at all, we’d see only persons, each equally entitled to work and trade. This natural moral entitlement to live and work and acquire and trade is what he means by “property.” He uses the word “property” to refer to our own selves as well as to the material possessions we acquire. But the idea that we can have morally legitimate claims to external objects such as land or money creates incentives for greater productivity, which Locke argues is beneficial for the whole community. Since predatory behavior violates natural rights as well as harming the community, Locke argues that we are entitled to form political associations to deter and punish predatory activity. So, we have a natural right to the property in our own person, which accounts for how we can come to acquire property in the conventional sense of the word, as well as why a core function of any legitimate political/legal order is to protect property in both senses (freedom and acquired possessions).

What is Smith’s theory of property? The usual answer is that he doesn’t have a “theory” of property, and doesn’t invoke the language of natural rights, but rather that he argues empirically that societies which protect property are more prosperous. But if we look more closely, I suggest there’s more compatibility between Locke and Smith than one might think.

Smith may not develop a “theory” of property, but he certainly agrees with Locke that a just social order protects property: “The most sacred laws of justice, therefore, those whose violation seems to call loudest for vengeance and punishment, are the laws which guard the life and person of our neighbour; the next are those which guard his property and possessions; and last of all come those which guard what are called his personal rights, or what is due to him from the promises of others” (TMS 2:2:2). In keeping with his general approach of explaining how our sense of justice is informed by our sympathetic responses to the situations of others, Smith is noting that property – whatever it is – is something about which we feel a loss when it is taken, similarly to (if less severely than) loss of life. That we are naturally inclined to feel resentment about loss of property is Smith’s explanation both for why one should respect other people’s property and for why the political/legal order must have a concept of property rights that deters and punishes predation. 

For Smith, our emotional responses to our encounters and observations are the basis for our judgments about moral knowledge. So we can “tell” that it’s wrong to betray a friend because when we observe such situations, we feel repulsed by the perpetrator and sympathy toward the victim. We learn from our responses and can use them to guide our own actions, and also, where appropriate, to guide public policy. He’s talking about property as a social institution without invoking a Lockean account. But there’s nothing about Smith’s argument that directly contradicts a Lockean account, either. In a way, the two can be seen as complementary. 

Locke argues that we have a moral justification for claiming property. Smith argues that we feel a loss when we are deprived of our possessions. Both of the previous sentences can be true at the same time. And indeed, if the first is true, it bolsters the second. Similarly, both Locke and Smith agree that the legal protection of property is important to a well-functioning social order. It is not that different to argue (as Locke does) that the very function of government is to protect rights to (life, liberty and) property, than it is to argue (as Smith does in Wealth of Nations) that the duty of the government is to “protect every citizen from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it.” What Smith calls the “obvious and simple system of natural liberty” seems perfectly compatible with, if not actually the same as, Locke’s theory of natural rights. Furthermore, Locke’s theory of rights is predicated on the fundamental moral equality of persons, which also lies under Smith’s theory of sympathy. Our ability to see ourselves in others’ shoes presupposes our agreement about that human moral equality.

If their conceptions of property are compatible, why wouldn’t Smith just use Lockean vocabulary? That’s not a question we’re well situated to answer – It could be pure happenstance that in Smith’s milieu it wasn’t au courant to use Locke’s language, even if the concepts were taken for granted. That’s a conjecture, of course, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What is important is seeing that the Lockean and Smithian conceptions of property are not mutually exclusive ones. That matters a lot in a world where property rights are too often not secure. Smith observes that societies where property rights are unequally protected or not secure at all will fail to prosper and go into decline. Locke would surely not disagree with this; indeed it’s what he would expect to happen given that such a society would be, on his view, unjust.