In John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government, he claims that men are willing to enter into a social contract and form civil society in order to protect property. Locke is talking about a very specific kind of property in this discussion. He is specifically referring to what is one’s own, including one’s self. Therefore, Locke is essentially defining property as being “life, liberty, and estate.”
In order for Locke’s claim to be true, individuals must possess some property outside of civil society – individuals must possess property in a “state of nature.” Otherwise, the claims to property can only come from the civil society and therefore could be taken away by the civil society as well. Locke aims to show that the state cannot be the sole origin of property and cannot decide what belongs to whom. However, in order to demonstrate that the purpose of government is the protection of property, Locke must show that property must exist independently of the state.
Locke illustrates that property exists independently of the state by establishing a proof of how claims to property could be established in the absence of civil government. Locke begins his proof by claiming that, at a minimum, man “owns” himself because man must own himself in order to be free and equal in a state of nature. Because man must give up some of his rights as a free and equal being in a state of nature in order to form a civil society, then these rights to one’s self must exist outside of a civil society. Furthermore, in order for man to “give up” these rights, he must have those rights in order to then give them up and that, in and of itself, suggests a claim of property.
Locke goes on to add that if one can, at a minimum, claim that one “owns” himself, then each man must also own his own labor (because denying him his labor would be to make him a slave). In a state of nature, there is a common store of goods (Locke is thinking in terms of abundance and not scarcity) and one can take items from this state of nature by mixing one’s labor with the goods that exist in the state of nature. Locke uses an apple on a tree as an example – An apple on a tree is of no use to anyone – it must be picked to be eaten – and the picking of the apple – the mixing of one’s labor with the abundance of nature – makes it one’s own property.
Locke also suggests that property exists in a state of nature because without food becoming one’s property (that is what man eats is his own in that he can deny others the right to use it), mankind would have starved in spite of the bounty of nature. One might be able to argue that the apple is not man’s when he picks it, but the apple must be one’s own when he bites into it, chews it, and swallows it. In this sense, then, the apple becomes man’s property when he mixes his labor with it.
John Locke makes an interesting argument about the state of nature. He claims that the state of nature is a land of plenty (scarcity never enters into the Locke’s scenario). In Locke’s state of nature, one may take something from the commons because one can take all that one can use without really taking anything from someone else. In addition, one can only take so much and use so much and anything in excess of that would spoil. These two factors keep man from accumulating too much in a state of nature.
However, there are more resources that exist in a state of nature other than apples. For example, gold and silver exist in nature and do not rot. One could say that same thing about other minerals, gems, etc. One could collect and amass as many of these resources as one wishes and they will not spoil. However, other than their mere aesthetic value, they are really quite worthless in a state of nature. However, by the consent of mankind, these metals and gems can become a form of money. That is, one can accept gold or silver in exchange for apples with the understanding that someone else will accept these metals in exchange for corn, etc.
By using these metals as currency, one can avoid the limitation of spoiling that occurs in a state of nature and prevents too much accumulation by selling the excess of the one’s labor for something else that does not spoil. Locke uses examples like this to argue that an economic system could exist within a state of nature. Therefore, property could predate the existence of government. Because property can exist before government, then, one could argue, that the social contract is an agreement between men in order to provide a fair and neutral system dedicated to the protection of private property.