Libertarians have long been partial to what they believe to be John Locke’s theory of property. On first glance, this understandable: the snippets of John Locke that are most often taught seem very libertarian in nature. In his Second
Treatise of Government, Locke ostensibly argues that when an individual mixes their labor with an unowned piece nature, they become the absolute owner of that piece of nature, extinguishing any rights others might have to it. a plausible reading of Locke’s very brief property discussion in the Second Treatise, but only reading the Second
Treatise is misleading. After reading more of Locke’s writings on property, it becomes clear that although Locke support private property ownership, it is not the sort of absolute property ownership that the libertarians often attribute
Under libertarian views, property owners are like mini-sovereigns. They exercise complete control over the property
that they own, and compelling them to do anything with that property against their will (e.g. giving some of it to others)
is unjustified. This is not so for John Locke. In his First Treatise of Government, Locke writes the following:
God, the lord and father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods, so that it cannot justly denied him when his pressing wants call for it, and therefore, no man could ever have a just power over the life another by right of property in land or possessions, since it would always be a sin in any man of estate to let his
brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.
For Locke, the needy have a right to some of the property of the wealthy, and denying them that right is fundamentally
unjust. This should not be at all surprising. As his invocation of God here reveals, Locke was a Christian who believed
his theories to be consistent with Christian doctrine. Libertarian property rights are not at all consistent with the
teachings of Jesus with respect to the poor, which is why Locke does not actually support such rights.