Locke: What Thou Sows Is What Thou Reaps

For one of my courses that focuses on major issues in western political thought, my professor posed this question to the class as a prompt for which we were to analyze in a research paper:

“Locke is right that an individual’s primary motivation in life is to accumulate property.  Furthermore, I should have every right to accumulate as much property as I want, and I shouldn’t have to care that other people are less successful than me.  The rich are rich because they work hard and it is right for the government to look out for those of us who have property.  If people are poor, it is because they don’t work hard enough.  In fact, they are not living up to their potential as rational beings.  As such, neither I, nor the government, should have any obligation to provide for them.”  Comment.

Not only did I find the prompt suggestive and misleading, I also found it to be indicative of the very common misconceptions of Lockean philosophy, and felt it necessary that I should make clarification of the prevalent misconception of Locke’s perspective on property as the focus of this piece.  It is no question that Lockean philosophy had a profound influence on the Framers of the United States in drafting the Constitution, which is why I believe it should be understood in its proper context.  Let us begin.

The Lockean concept that the poor are poor in a democratic society due to their lack of efficient productivity has been greatly taken out of context.  It is imperative that to understand Locke’s view of wealth in a democratic society, we must understand his conception of what exactly a democracy entails.  Per his logic, the protection of liberty and property are the catalysts behind the social contract.  If accumulation of property is the foundation of civil government, then it follows that the autonomy of the individual as a sovereign citizen should be allowed his due diligence to reap what he sows without fearing the possibility of government seizure of his property to redistribute it.  According to Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, “There cannot be a clearer demonstration of anything, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance what might service for food, raiment, and delight”.  In essence, it would stand to reason, that given no limitations on one’s freedom of opportunity, those who are poor aren’t given any real excuse for remaining trapped in their specific status.

Labor is what gives value to property, specifically land, which means that any attempt to regulate the incentive to labor decreases value and hence makes it viable for poverty to spawn.  In a Lockean society, such regulation does not exist, hence labor is given more leeway to be productive to increase the value of property.  Consider, for example, Cambodia under the control of the Khmer Rouge, which like China, the GDR and other communist countries saw rapid collectivization of industry and severely oppressive regulatory control overtake its economy.  “The government acted to abolish money, all private property, exchange, and therefore prices, and to move labor from the cities to rice production as commanded by ‘Angka’ (the organization).”  These aggressive, statist policies, led to an accumulated 2-3 million deaths from execution and starvation out of a population of  approximately 7 to 8 million people.

Such a state of conditions is unjust from a Lockean perspective, due to the fact that direct infringements on the rights of property and liberty create the parameters where poverty can ensue.  Property, by Locke’s definition, is a direct result of one’s labor, which entitles that individual to his or her property.  Pol Pot and his regime in Cambodia, personifying the tyrant Locke decries in his discourse, constructed a government that is inconsistent with what Locke calls “civil society”.  In analyzing the tyranny of an absolute monarchy, “…now, whenever his property is invaded by the will of the monarch, he has not only no appeal… but as if he were degraded from the common state of rational creatures, is denied a liberty to judge of, or to defend his right; and so is exposed to all the misery and inconveniences that a man fear from one, who being in the unrestrained state of nature, is yet corrupted with flattery, and armed with power.”

In a Lockean society, the state is not given legitimacy to unlawfully seize upon the properties and liberties of its citizens, eliminating the propensity for a manufactured poor class of citizens.  In this passage, Locke is clearly giving whom he views as suffering from “real poverty” his due diligence as a legitimate victim of tyranny.  Locke, when classifying his disenchantment with the poor, wasn’t making a generic statement about his distaste for the poor.  Rather, in a Lockean state that grants the individual his liberty, there is nothing impeding one’s initiative to labor to accumulate property in any capacity.  In essence, since government in the Lockean paradigm serves only to unburden humanity from the complexities of upholding the laws of nature (which espouse liberty), there is no reason why anyone should remain in their perpetual state of poverty other than by devices of their own making.  As Locke posits, “The measure of property has well set by the extent of men’s labour, and the conveniences of life: No man’s labor could subdue or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it  was impossible for any man, this way, to intrench upon the right of another…”

If no man is given the ability in the Lockean state to infringe on the rights of another (which includes those within government), then the only thing preventing individuals within society from elevating their economic status would be their lack of initiative, which is what Locke finds perpetually inexcusable and undeserving of the “first fruits” of the hard worker’s labor.

The conception of Locke as being heartless for not delineating any responsibility to care about the sufferings of the poor is a misunderstanding of his societal structure.  If there is to be any assistance for those still impoverished within his vision of a  “just state”, it should be from the autonomous goodwill of those with property that such assistance could take place, and not at all in the form of state sanctioned entitlement.  Property, within the state of nature, is a byproduct of man’s labor, not an object that exists outside of labor. Thence, there is left no room for anyone to conclude that the poor are unjustly disadvantaged.

Consider the examples of some of the most famous names in the modern commercial world.  There were prominent entrepreneurs like James L. Kraft, who began what would become a major future enterprise by first selling cheese on the streets of New York from a cheese-stand.  Although initially impoverished, the second of eleven children, and working as a grocery-store clerk, Kraft engaged in heavy labor to expand his business to become a prominent enterprise within the food industry in the United States.  Taking an original idea stemming from dealing with the problem of cheese spoilage, Kraft would revolutionize the dairy industry by introducing “processed-cheese” into the market, which proved to be highly useful for feeding the U.S. military during World War I.  In fact, by the time the war ended in 1918, the U.S. military had purchased over 6 million pounds of Kraft’s processed cheese.  According to analysis conducted by Investor’s Business Daily, a 1932 academic study concluded that two-thirds of consumers preferred the taste of the processed cheese.  Kraft’s labor yielded sizable results, which correlates well with Locke’s vision of property accumulation and how such property and its value increases by labor.  The fruits of one’s labor, using Lockean logic, rightfully belongs to the one who labored for it, and they should not be forced to surrender it to those who did not earn it or labor for it as hard as men like James Kraft did coming from poverty themselves.  This is not a heartless decry against the poor.  It is in fact, a republican interpretation about the ownership of property.

For those, like Kraft, who chose not to be identified by his status as a facet of the poor class and labored intensively over the course of his life, are rightfully entitled to the returns of their labor.  Those who choose not to labor, holds no claim over anyone else’s property.  For Locke the social contract is a matter of personal responsibility, not an agreement purely benefiting the rich.  According to Locke, “…every man has a property in his own person.  The labor of his body (man), and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.  Whatsoever then he moves out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

It is important to recognize that Locke wasn’t displaying blind prejudice for the rich against the poor.  If anything, his concept of the “rich” purely relates to the hard worker, who makes incessant gains relative to the amount of labor he invests in his property.  For many rationalists (including sentimentalists like Jonathan Haidt and David Hume), self-interest is a strong motivating factor behind our actions within the state of nature, which in Locke’s case is defined by the accumulation of property.  However, to reiterate, such accumulation of property is not predominantly prejudiced in the state of nature.  The social contract creates natural limits on the methods by which one may accumulate property, such that this accumulation doesn’t infringe on another’s right to accumulate property for himself.  In fact, Locke views property as being merely a portion of a larger body of untouched property that could be cultivated by those who are willing to “work it’s ground”.  As Locke argues, “ Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use so that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself…”.  In essence, it would be a mistake to assume that anyone would be directly affected by the property one accumulates for himself, as long as he doesn’t do it in such a manner that prevents others from accumulating as well.  Locke continues his discourse by stating that, “Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he take a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst.  And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.”

Because this is the nature of things within Locke’s vision of society (being that nothing is directly prohibiting men from any class from accumulating property), it is not incumbent upon those who have “worked the ground” nor is it the responsibility of the government within the social contract to provide for the poor, because nothing is essentially inhibiting the poor from elevating themselves via self-determination from their status.

Locke even goes as far as to address his critics who would immediately try to blame him for allowing for anyone to take just as much as he will.  In other words, in the accumulation of property, a man’s limit would be essentially endless, raising questions of how the poor will be able to accumulate property when the rich are given a much greater advantage.  This would be considered a hasty conclusion in Locke’s point of view.  Locke refutes these allegations, saying “Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.  And thus, considering the plenty of natural provisions there was a long time in the world, and the few spenders; and to how small a part of the provision the industry of one man could extend itself, and engross it to the prejudice of others; especially keeping within the bounds, set by reason, of what might serve for his use…”.

The decry against the accumulation of property only comes when one accumulates that which is beyond its utility to that person, and in turn would spoil.  However, absent these select cases, every other case becomes a de facto result of the hard work of individuals who worked at their own expense to change their circumstances.  If government’s intended purpose is to protect the rights of property, it serves justly in protecting the rights of those who employed their labor to accumulate it.  As for the poorer classes of society, it stands to reason that minimal government and defined parameters for property accumulation for the rich encourages opportunity and vigor in the market.  Not everyone is guaranteed the mantle of tantamount success, but one’s status is only determined by one’s own initiative, as men like James L. Kraft would see it.  The rights of those who worked to accumulate property should not be infringed upon to provide entitlement to those who refuse to labor in any respect.

In the matters of contract, it is the possessor alone who decides what to do with his property.  He is even given the due diligence to surrender it by donation if he so pleases to assist the poor himself, as long as he is acting out of his own goodwill and not under compulsion by his government.  In fact, modern studies have concluded that there is more utility in grassroots, independent charity organizations than in large, state-run entitlement programs.

The only way you can effectively provide or assist the poor, is by liberating them to be able to rise above their current conditions via the social contract that Locke advocated for.  By placing further burdens upon those with property, you potentially only create a counter-effect, where even those with property are lowered involuntarily into the lower classes, until eventually the society becomes like that of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  In a free society with minimal government and outlined agreements in the Lockean social contract to respect the liberty of others, including rights of property, the poor need only plunge into some form of labor, and the market will reward the effort in some form or another.

In essence, it is not the responsibility of others to provide for the wellbeing of the poor when they’re struggling to accumulate property themselves within their own enclosures.  It need only be assured, that although we as humanity operate economically to accumulate property for ourselves, we must ensure that everyone within the civil society is given an equal opportunity to change their social status.  There then can be no excuse, from Locke’s perspective, for why the poor can’t raise themselves to a sustaining middle or even higher class via their own initiative as self-made entrepreneurs.  Success is not guaranteed.  However, if you are free to accumulate property with no foreseeable hindrances from government regulation or excessive consumptions by the rich, there is no reason for you to remain impoverished as if you were burdened by the “iron-fist” economics of a ruling class that makes it impossible to gain property.



Wooton, D. 2008. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Reynolds, Morgan. 1989. “The Cambodian Experiment in Retrospect”. Foundation for Economic Education. May 1. Accessed March 2, 2018. https://fee.org/articles/the-cambodian-experiment-in-retrospect/

Mink, Michael. 2014. “James Craft Cooked Up New Cheese And A New Market, Investor’s Business Daily, October 29. Accessed March 3, 2018. https://www.investors.com/news/management/leaders-and-success/james-kraft-founded-kraft-cheese/

Husock, Howard. 2014. “Lesson for April 15: Why Government Can’t Replace Charity”.  Forbes. April 10. Accessed March 4, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2014/04/10/lesson-for-april-15-why-government-cant-replace-charity/#61666ffb79e2

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