Private Property Rights and Locke
Aug 30, 2013
We, here at PRA, have been spending a lot of time promoting arguments for strong intellectual property rights. This is mostly because of the state of the world we live in, technology is constantly being innovated and new entrepreneurs and inventors need IP protections as incentives for continuing to develop the goods that allow us to remain connected. Furthermore, technology improves our lives in ways that would have been unimaginable in the 1400s up through the late 1800s. The great advances are, in part, due to well-developed IP protection. However, these protections would have never come about if society wasn’t fully dedicated to protecting private, physical property rights.
Physical property rights are the basis for developing strong IP schemes across the globe, and while we here in the West have relatively strong and enforced physical property rights –although some will tell you that even these are in danger, see Freedom Foundation’s Tales of Tyranny – emerging states are still developing their physical property rights systems. Furthermore, it is the developing economies that really need to synthesize, strengthen their physical property rights. While countries may have different laws, the basic underlying concept of protecting property goes beyond laws and lie in the realm of political philosophy.
While there are a plethora of philosophers who discuss property and its relationship to individuals and society, John Locke begins his discourse on property rights at a foundational level.
John Locke is one of the most quoted social contract theorists, and he explicitly develops private property rights in the Second Treatise of Government. The Second Treatise of Government states that “…every man has a property in his own person: this no body [sic] has any right to but himself” (Locke Ch. 5). This implies that the most basic of private property regimes has to respect a person’s physical body and presence. The individual is the starting point for private property.
For Locke, other forms of private property like, land or goods are created by mixing your person (labor) with the land or another item. So, if you pick an apple from a tree, the actual act of picking the fruit (labor) makes that apple yours. At this juncture the entire tree doesn’t belong to you, but the apples harvested do. The tree and surrounding land becomes yours, according to Locke, through the productive use of it by way of your labor. This occurs over time.
While some aspects of how land becomes private property are tenuous among even conservatives, it is easy to agree on the fact that your body and labor are yours exclusively.
Therefore, from the most basic building blocks, the individual human body and mind, comes the rationale for strong protection of property rights regimes in the developing world. Once countries defend the private property and person of their citizens will they be able to minimize corruption of government and promote, defend rule of law in their country.
In closing, while having strong intellectual property regimes is important, there are still some countries that need to better protect individual and private property rights. Only when those are fully protected, will strong IP protections come about.
Also, if you are interested in reading a little bit of history on Locke, FEE wrote a great article many years ago. It can be found here.