Enough and as Good: A Formal Model of Lockean First Appropriation

Author Summary by Brian Kogelmann and Benjamin G. Ogden

AJPS Author Summary - Kogelmann OgdenHow do people come to have property rights in initially unowned things? Perhaps the most famous answer offered in response to this question is given by John Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government: persons come to own things by mixing their labor with them. If you plow an unowned field you own the land; if you cut down an unowned tree you own the timber. Of course, there is a common objection to this theory of appropriation: what if someone mixes their labor with too much, and thereby comes to own too much. This, it seems, is unfair. To which Locke responds: persons must leave “enough and as good” for others.

But what does this actually mean? This is something contemporary scholars fight about. The so-called right libertarians interpret “enough and as good” without much teeth: for them, it is better if we ignore these kinds of restrictions, and let persons appropriate as much as they please. On the other hand are the so-called left libertarians, who interpret “enough and as good” as imposing quite strict requirements. In short, people are only entitled to appropriate an equal amount of resources from the initially unowned stockpile, leaving the rest for others.

Right and left libertarians usually do battle over the enough-and-as-good clause on moral grounds. Which interpretation of Locke’s proviso seems most fair or just? We, however, take a different route. Using the tools of modern social science, we wanted to look at the economic impacts of implementing different versions of the proviso. In short, what would overall welfare look like in a world governed by the right libertarian or left libertarian interpretations of the proviso?

Our major finding is that, if one waits long enough, the right libertarian version of the proviso makes all persons better off, regardless of whether they are naturally advantaged or disadvantaged. This is a striking result, for one might think that the left libertarian version of the proviso is better for those who are naturally disadvantaged – those who are constrained in their ability to appropriate land.

The reason why our result holds, though, is due to the effects of investment that come along with appropriation. If land is appropriated and becomes property, it is typically made more productive by the owner. These productivity gains disperse themselves across society by lowering the price of goods relative to wages. Thus, a case can be made that it is better for all land to be appropriated and invested in as early as possible, even if ownership of this land is unequal. In fact, this effect is greatest when inequality of opportunity is the most persistent. If one waits long enough, the effects of investment will end up making everyone better off, even those who missed out on getting some land during the initial grab. This, we think, offers some reason to support a more lax interpretation of “enough and as good,” particularly if one is primarily concerned with the welfare of the worst-off or unlucky.

About the Authors: Brian Kogelmann is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Maryland and Benjamin G. Ogden is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University. “Enough and as Good: A Formal Model of Lockean First Appropriation” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the “American Journal of Political Science” and is now available in Early View.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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