Locke and George on Original Acquisition


Natural resources, especially land, play an important role in many economic problems society faces today, including the climate crisis, housing shortages and severe inequality. Yet, land has been either entirely neglected or seriously misunderstood by contemporary theorists of distributive justice. I aim to correct that in this paper. In his theory of original acquisition, Locke did not carefully distinguish between the value of natural resources and the value that we add by laboring upon them. This oversight led him to the mistaken conclusion that labor mixing gives the laborer an entitlement to both the improvement and the resource. I explain how Locke's false belief that the proviso was satisfied in his time was the fundamental cause of this error. Instead, we should think, following Henry George, that the community is entitled to the economic value of natural resources, because the community created the value of resources, not the individual improver. I discuss an argument from George's "Progress and Poverty" that selfownership is actually inconsistent with (rather than the ground for, as Locke thought) private appropriation of natural resources. I present George's argument that private appropriation of natural resources is akin to forced labor, which is remarkably similar to Nozick's infamous argument that taxation is akin to forced labor. I then develop my own view of original acquisition, inspired by George. The selfownership of improvers gives them an entitlement to improvements that they generate. But the self-ownership of everyone else precludes an entitlement to natural resources value. Natural resource rents should not be enjoyed only by those who improve the resource, but rather, by all community members in proportion to the share of demand for natural resources they are responsible for. In the last section, I consider and refute an objection from the luck egalitarian claiming that natural talents are relevantly similar to land.



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Paul Forrester
Yale University (PhD)

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