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Ambidextrous Lockeanism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2019

Billy Christmas*
Department of Political Economy, King’s College London, London WC2B 3BG, UK


Lockean approaches to property take it that persons can unilaterally acquire private ownership over hitherto unowned resources. Such natural law accounts of property rights are often thought to be of limited use when dealing with the complexities of natural resource use outside of the paradigm of private ownership of land for agricultural or residential development. The tragedy of the commons has been shown to be anything but an inevitability, and yet Lockeanism seems to demand that even the most robust common property arrangements be converted to privatized units. This often motivates a move away from natural law in the moral analysis of property rights. I argue however that it is not the deontological nature of Lockean principles that are at fault, but rather the manner of their application. Lockean theory often exhibits a bias in favour of private property: assuming that only private property can protect one’s interest in autonomy, and therefore asserting that each individual has a power of private acquisition. Starting with a claim against interference however enables us to mould the appropriate property rights to each individual’s particular interest in autonomy. This sometimes leads to private ownership, but often leads to various forms of commons.

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