‘But why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t?’

robert-nozicks-quotes-5In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick asks the following question with good reasons concerning Locke’s theory of appropriation:—

‘Why does mixing one’s labour with something make one the owner of it?… If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules…mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?’[1]

In order to discuss the aforesaid question put by Nozick, I shall explicate Locke’s theory of appropriation, i.e., The Lockean Proviso, with reference to Locke’s account of the origin and general survey of property rights. I will endeavour to defend Locke’s theory by showing that Nozick has interpreted the Proviso too ‘austerely’ and has overlooked some other points that Locke had put forward with respect to his proviso of appropriation.

In the ‘beginning’ when ‘the heaven and the earth’[2] were created by God—the ‘first Ages of the World’[3], Locke gathers that no man was endowed with anything external to him. The only thing man owned in the ‘first Ages’ was but himself, for all the land and resources and fruits therefrom are naturally produced by the ‘spontaneous hand’ of God for the nourishment of all of mankind, therefore belong to mankind in common, i.e., every man has equal right to all things:—

‘Every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself.’[4]

However, in order for a man to be justified in making use of, or consuming some of the resources of the Earth, a clear delineation of private property right is necessary. For instance if a man were to consume an apple from a tree in the natural world, he is effectively excluding other individuals from consuming that apple and accordingly deprived the others of the right to that naturally produced apple, which should have been in the possession of, and therefore consumed by, everyone. For that reason, Locke thinks that there ‘must of necessity be a mean to appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man,’[5] whence his theory of acquisition emanates.

That being granted that the only possession man has in the natural world is himself, Locke moves on to deduce, as ‘labour of his body, and work of his hands,’ which with man naturally endowed, are properly his, it should be justified in saying that whomever mixes his labour with something unpossessed, should gain property right to that thing:—

‘Whatsoever then he removes out of the state the nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.’[6]

From the above quote we can perhaps see that the pith and core of his theory of acquisition (I shall call it the ‘Lockean Proviso’ hereafter): that person P takes possession of (and hence has private property right to) a thing X from the nature if P mixed his labour with X, given that X is abundant insofar as the ownership of X will render the remainder, or at least the substitute for it (if taken in deflationary sense), ‘enough, and as good, left in common for other’s’. Mixture of one’s labour, together with the ‘enough and as good’ rule, for Locke, we can see (for the time being), constitutes the sufficient condition for the acquisition from the nature.

The Lockean Proviso, however, would seemingly lead to a peculiar and counter-intuitive verdict that whomever, as Nozick puts it, emptied a can of tomato juice that he owns into the English Channel, he would have appropriated the Channel when the molecules spread evenly throughout the sea. For the act of spilling a can of tomato juice fulfils the sufficient conditions for acquisition according to Locke (as Nozick interprets it).

What Nozick is trying to put forward here is that only a weak interpretation of the proviso is possible in order for it to make sense. However, I shall argue that Nozick has misunderstood Locke’s theory of appropriation, for he has overlooked the other necessary conditions that Locke thinks should be applied to his theory, apart from the ‘mixture of labour’ and ‘enough and as good’ rules. The first thing Nozick overlooks is that the natural limit to appropriation, in the absence of money and hired labour[7]. The ‘enough and as good’ rule should not be viewed in terms of the quality and quantity of that which being left behind per se, but that there are still ‘enough and as good’ for the others to appropriate:—

‘The measure of Property, Nature has well set, by the Extent of Mens Labour, and the Conveniency of Life: No Mans Labour 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, or acquire, to himself, a Property, to the Prejudice of his Neighbour, who would still have room, for as good, and as large a Possession (after the other had taken out his) as before it was appropriated.’[8]

By taking the natural limit of appropriation into account, one will be able to see that the act of spilling a can of tomato juice into the English Channel would not confer the owner of that can of juice the property right to the azure main, but is merely a foolish spoilage.

As I have mentioned in the beginning, the right to appropriation is asserted in the cause of the nourishment of all of mankind—the aim of which is self-preservation[9]. For Locke reckons the it is a natural right for man to subsist[10]—all man is entitled, by the law of nature, the right to his preservation, whence it follows that not only are they entitled to the means to their own preservation, but they should care about the preservation of mankind as a whole as well, for that is what the law of nature dictates:—

‘It will perhaps be objected to this, that if gathering the Acorns, or other fruits of the earth, &c. makes a right to them, then any one may ingross as much as he will. To which I answer, Not so. The same Law of Nature, that does by this means give us Property, does also bound that Property too. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. vi. 17. is the Voice of Reason confirmed by Inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a Property in: Whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.’[11]

Locke states very clearly and somehow categorically that spoilage should not be allowed in the course of utilisation of natural resources, even if it has been appropriated as one’s private property, for one’s right to appropriation and private property is confined to the fiat of the law of nature—all natural resources, for example ‘the acorns and other fruits of the earth’, should only be utilised to one’s ‘advantage of life’, which is revealed and defined by one’s reason. That being granted, we perhaps would be able to see that Locke has indeed given a very categorical definition as to what are the prerequisites and rules of appropriation—one that leaves very little, if any, room for interpretations. Despite the fact that Locke did not explicate explicitly his account of ‘reasonableness’, one should still perhaps get the idea of it: that being ‘reasonable’ denotes a lifestyle that, apart from fulfilling the conditions of self-preservation, provides oneself an adequate and up-to-par level of enjoyment. To what extent the level of enjoyment Locke considers as legitimate remains an obscurity, but one can perhaps say with confidence that it excludes profligacy—because profligate use of natural resources would deprive the others the right to avail themselves of that very resources. And in the context given by Nozick, the act of emptying a can of tomato juice into the English Channel should not confer anyone who did it the property right to the Channel, based on the fact that pouring a can of tomato juice into the Channel constitutes spoilage and should not be considered as a legitimate utilisation of property right—for it does not amount to proper ‘mixture of labour’ in the context of ‘self-preservation’. The Lockean Proviso is ascribed to the law of nature, whose fiat dictates that property right is asserted based on the right to subsistence (life per se) and enjoyment (the well-being and the furtherance of life). As Drury puts it: ‘the right to property remains subordinate to and limited by the right of life.’[12]

I shall add one more point to my argument against Nozick’s critique of Locke’s theory of acquisition before concluding the essay: he seems to have omitted the fact that what Locke has put forward in the proviso concerns only the appropriation of property right in the ‘first Ages of the world’, in which property rights are not in existence and men are naturally endowed with nothing but the ‘right to himself’; in such a world only the law of nature is in reign and the fiat of which dictates every human activity insofar as legitimacy and rights are concerned. Nozick’s perplexities regarding the Lockean proviso spring, seemingly, from his failure to distinguish between the ‘first’ and later ages of the world. The theory of appropriation by labour is not applicable at all times, for it is intended to show merely how property rights emanate from the fiat of the law of nature in the first ages of the world. In the modern age, natural right is not the sole justification, nor is it a sufficient condition for appropriation of properties. Even if it is considered in the context of the ‘first Ages of the world’, Nozick’s austere interpretation of the proviso in which he regards the mixture of one’s labour, together with the ‘enough and as good’ rule (in terms of the resources as such), constitutes the sufficient condition for appropriation from the nature cannot be valid as well: for it constitutes merely an ‘Inus’ condition of appropriation, i.e., an insufficient but necessary part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition[13]: the insufficient part being overlooking the ‘enough and as good’ doctrine in terms of appropriation, instead of the resources themselves; it constitutes part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition of appropriation in the sense that (i) it is sufficient—being justified on the basis of the laws of nature, but (ii) unnecessary—‘right to appropriation’ being secondary to the more fundamental ‘right to life’.

In conclusion, as we can see, mixing one’s labour with something, according to the Lockean proviso, does not make one the owner of it, because it is a necessary but insufficient condition for the appropriation of resources. Nozick is wrong to criticise Locke with his austere interpretation of the proviso. Apart from ‘mixture of labour’, the right to appropriation in the ‘first Ages of the world’ requires that ‘enough and as good’ is left for the others to appropriate, and the fiat of the laws of nature in the sense that the appropriation is for the advantage of life, which includes the right to subsistence and enjoyment.

[1] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974), 174-175.

[2] Genesis 1:1 (KJV).

[3] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 293 (II, §36)

[4] Locke, Op. cit., 287-288 (II, § 27).

[5] Locke, Op. cit., 286 (II, § 26).

[6] Locke, Op. cit., 287-288 (II, § 27).

[7] S. B. Drury, ‘Locke and Nozick on Property,’ in John Locke: Critical Assessments, Vol. III, ed. Richard Ashcrift (London: Routledge, 1991), 499-500.

[8] Locke, Second Treatise, 292 (§36).

[9] Jeremy Walfron, ‘Enough and as Good Left for Others,’ Philosophy Quarterly, 29 (1979), 325.

[10] Locke, Op. cit., 271 (§6).

[11] Locke, Op. cit., 290 (§31).

[12] Drury, Op. cit., 507.

[13] J. L. Mackie, ‘Causes and Conditions’. American Philosophical Quarterly, 12(1965): 245–65.



Drury, S. B. ‘Locke and Nozick on Property.’ In John Locke: Critical Assessments, Vol. III. Edited by Richard Ashcrift. London: Routledge, 1991), 495-510.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mackie, J. L. ‘Causes and Conditions.’ American Philosophical Quarterly, 12 (1965): 245–65

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974.

Walfron, Jeremy. ‘Enough and as Good Left for Others.’ Philosophy Quarterly, 29 (1979), 319-328.

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