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‘Guards and fences’: property and obligation in Locke's political thought

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Property and political obligation are central issues of Locke's Two Treatises of Government. It is agreed that obligation is somehow contingent upon the government's protecting the property of its members. But ‘property’ in the Two Treatises had two meanings — in the state of nature usually referring to material possessions but in civil society meaning ‘life, liberty and estate’ — and its relationship to political obligation is complex. This complexity results from Locke's varying accounts of the movement from the state of nature to civil society: he combined a traditional natural law justification of ownership with a legalist and semi-Aristotelian conception of the ends of and limitations on the state; he failed to provide a full account of the obligation of landless residents; he left unsettled difficulties inherent in the concept ‘property’ itself. Locke's notions of ‘trust’ and the ‘public good’ pointed to solutions to be worked out by future generations.

Keywords: "‘life, liberty, and estate’; Locke, John; Wood, Neal; consent; political obligation; property; state of nature

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Political Science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901.

Publication date: March 1, 2000

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