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A Modern Link to Locke

October 26, 2010

“Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that 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.” 

In a world of complex real estate titles, extensive property laws and rules of estate, Locke’s views on property may often seem unrealistic and old-fashioned.  That is to say, in today’s world, how is it acceptable in any way to assume that simply by you physically working for something, makes it yours?  That, as long as there’s enough for everyone to share, you can take whatever you need?

 Surprisingly, Locke maintains a firm grasp on a peculiar field of real estate law—a policy called adverse selection. describes adverse selection as follows: 

“If a person moves into possession of property, improves it and possesses it in a public manner, then after a certain amount of time he will acquire title to the property even though it is actually owned by someone else.”

 This law ties in with a fundamental concept of Locke’s—that property (and land specifically) should be given, or appropriated, to the “industrious and rational”, and that there are few things worse than squandered productivity—waste (295).  So, if someone moves onto a plot of land that was of no benefit to the community at large, and makes it productive (i.e., improves the value or appeal of the neighborhood), that person has a right to claim it as his or her own. 

 In Michigan, in order to obtain any amount of property under adverse possession, you would have to maintain it for a statutory period of 15 years.  But after that time, as long as you partook in no “secretive possession”, that land would legally be yours.  As a direct result of your labor, and your labor having maintained—and even increased—the value of the acreage, it is yours to appropriate.  In other words, Locke’s theories of property are, to some extent, still relevant today in a very real sense!

  1. Taylor Fields permalink
    October 26, 2010 1:19 PM

    Your blog was interesting, I never knew anything like this existed. First, it has to be recognized there is an undeniable amount of risk in this. 15 years is a LONG time, who is to say after 14 years and 9 months of effort, the rightful owner returns and claims his or her land. When attempting to acquire land not rightfully yours, the risk almost out weighs the gain.

    I think its also interesting to note that many neighborhoods/ communities require lawn maintenance, homogenous mail boxes, and house up keep. In my neighborhood, though we purchased the land, built the house, we are still required to subscribe to a lawn, garbage, recycling, snow plow, and chemical service to maintain the look of our home. We can do these things on our own as well, but regardless of how it is accomplished, it is mandatory. We have to put constant work in our property to make presentable, we have to put constant work to ‘earn’ our land. This is a modern twist from Locke: rather than put work into the land to receive the land, we must put work into our property to keep our property in our possession.

  2. Trevor Cookler permalink
    October 26, 2010 6:23 PM

    Interesting ideas about property. I like the comment above talking about what if the rightful owner comes back 14 years and 9 months later to claim the land, that after that amount of time it has surely been renovated tenfold. I would agree that this risk 100% outweighs the gain.

    I can’t remember a time where I saw land or a property that was just vacated for 15 years, let alone a year. Most places or city ordinances take over these properties and find some way to change them up and eventually open them up to the public again. In terms of Locke’s theory of putting effort into something to make it yours: I sort of believe this is still true today. There is a grey line as to what one considers to be effort. Someone cannot simply hop a neighbors fence, grab something from their backyard, hop back over the fence and call it theirs…But if its an apple in a tree thats open to public I would say that circumstance is fine.

    In terms of everything else in life, if one wants to acquire something they need to earn it. It’s true that if you put effort and labor into something you may earn it or deserve it but this is not always true just like in the example above. I hope to someday in the future own my own land that will certainly never be left alone for more than 15 years! Insightful post.

  3. Cesar Ruiz permalink
    October 27, 2010 12:47 AM

    It appears very interesting, yet to some extent somewhat justifiable. If someone owns a part of land, it would be understood that they care for it and “want” it. If they have the land and yet leave it to deteriorate and fall apart, then they are appearing to not care. If another individual takes that land and cares for it and carefully maintains it, it could be “somewhat understood” that they could justify to get it.
    The main thing that we have to understand is that the original owner gave up something in order to attain it (most likely some monetary value). If the actual owner paid to have the land, then it is “lawfully” as well as rightfully theirs. Regardless of whether they care or not for that land, they paid for it and it is theirs! They can do whatever they please with what belongs to them.
    Locke seems to make the point that land was made for all, to enjoy, preserve, and labour. The land we have is here for us to labour. Labour can mainly be understood as “work”. Though the second person “worked” on the land to perfect and literally augment it in value, the original owner must have labored to some extent in order to get a hold of the land they own. This argument leads to the idea that since the land must be labored for, the owner must have worked to attain their property, which then gives way for the owner to do as they please with what they worked for!

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