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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: April 2017

4 - John Locke and the Hobbesian Hypothesis: How a Similar Colonial Prejudice Became an Essential Premise in the Most Popular Justification of Private Property Rights


Locke (1960: “Second Treatise,” §25–§51) had a more agreeable view of the state of nature than Hobbes, but Locke had his own version of the Hobbesian hypothesis. He agreed with the Hobbesian idea that even the most disadvantaged people in England in their century were better off than even the most advantaged people in societies that had neither sovereign governments nor private landownership (§37, §41). He gave most of the credit to the property rights system rather than to the state, but like Hobbes, he compared societies with both institutions against societies with neither. Unlike Hobbes, Locke separately justified government and private property, using what we call a Lockean proviso and a Hobbesian hypothesis in both, thus introducing the hypothesis to a very different area of debate (Widerquist 2010b).

Section 1 shows how Locke's state of nature differs from Hobbes's version. Section 2 explains Locke's “appropriation theory” of private property. Section 3 shows how the proviso works in this theory. Section 4 shows how Locke uses his version of the Hobbesian hypothesis in that theory. Section 5 discusses the evidence he provided for that claim. Section 6 concludes with a summary of the relevant part of the Lockean argument.


Unlike Hobbes, Locke used social contract theory to justify a limited government, constrained by natural rights including property rights.

This effort to create a hybrid theory requires a separate justification of the rights that limit the contract and an explanation why people do not alienate those rights when they enter the state. Hobbes had no need for a separate justification of property or any other rights, because people alienate all rights when they accept the social contract. His absolutist sovereign can make any law it wants, including laws defining or redefining property (Hobbes 1962 [1651]: 113–17, 201).

Unlike the Hobbesian state of nature's moral free-for-all, the Lockean state of nature had specific moral rights, including the right of selfdefense and the right to punish those who infringe one's rights (§6–§8). Because people are bad judges in their own cases, self-enforcement of rights leads to conflicts (§13), but not to a Hobbesian war of all-againstall. Conflict and other inconveniences of the state of nature give people sufficient reason to agree to a social contract (§13, §25–§44).