John Locke subscribed to the view that God gave man the earth and everything on it to use for his own benefit. Thus, our planet can be thought of as common property, belonging to all of us. However, since we all are distinct individuals, we have the right to property in one respect - we do own ourselves, and may enjoy whatever benefits our labors produce.
In Locke's view, private property is created when value is added to that which was formerly unimproved. Common property then becomes personal property. For example, if a man expends the time and energy needed to pick a bushel of apples, then the apples literally become his. They become something entirely new by virtue of being acting upon by his labor - no longer are they merely apples, but instead become apples that have been picked. However, there are limits to how much of the earth's riches one has the right to accumulate. According to Locke, "nothing was made by God for men to spoil or destroy" and therefore, one is prohibited from taking more than their fair share, i.e., more than it is possible to use.
Fundamentally, though, Locke feels that private ownership of property is justified. He extends his argument to land as well as to material possessions and goods, excluding, of course, land that has been set aside specifically by law as common property. In his opinion, the common welfare is not decreased, but increased when individuals labor to "till, plant, improve, cultivate, and use the product of" land that they lay claim to as their own. Land which is cultivated is more productive than land which is not.
Nowhere does Locke exhibit concern about there not being enough land for all individuals to use what they need. This is understandable, since when he was writing in the mid-seventeenth century, there was little need to worry about overpopulation or the earth having finite resources in danger of being used up. With this in mind, it is easy to see why Locke feels the size of a man's estate should not be subject to regulation, only that nothing should be allowed to perish uselessly while in one's possession. His conception of property properly put to use includes that which is bartered with others for mutually beneficial ends. Again, the important thing to remember is that acquired property must be put to use in order to benefit the common good.
Locke saw one of the main purposes of government to be the preservation and regulation of individuals' property rights within a society. He believed there were limits to how much a government could interfere with such property rights.
Locke's conception of property is radical because it justifies the accumulation of private property, yet realizes that it can only be beneficial to all if the wealth acquired by individuals is put to good use. If Locke were alive today, I think he would consider most of the wealthiest individuals in our society guilty of misusing their naturally given and socially sanctioned property rights, for two reasons. Firstly, because the sheer magnitude of their overconsumption approaches obscenity in comparison to the impoverished standards of living most people in the world are forced to suffer under every day. If some of the very rich today are not guilty of accumulating more than they need, then no one has ever done so, in the entire history of mankind. Secondly, because much of the wealth the truly rich acquire is not put to any use, but accumulated simply for the sake of accumulation.
I do not think that Locke would find fault only with the lifestyles of our country's very rich. Just as they enjoy a far greater share of our society's riches than most ordinary Americans, so do the rest of us live beyond our means compared to the rest of the world. We are no different in this respect than other late-twentieth century inhabitants of the industrialized nations. In some ways, the first world resembles a multi-tentacled cancer eating away at the planet, selfishly siphoning resources from other regions and peoples.
Overall, the standard of living our nation enjoys is extremely comfortable. What are we, as average wasteful Americans, to do? How can we change our consumptive habits in order that we might stop living at the expense of others we share our world with? The challenge is to get people to think more responsibly about the consumption choices we make in our everyday lives.
It is fast becoming clear that we can no longer afford to maintain the fast paced, cutting edge consumer lifestyles that characterize life in our society today. The many modern conveniences and technological advances that we have surrounded ourselves with - are they all truly necessary, or designed solely with manufacturers' profit-making in mind? Substantive change will only come about when people also bring pressure to bear upon corporations to adopt socially responsible production methods and market non-wasteful products. Then, and only then, will we inhabit a world in which property rights play a supporting role in treating our earth and our fellow men with the respect that both deserve.