Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 909–923 | Cite as

Beyond Frontier Town: Do Early Modern Theories of Property Apply to Capitalist Economies?

  • Katharina NieswandtEmail author


The theories of Locke, Hume and Kant dominate contemporary philosophical discourse on property rights. This is particularly true of applied ethics, where they are used to settle issues from biotech patents to managerial obligations. Within these theories, however, the usual criticisms of private property aren’t even as much as intelligible. Locke, Hume and Kant, I argue, develop claims about property on a model economy that I call “Frontier Town.” They and contemporary authors then apply these claims to capitalist economies. There are two problems with this application: First, we’ll be considering the wrong kind of property: The only property in Frontier Town are means of life. Critics, however, object to property in concentrated capital because they associate only this kind of property with economic coercion and political power. Second, the two economies differ in central features, so that very different claims about empirical consequences and hence about fairness and merit will be plausible for each. This second problem, I argue, is a consequence of the first. I conclude that Frontier Town theories are more likely to distort than to illuminate property issues in capitalist economies.


Property rights State of nature Capital Locke Hume Kant 



I am deeply grateful to the many colleagues who commented on earlier versions of this paper at various conferences. I am particularly indebted to Ulf Hlobil, Pablo Gilabert, Peter Dietsch, David Borman, Elijah Millgram, Arash Abizadeh and two anonymous reviewers.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada

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