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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    This argument bears similarities to the following criticisms of the liberal concept of property: Macpherson’s (1962) historical analysis of its 17th-century foundations; Christman’s (1994) distinction between “control ownership” and “income ownership” and the different justifications for these; Gourevitch’s (2013) criticism of the neo-republican concept of domination as ignoring the structural domination at the workplace that developed with industrial capitalism; and Graeber’s (2011, ch. 2) “Myth of Barter” as the origin of our contemporary understanding of markets.

  2. 2.

    The only notable exception is the 14th-century debate on poverty between Dominicans and Franciscans.

  3. 3.

    A notable exception is Rousseau’s SecondDiscourse, Part 2.

  4. 4.

    It could be mere survival, or a certain minimal quality of life (examples would be defenses of a universal basic income from basic human needs, such as Murray 2008, or of basic rights from capabilities, such as Nussbaum 2006), or it could be the ability to preserve what characterizes you as a person ( Radin 1993a, b), or some type of equality or of freedom (e.g., Parijs 1995)—to name just a few options.

  5. 5.

    One of the very few counter-examples might be Plato (Republic 416-424). Even here, however, interpreters disagree about whether this ’communism’ is to be implemented for all citizens or only for the guardians.

  6. 6.

    See Christman (1994, ch. 7) for a contemporary treatment of this idea.

  7. 7.

    This includes economists who advocate “free markets.” Hayek (2011, pp. 381–3), e.g., regards capital concentrations (or: “monopolies”) and the resulting coercion as market failures and allows government regulations that prevent their occurrence, such as anti-trust laws.

  8. 8.

    There is a grim, Hobbesian version of this consequentialism, according to which the current situation might be lamentable but still better than its catastrophic alternatives (read: Soviet planning), and an optimistic version, on which the rising tide of capitalism will lift all boats and furthermore diminish inequalities in the long run. (A famous example is “Kuznet’s Curve,” see Kuznets 1955.)

  9. 9.

    Note again that this does not mean that there is no capital in Frontier Town; it merely means that there is no concentrated capital. As per my earlier definition (p. 6), non-concentrated capital is a constituent of means of life.

  10. 10.

    Thus, Graeber (2011, ch. 2) lists examples from contemporary economic textbooks that all start by taking “us to what appears to be an imaginary New England or Midwestern Town,” and he complains that it is difficult “to locate[] this fantasy in time and space” (p. 23) because it does not resemble any actual society studied by anthropologists or described in historical records. (For an analysis of the anthropological accuracy of Locke’s property theory, see Widerquist and McCall 2017, ch. 4). For my argument, it suffices that Frontier Town differs significantly from capitalist economies.

  11. 11.

    The hackneyed super-wages (Markovits, under contract) are statistically a rare phenomenon (Piketty 2013, pp. 50-53), and firm shares bought from middle-class wages (usually indirectly, through pension funds) do not fulfill my definition of “concentrated capital” (see Section 4).

  12. 12.

    One possible interpretation that will not be discussed, e.g., is that all three authors only defend some property regime over remaining in the state of nature. They all specify a regime to adopt, and Locke and Kant believe that we already have property rights respectively a proto-version of these in the state of nature.

  13. 13.

    The mention of a servant in the respective passages should not be misunderstood as meant to indicate a class society—just as the mention of a slave by Hume (in the passage cited in Section 9 below), who also occurs in a list alongside cattle. Neither the Lockean servant nor the Humean slave are included in the group of people who adopt the social practice of property and form the state. They are part of the property.

  14. 14.

    Note that Locke’s argument here is an early predecessor of Kuznet’s Curve (see fn. 8).

  15. 15.

    Hervaeus Natalis, De paupertate Christi et apostolorum. For an English translation, see Jones (2005).

  16. 16.

    This tradition might explain why most historical authors accept property in means of life (see Section 4).

  17. 17.

    See, e.g., the special issue (vol. 22) “Kant and Marx” of the Kantian Review.


  1. Baier AC (1987) The need for more than justice. Can J Philos 17(sup1):41–56

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Breitenbach A (2005) Kant goes fishing: Kant and the right to property in environmental resources. Stud History Philos Science Part C 36(3):488–512

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) (2015) Do we need GM crops to feed the World?

  4. Center for Food Safety (CFS) & Save Our Seeds (SOS) (2013) Seed giants vs. US farmers.

  5. Christman J (1994) The myth of property: toward an egalitarian theory of ownership. Oxford University Press

  6. Gilabert P (2010) Kant and the claims of the poor. Philos Phenomenol Res 81 (2):382–418

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Gourevitch A (2013) Labor republicanism and the transformation of work. Polit Theory 41:4

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Graeber D (2011) Debt: the first 5,000 years. Melville House

  9. Hasan R (2018) Freedom and poverty in the Kantian state. Eur J Philos 26 (3):911–931

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hayek FA (2011) The constitution of liberty: the definitive edition. The collected works of F. A. Hayek. University of Chicago Press

  11. Held V (2005) The ethics of care, personal, political, and global. Oxford University Press

  12. Herzog L (2014) Eigentumsrechte im Finanzsystem. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 62(3)

  13. Hume D (2000) A treatise of human nature: being an attempt to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects. Ed. by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton. With an introduction, annotations, glossary and an index. Oxford University Press

  14. Jasay A (2004) Property and its enemies. Philosophy 79(1):57–66

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Jones JD (2005) Hervaeus Natalis’ the poverty of Christ and the Apostles. A translation, with introduction and notes. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies

  16. Kant I (1909) Metaphysik der Sitten. In: Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften (ed). Kants gesammelte Schriften, vol 6. Reimer, pp 200–494

  17. Kuznets S (1955) Economic growth and income inequality. Am Econ Rev 45 (1):1–28

    Google Scholar 

  18. Lindsay IK (2014) A Humean theory of property rights. University of Michigan, Ph.D. thesis

    Google Scholar 

  19. Locke J (1823) An essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government. In: The works of John Locke, vol 5. Tegg, pp 338–489

  20. Macpherson CB (1962) The political theory of possessive individualism. Hobbes to Locke, Clarendon

    Google Scholar 

  21. Mancilla A (2015) A can of tomato juice in the sea. Philos Now 107:20–21

    Google Scholar 

  22. Mansell S (2013) Shareholder theory and Kant’s duty of beneficence. J Bus Ethics 117(3):583–599

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Markovits D (under contract) Snowball inequality: meritocracy and the crisis of capitalism. Harvard University Press

  24. Marx K, Engels F (1962) Das Kapital, vol 1. In: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (ed), Werke, vol 23. Dietz

  25. Murphy L, Nagel T (2002) The myth of ownership. Oxford University Press

  26. Murray C (2008) Guaranteed income as a replacement for the welfare state. Basic Income Stud 3(2):article 6

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Nussbaum MC (2006) Frontiers of justice: disability, nationality, species membership. Tanner lectures on human values. Belknap

  28. Parijs Pv (1995) Real freedom for all: what (if anything) can justify capitalism? Clarendon

  29. Peterson J (2008) Lockean property and literary works. Legal Theory 14(4):257–280

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Piketty T (2013) Le capital au XXIe siècle. Éditions du Seuil

  31. Proudhon P-J (1840) Qu’est-ce que la propriété? Recherches sur le principle du droit et du gouvernement. Prévot

  32. Radin MJ (1993a) Property and personhood. In: Reinterpreting property. Chicago University Press, pp 35–71

  33. Radin MJ (1993b) Residential rent control. In: Reinterpreting property. Chicago University Press, pp 72–97

  34. Ripstein A (2009) Force and freedom: Kant’s legal and political philosophy. Harvard University Press

  35. Shrader-Frechette K (2005) Property rights and genetic engineering: developing nations at risk. Sci Eng Ethics 11(1):137–149

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Smith A (1784) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, 4th edn. Strahan & Cadell

  37. Sterckx S (2006) The moral justifiability of patents. Ethical Perspect 13(2):249–265

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Varden H (2012) A Kantian critique of the care tradition: family law and systemic justice. Kantian Rev 17(2):327–356

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Waldron J (1994) The advantages and difficulties of the Humean theory of property. Soc Philos Policy 11(2):85–123

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Waldron J (2013) To bestow stability upon possession: Hume’s alternative to Locke. In: Penner J, Smith H (eds) Philosophical foundations of property law. Oxford University Press

  41. Westphal KR (2016) How Hume and 7Kant reconstruct natural law: justifying strict objectivity without debating moral realism. Clarendon

  42. Widerquist K, McCall GS (2017) Prehistoric myths in modern political philosophy. Edinburgh University Press

  43. Wittgenstein L (2009) Philosophische Untersuchungen / philosophical investigations, 4th edn. The German text with a revised English translation by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Blackwell

  44. Wood AW (2007) Kantian ethics. Cambridge University Press

Download references


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.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katharina Nieswandt.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Nieswandt, K. Beyond Frontier Town: Do Early Modern Theories of Property Apply to Capitalist Economies?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 909–923 (2019).

Download citation


  • Property rights
  • State of nature
  • Capital
  • Locke
  • Hume
  • Kant