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Property Rights in the History of Economic Thought: From Locke to J.S. Mill



This paper is designed to acquaint the reader with the historical background of the concept of property rights and several surrounding controversies by reviewing early work on property by economists and philosophers (with the main emphasis on the former). The survey focuses on significant contributions from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, setting the stage for the following chapters that reflect more recent thinking. The first section offers a critical assessment of the seventeenth-century work of John Locke which, to this day, has provoked the most intensive discussion and controversy. The second section attempts to detect Lockean natural law or natural rights components in the influential writings of Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century father of economics. The third section analyzes Jeremy Bentham’s hostile criticism of the Locke and Smith views on property and his preference for his own philosophy of “utilitarianism,” which can be summed up as the principle of the “pursuit of the greatest happiness. In addition, the third section examines the practical attempt of Bentham’s disciple, Edwin Chadwick, to achieve egalitarian legislation. The fourth section is reserved for the remarkably influential utilitarian (and egalitarian) writer, John Stuart Mill, and explores the connection between him and the “scientific socialists,” including Marx and Engels. The fifth section considers David Hume’s concentration on the initial tendencies to conflict among men and the prospects for ultimate mutual improvement and practical coexistence through market exchange. The final section offers the main conclusions.

Suggested Citation

  • Edwin G. West, 2001. "Property Rights in the History of Economic Thought: From Locke to J.S. Mill," Carleton Economic Papers 01-01, Carleton University, Department of Economics, revised 2003.
  • Handle: RePEc:car:carecp:01-01

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Crain, William Mark & Ekelund, Robert B, Jr, 1976. "Chadwick and Demsetz on Competition and Regulation," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 19(1), pages 149-162, April.
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    John Locke; Natural law; Limited liability; John Stuart Mill; Inheritance; Primogeniture;

    JEL classification:

    • B3 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought: Individuals

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