Locke believed that the logical origins of property lie in the fact that we are not by nature slaves and thus have ownership of our own labour. When we combine our labour with the "common treasury" of resources provided to us in nature, we create property. So, for example, if I pick an apple from a wild tree, I have combined my labour (the picking) with the common treasury (the wild tree) and thus created property (my apple).
Thus, property exists conceptually prior to states – we could have property (as opposed to mere possessions) even in a stateless wilderness. The state does not create property. Instead, it creates property rights – in other words, the state protects my property. This – the protection of property – is one of the key reasons we club together to form states.
Locke is, of course, the cardinal philosopher of the classical Whigs (indeed, his mentor was the founder of the Whig Party). Later Whigs, such as Burke, developed Locke's philsophy of property further into the Conservative theory.
A key question – in many ways the key political dividing line of the twentieth century – is whether it is morally legitimate to profit from property at all and, if so, whether it is as legitimate to profit from property as from labour. It stretches matters only a little to say that a Communist is someone that denies it is legitimate to profit from property at all, whilst a Socialist believes that profit from labour is intrinsically more just than profit from property.
If it is entirely unjust to profit from property, or at least less just than profiting from labour, Capitalism is ethically indefensible. For Capitalism is, by definition, the separation of the provision of investment capital from the management of firms – i.e. the separation of ownership of profits from the task of generating those profits. A Conservative – a defender of the ethical status of property – must by definition believe that it is no less morally just to profit from property than to profit from labour. A Socialist must, by definition, deny this.
A Conservative can, of course, harmlessly accept the existence of non-capitalist enterprises such as workers' cooperatives. Indeed, in respect of the theory of property, a Conservative could even entertain the notion that workers cooperatives could generally be more efficient than capitalist enterprises (though other Conservative doctrines, such as that of the role of Sin in human nature, would make accepting this claim more problematic).
But no Conservative could accept either the ethical proposition that a workers cooperative is a more just form of economic organisation than a capitalist firm, nor entertain sympathetically any proposal that required all firms to be workers cooperatives or used any instrument of the state (taxpayer subsidies, regulation) to encourage all firms to be workers cooperatives.
Belief in private property has other implications, also. If property is truly private, as opposed to my holding it on license from the state, it is not, fundamentally, for the state to tell me how I should use it. For example, if property is truly mine, I am under no general ethical obligation to deploy it fairly. I do not, for example, have to spread my chocolate bar purchases evenly over all nearby corner shops. If I want to give some of my property away to a charity, I can choose which one – I do not have to be fair in my selection of a charity; the property is mine to use as I please.
This (usually neglected) point is important in our understanding of equalities rules. My property being mine, I am under no general ethical obligation to use it evenly across races, sexes, ages, gender orientations, religions, obesity levels or in any other similar way. As a general proposition, it follows directly from the Conservative concept of private property that I am entitled to use it only on members of my own race, or only on women, or only on a particular religious group. This general proposition applies equally to my use of my property in the ownership of firms as to its use in other purchasing decisions – as a general proposition, I should be able to hire whomever I choose with my private property.
Now, this general proposition (that my private property is mine to use as I see fit) might be defeated, on narrow and particular occasions, by other considerations. For example, an officer of the state (say, a policeman) might commandeer a vehicle of mine, on a particular occasion, to pursue a criminal. We might, by extension, concede there could be temporary and narrow public policy purposes that justified more general restrictions on my use of property. For example, if the government is attempting to integrate a particular ethnic group into broader society, it might require that I use my property to at least the partial benefit of that ethnic group – for example, by giving members of that group equal chances of being hired to work in my firm.
But we need to appreciate that such policy purposes can only ever be limited. Once the pursuit of the criminal is complete, my car is returned. Similarly, once the ethnic group is satisfactorily integrated, the state should cease requiring me to use my private property to the partial benefit of members of that ethnic minority – e.g. equal opportunities hiring restrictions should cease. If such restrictions are permanent, the state is denying me free use of what is mine.
Lastly, for now, we should understand that a Conservative should not believe in wealth taxes. The ethical justifications for wealth taxes are either that the state creates a property right – and so charges for enforcing it – or that all property is fuindamentally collective and only held on license by private individuals (so a charge is made for use). The state exists fundamentally to regulate activity and interaction, and to protect property. Proper laws say we must or must not do such-and-such; they do not say we must or must not be such-and-such. By regulating activities the state adds value. It is thus justifiable, in principle and in moderation, for the state to claim a portion of the value added in activities – e.g. in transactions. So the state can charge me for buying or selling something or for hiring someone.
But if the state charges me for simply owning things, it is not taking a portion of what it itself has created. Instead, it is plundering that which it exists to defend – private property. It is also impinging upon what we are – rich, poor – as opposed to what we do.
I have not covered all issues about property in this short review, but I hope I have illustrated that one's theory of property is fundamental to one's political outlook, and that this is not an idle abstraction, but goes to the heart of many contemporary political debates.