Gate with a private property sign
Ideas about and discussion of private property date back at least as far as Plato.
Prior to the 18th century, English-speakers generally used the word "property" in reference to land ownership. In England, "property" did not have a legal definition until the 17th century. Private property as commercial property was invented with the great European trading companies of the 17th century.
The issue of the enclosure of agricultural land in England, especially as debated in the 17th and 18th centuries, accompanied efforts in philosophy and political thought—by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), James Harrington (1611–1677) and John Locke (1632–1704), for example—to address the phenomenon of property ownership.
In arguing against supporters of absolute monarchy, John Locke conceptualized property as a "natural right" that God had not bestowed exclusively on the monarchy. Influenced by the rise of mercantilism, Locke argued that private property was antecedent to and thus independent of government. Locke distinguished between "common property", by which he meant open-access property; and property in consumer goods and producer-goods, the latter of which referred to land. His chief argument for property in land was improved land management and cultivation over common open-access land. Locke developed a normative theory of property rights based on labor, which stated that property is a natural result of labor improving upon nature; and thus by virtue of labor expenditure, the laborer becomes entitled to its produce.
In the 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution, the moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), in contrast to Locke, drew a distinction between the "right to property" as an acquired right and natural rights. Smith confined natural rights to "liberty and life". Smith also drew attention to the relationship between employee and employer and identified that property and civil government were dependent upon each other, recognizing that "the state of property must always vary with the form of government". Smith further argued that civil government could not exist without property, as government's main function was to safeguard property ownership.
In the 19th century, the economist and philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) provided an influential analysis of the development and history of property formations and their relationship to the technical productive forces of a given period. Marx's conception of private property has proven influential for many subsequent economic theories and for anarchist, communist and socialist political movements, and led to the widespread association of private property with capitalism.