For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Locke on Property"

by Day, J P (1966)


The object of this essay is to examine Locke's justification of private property. But before proceeding to the examination, I have two preliminary points to make about its scope. On the one hand, its scope is wide, for the reason that Locke intends his justification to apply to utilities of all kinds We shall see that Locke's thesis is that every man has a right to own that which he has mixed his labour with; for which reason I call his doctrine his Labour Theory of Property (Sec. 2). Locke's examples of such mixing of labour include making a loaf of bread, picking an apple from a wild apple- tree, and cultivating a piece of hitherto virgin land. The last point calls for special notice. For many writers on property-rights draw a sharp distinction between property in artefacts on the one hand and property in the earth and its natural products on the other, and maintain that private property in these two sorts of utilities requires different justifications. Mill, for instance, agrees with Locke that the foundation of the former property- right is " the right of producers to what they themselves have produced ", but maintains that this principle cannot justify private property in land since "no man made the land ". By contrast, Locke contends that this principle does justify private property in land as well as in artefacts because working land is just one way of mixing labour with something. Hence, "As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does as it were enclose it from the common."'

Key Passage

Consider Locke's wild Indian, picking apples in some inland vacant place of America. Even though he has done all the picking, his wife and children surely have a moral right to use, i.e. eat, some of them? I suggest that the cause of Locke's mistake here is his failure to distinguish between two different senses of work. He thinks, I believe, that the passage from (2) to (3) is scarcely an " inference " at all, but simply a move from every man has a right to own his work to every man has a right to own his work, which looks irreproachable if uninteresting. But it is in fact fallacious because work does not mean the same thing in the two statements. In the former, work1 means working, labour1 or labouring. It is an activity. It is  in this sense that we speak of, say, Russell's labours. In the latter, on the other hand, work3 does not mean working. It is not an activity but an achievement, and we speak of a work rather than of plain work. It is in this sense that we talk of defensive works or Russell's works. Works3 are related to but not identical with works1. Russell's works are not identical with Russell's labours, but they are the result of them. The difference between work1 and a work3 can also be seen from the fact, which Locke himself stresses, that whereas work1 is just labourl, a work3 is labour1 mixed with land (i.e. natural resources).  (p.209)


Locke, Property, History Of Ideas, Theory Of Labor, Seventeenth Century


On Locke

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