For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"John Locke and the labor theory of value"

by Vaughn, Karen I (1978)


It is taken for granted by most economists and political philosophers that John Locke was in some sense a precursor of the labor theories of value of the nineteenth century British Classical School and of Karl Marx, yet there is a wide divergence of opinion on how Locke's work anticipated and influenced the work of later political economists. In large part this difference of opinion stems from a disagreement among historians of economic thought over how to interpret Locke himself on the subject of labor and economic value. The only point of agreement is that, in his major political essay, the Second Treatise of Government,[" Locke developed a theory of property which showed some relationship between labor and economic value. Historians of economic thought cannot agree on the significance of this relationship or on how Locke's ideas on labor and value are related to his supply and demand theory of market price in his economic writings. It has been argued, for example, that Locke had the beginnings of a theory of the exploitation of labor, that he provided a labor theory of value in the long run to supplement his supply and demand theory of price in the short run, that he presented the "metaphysical justification" for the nineteenth century labor theory of value, and that he had no labor theory of value at all.

Key Passage

Although Locke certainly did not envision any consistent exploitation of poor wage earners by malevolent wage payers, Karl Marx nevertheless saw in Locke the beginnings of a theory of surplus value. To Marx, one didn't have to postulate the existence of evil employers in order for labor to be exploited; exploitation was inherent in the system which permitted unequal property ownership. [...] According to Marx, the source of exploitation in Locke's system is the unequal distribution of wealth that arose in the state of nature and was perpetuated in civil society. (p.320)


Locke. Early Modern, History, Political Economy, Labor Theories Of Value, Marx


On Locke

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