For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Locke on Land and Labor"

by Russell, Daniel (2004)


Bread is the staff of life. So what makes its existence possible? Well, people make bread from the fruits of the land, so it takes two things to make bread: productive people and fruitful land. But what sort of contributions to our bread do land and labor make? Does one make a greater contribution to our bread? Do they make the same kind of contribution? John Locke raises these questions in the fifth chapter of the Second Treatise of Government, and argues that labor is by far the greater contributor to our bread than land is. This is an extraordinary claim: how can labor be more responsible for production than land is, since labor cannot produce anything by itself? Of what does labor contribute "more" than land does? How can labor be what creates usable things, since expending great effort on something is often neither necessary nor sufficient for making it more useful? I argue that Locke's claim about labor is not only extraordinary, but also deeply insightful. My approach shall be threefold. First, I argue that a well-known criticism of Locke in G.A. Cohen's article, "Marx and Locke on Land and Labour," fails to grasp Locke's insight about labor, and fails in instructive ways. Second, I show what Locke's view of the nature of labor is, and why it is insightful. Finally, I show how this insight overcomes many of the most common, and most worrisome, objections to Locke's labor theory of value.

Key Passage

Labor and materials both make necessary contributions to our resources, but their contributions are radically different in kind: labor is not one factor among the many that go into the production of some good, but the very special factor that directs, coordinates, and organizes all the other factors in order to meet goals that they cannot meet on their own. Locke's point is that some of bread's necessary conditions are quite different from others, since there is something special about actually making it. For this reason labor is not just "working" on something. Notice that in Locke's bread example the products of one activity are the materials of another - the miner's product becomes the smith's material, whose product in turn becomes the plowman's material, and so on- -and all of these activities must converge to yield certain sorts of products, and yield them in the ways in which we need them. In this example labor creates valuable resources because its very purpose is to produce not just anything, but something that we can use. Direction is the essence of labor; working in just any old way, then, will not be labor.  (p.311)


Locke, Early Modern, Marx, Labour Theory Of Value, Political Economy, History


On Locke

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