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

It is because so many others have labored, and appropriated through their labor, that so many people can have projects far beyond mere subsistence. Indeed, for Locke the need to leave sufficient goods available to others is the best news about labor. (p.317)


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


On Locke

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