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

For Locke, labor is a directive principle. It is what enables us to meet our needs by giving the right kind of direction to materials that do not supply that direction for themselves. As such, the contribution of labor - of creativity and direction - to the resources we produce is unique, and different in kind from the contribution that materials make. The point is not allocations, rewards, or exoneration. The point is to find a way to live together. The demand for a directive principle is a reality of the world in which we must find a way to survive. And the difference between prosperity and destitution in our world, Locke finds, is the direction our labor gives our world. (p.318)


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


On Locke

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