For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Saving Locke from Marx: The Labor Theory of Value in Intellectual Property Theory"

by Mossoff, Adam (2012)


The labor theory of value is fundamental to John Locke’s justification for property rights, but philosopher Edwin Hettinger argued in an oft-cited article that it fails to justify intellectual property rights. In making this critique, though, Hettinger redefined Locke’s theory into a theory about proportional physical labor creating economic value, just as Robert Nozick, G.A. Cohen and other philosophers have done. In response to this strawman attack, this article describes Locke’s labor theory of value and how Locke himself applied it to intellectual property rights. It does so by analyzing the actual text of the Second Treatise, including many forgotten or neglected sections, and by integrating Locke’s property theory within the context of his natural law ethical theory, as presented in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and in other works. In its proper context, Locke’s concept of labor refers to production, which is both an intellectual and physical activity. His concept of value refers to what serves the flourishing life of a rational being, which is a conception of the good that is more robust than merely physical status or economic wealth. Locke’s own text and philosophical arguments answer the absurdities imposed on him by Hettinger, Nozick, Cohen and others. Even more important, understanding his labor theory of value explains why Locke expressly approves of inventions in his property theory and why he explicitly argues that authors have property rights (copyrights) in their writings, which are arguments that are seemingly lost on his modern critics.

Key Passage

The products of value-creating, productive labor comprise both intellectual and physical values—and thus they represent the dominion that follows from man’s nature as an “intellectual creature.” This is why Locke recognizes the moral validity of an author’s property right in controlling copies of books. In his full-throated defense of property rights in the Second Treatise, he identifies “Inventions and Arts,” as exemplars of his theory of how property arises from the value-creating, productive labor of the “Rational and Industrious.” His approval of what we now call intellectual property rights is no more tenuous than it is oblique. It is for this reason that many early American judges and commentators found it natural to look to Locke’s natural rights philosophy for the moral justification in securing the rights of inventors, authors and other creators of intellectual property in the nineteenth century. (p.50)


Locke, History, Property, Marx, Seventeenth Century, Labor, Political Economy, Natural Law


On Locke

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