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

Adam Mossoff

George Mason University School of Law

January 11, 2012

Social Philosophy and Policy, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2012
George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 12-02

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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 35

Keywords: patents, copyrights, political theory, ethics, value theory, Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Services, libertarianism, market, William Landes, C.B. Macpherson, Henry George, Isaac Newton, James Tully, Jeremy Waldron, Richard Ashcraft, Richard Posner

JEL Classification: A14, B12, B15, B19, B31, K11, O34

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Date posted: January 13, 2012 ; Last revised: June 14, 2012

Suggested Citation

Mossoff, Adam, Saving Locke from Marx: The Labor Theory of Value in Intellectual Property Theory (January 11, 2012). Social Philosophy and Policy, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2012; George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 12-02. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1983614

Contact Information

Adam Mossoff (Contact Author)
George Mason University School of Law ( email )
3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States
703-993-9577 (Phone)

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