Locke's Labor Lost
9 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2003
Although John Locke's political philosophy has had an enormous impact on American politics and law, his theory of property is derided by many contemporary scholars as "absurd," "incoherent," "meaningless," and "a joke." It is alleged that "mixing labor" cannot explain why Robert Nozick has not foolishly wasted his (radioactive) tomato juice that he dumps into the ocean, and why Jeremy Waldron cannot claim ownership in a block of cement in which he has dropped his sandwich. Locke's labor argument for property is omnipresent in American policy debates, but today it is often relegated to the status of mere rhetoric or it serves only as a foil for a more "sophisticated" understanding of the nature of property rights.
This article proposes an interpretation of Locke's property theory that rescues it from the intellectual trash bin in which it has been discarded. A proper understanding of the arguments in Chapter Five of the Second Treatise requires that one first place them within their intellectual context - specifically, the context set by Locke's moral philosophy. From this perspective, it is apparent that "mixing labor" is a metaphor that Locke employs to capture the full panoply of productive activities that are morally sanctioned by an individual's primary moral duty: the preservation of one's life. When one interprets Locke's property theory within this framework, the other elements of his property theory, such as his explanation for the development of money and the labor theory of value, fit easily into place, creating an internally consistent and fully integrated conception of the genesis and nature of property. This is significant because early Americans used Locke's theory to justify our political and legal property rules - and the continuing evolution of these rules today may benefit from their original Lockean justification.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation