John Locke's Song of Praise for Work

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John Locke, in section 32 of 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (in Chapter V "Of Property") writes:

But the chief matter of property being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in and carries with it all the rest; I think it is plain, that property in that too is acquired as the former. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it for the common. Nor will it invalidate his right, to say every body else has an equal title to it; and therefore he cannot appropriate, he cannot inclose, without the consent of all his fellow-commoners, all mankind. God, when he gave the world in common to all mankind, commanded man also to labour, and the penury of his condition required it of him. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i. e. improve it for the benefit of life, and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.

I want to highlight two aspects of this chapter. First, I find John Quiggin's post "John Locke Against Freedompersuasive. John Quiggin argues as follows:

Given his reputation as a defender of property rights and personal freedom, Locke has been accused of hypocrisy for his role in promoting and benefiting from slavery and the expropriation of indigenous populations, actions that would seem to contradict his philosophical position. This is too charitable. 

The real contradictions are to be found within Locke’s philosophical writings. These are designed to fit his political positions both in England, where he supported resistance to the absolutist pretensions of the Catholic James II, and in America, where he was part of the slave-owning ruling class (albeit from afar). ...

Considered in the American context ... Locke is not offering a theory of original acquisition. Rather, his theory is one of expropriation, designed specifically to justify the “fraud and injustice” to which Hume refers.

Locke’s central idea is that agriculturalists, by mixing their labor with the soil, thereby acquire a title to it. He immediately faces the objection that before the arrival of agriculture, hunters and gatherers worked on the land and gained sustenance from it. So, it would seem, the would-be farmer has arrived too late. The obvious example, to which he refers several times, is that of European colonists arriving in America. Locke’s answer is twofold.

First, he invokes his usual claim that there is plenty of land for everybody, so appropriating some land for agriculture can’t be of any harm to the hunter-gatherers. This is obviously silly. It might conceivably be true for the first agriculturalist ... or the second or the fiftieth, but at some point the land must cease to be sufficient to support the preexisting hunter-gatherer population. ...

Locke’s real defense is that regardless of whether there is a lot or a little, uncultivated land is essentially valueless. All, or nearly all, the value, he says, comes from the efforts of the farmers who improve the land. Since God gave us the land to improve, it rightfully belongs to those who improve it.

In my post "John Locke on Diminishing Marginal Utility as a Limit to Legitimately Claiming Works of Nature as Property" I argue against the expropriation of native lands as follows:

To justify, theoretically, taking that land from the Native Americans, one would have to add the principle that when technology changes so that people need less land to support themselves, then previous land claims need to be reevaluated. In general, such a principle is a recipe for a big mess. Better to, at a minimum, require rich outsiders to purchase land as European Americans did from Native Americans in a few cases, and as the European New Zealanders did to a much greater degree from the Maori. If technology has really improved dramatically, they should be able to do so.

One of the ways that John Locke justifies both the expropriation of native lands and slaveholding is by quoting the Bible. I discuss his Biblical justification of slavery in "John Locke Treats the Bible as an Authority on Slavery." The Bible verses alluded to in section 32 that he uses to justify expropriation are Genesis 2:15, before the Fall, 

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 

and Genesis 3:17-19, after the Fall:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

From the point of view of these verses, hunter-gatherer populations were violating a command of God by not being farmers. John Locke is unfair here in counting the labor of farmers. Hunting and gathering is also labor.

Cultivation is not the only way to improve land. Land can also be "improved" by combining it with the knowledge of where to find plants to gather and animals to hunt on that land. But John Locke won't count that. 

The second aspect I want to point to is that after correcting John Locke to include all kinds of labor in improving land, not just cultivation, I do feel sympathetic to the idea that labor is not only honorable, but honorable enough to sometimes by rewarded by a claim to something that was unmade by humans, or to some of the income of things that were unmade by humans. 

One of the arguments these days for a universal basic income is that it frees people from the necessity to work, as if needing to work were an undignified imposition on people. It may be that we have somehow subtracted dignity from many forms of work, but work itself is not inherently undignified!

Some day the robots may be able to do all the work for us. But I see that day as at least 100 years off. In the meantime, much needs to be done, and we need everyone to pitch in! Instead of giving everyone a basic income without needing to work, let's give everyone a basic income as long as they do work, and make sure there is a way to work.

Personally, I like Morgan Warstler's plan for this using wage subsidies for those at the low end of the wage distribution. One way I might emend his plan is to augment the income floor for those who do government help in the form of wage subsidies by adding in some credits that can be used only to buy services from others who are also receiving this kind of government help. By that means, the poor can be encouraged to help one another by providing inexpensive services to one another, in addition to, as now, the poor providing services to the rich and the rich providing often overpriced services to the poor.

Another way it is necessary to add to Morgan Warstler's plan is that services done under the rubric of the wage subsidy system needs to be free of the most onerous limitations of occupational licensing. Streamlined, minimalist occupational licensing requirements for those working under that rubric can be the beginning of streamlined, minimalist occupation licensing requirement for everyone. 

Update: Morgan Warstler replies on Twitter.


Don't miss other John Locke posts. Links at "John Locke's State of Nature and State of War."