Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2014
John Locke's labor theory of value is a significant part of his argument for property in his Two Treatises of Government (1690), and legal scholars and philosophers widely agree that it fails to justify intellectual property rights. The consensus is that his argument is weak or backwards in its claim that property rights secure preexisting values created through labor. Law professors in particular deride the “fallacies in the fundamental assumptions … [in] this ‘if value, then right’ theory,” and, as a prudential matter, they express concern that this theory “lacks a coherent limit” in defining the scope of legal protection of intellectual property rights. Since the early twentieth century, American legal scholars have assumed that Locke's labor theory of value is incoherent, viciously circular, and indeterminate, and this judgment prevails in intellectual property theory as much as it does in traditional property theory.
These scholars have found ample support in many assessments of Locke's labor theory of value by contemporary philosophers. Interestingly, while philosophers have spilt much ink on how Locke's “mixing labor” argument applies to intellectual property rights, there has been comparatively very little attention paid to his labor theory of value. Even within general philosophical commentary on Locke's property theory—such as the canonical texts by James Tully, Robert Nozick, C. B. Macpherson, and Richard Ashcraft—it has been observed that Locke's labor theory of value has been “relatively neglected.”