Property in One’s Labor

While doing a little research to assist my Russian colleagues with the essay contest and summer school, both of which focus on property and freedom, I found again this wonderful statement from Adam Smith, offered in defense of freedom to labor against licensing and other restrictions on free exchange:

The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him. As it hinders the one from working at what he thinks proper, so it hinders the aothersa from employing whom they think proper. To judge whether he is fit to be employed, may surely be trusted to the discretion of the employers whose interest it so much concerns. The affected anxiety of the lawâ??giver lest they should employ an improper person, is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive.


*Adam Smith, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 2a An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 1, CHAPTER X: Of Wages and Profit in the different Employments of Labour and Stock (paragraph 591) (I am so grateful to the Liberty Fund for making such works available in beautiful and inexpensive print editions and at zero price in easily accessible forms online.)

5 Responses to “Property in One’s Labor”

  1. Thanks for the tip, Leona; a very thought provoking discussion. Will Wilkinson did a nice job, and Marglin was very interesting.

    I think Marglin missed some crucial points.

    1) Fundamentally he thinks “the community” is an entity in itself, that has values and interests that in some circumstances trump the rights of individuals. I reject this entirely. Marglin himself doesn’t defend the point, but simply asserts it. But since neither he, nor anyone else, is “the community,” I’d be curious to know how he, or anyone else, could know “the community’s” interest.

    Whenever we are told what “the community” or “society” or “the state” or “nature” or “God” wants, it always sounds suspiciously like the speaker’s personal preferences…which clearly don’t trump anyone’s rights.

    2) OK, so community isn’t a being with purposes… then what is it? M. never explains what community is, nor why it is so valuable. I agree that humans are social animals, and relationships are valuable to us. But after hearing the discussion I really am uncertain what M.’s ideal community is, or why I should care. “Human relationships are important” isn’t much of an attack on the free market, nor on economics.

    3)Marglin repeatedly argues that the developed world has no real need for further advance in living standards, yet every problem he points to ultimately boils down to scarcity…suggesting he’s wrong, on his own terms, when he says that we “have enough,” and when he says that economics is wrong.

    4) Marglin also seems to think economics is about material wealth. But it is not, it’s about subjective utility. “People maximize utility” means they pursue their own personal goals, in the fashion they see fit. Economics doesn’t say this is good, just that people do it. And econ doesn’t address the content of preferences, either. Mises, for example, makes this quite clear; but so did Pareto, so does Becker, and so too the rest of us. Marglin’s attack on econ is misplaced in this matter.

    5) So too his attack on the free arket is misplaced. The free market does not foist a particular set of preferences on people. If community relations of some sort are so great, there’s nothing in the free market that precludes people pursuing this, nor does economics pass some negative judgment on it.

    Steven Cheung made this point wrt collective farms, and it holds with Marglin’s ideal community — if it’s such a good thing, go ahead and organize it, and show us. I don’t think we’ll see it happen, because what Marglin is critiquing, at heart, is that human beings desire things he doesn’t approve of, and have values he doesn’t share.

    Communitarianism always seems to start by talking about the importance of good supportive relationships among individuals, something I agree with… but always seems to degenerate into discussing how to make the individual conform to the community. The former is real community, and the latter is oppression.

    Interesting stuff. I’ll continue to explore M.’s ideas, and maybe post something on my own blog at some point.

  2. Gosh, Charles, I’m not sure we watched the same interview. I hope you will post on these topics on your own blog, since it probably wouldn’t be fair to undermine the blogging community here. 😉

    I just finished reading William F. Buckley’s obit of Murray Rothbard, and I am curious, do you share Rothbard’s notion on the advisability of privatizing lighthouses?


  3. Bill Stepp

    Careful here. Is labor something you can own?
    Or is it an action that you perform?
    You can own the product of your labor or enter into a contract to receive money or other consideration for it, but can you own labor itself?

  4. Tom G. Palmer

    Labor isn’t a thing like a stone or an egg. It can’t be transferred from one person to another. But you have the right to perform it or to refuse to perform it. The property is in your own body and its use.

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