Liberty Matters

Locke and Labour

Van der Vossen gives a highly appealing elucidation and defence of the normative basis for commercial society found in John Locke’s notions of freedom and equality. He focuses mostly on Locke’s justification of natural, individual property rights, and how in the context of market-based cooperation, these rights enable each person to “keep what they make” and thereby ensure that the common good is served by the individual good. Property is an essential institution because it enables each person to reap the fruits of her labour.
The role that Locke seems to assign to labour in the initial acquisition of property rights at §27 of the Second Treatise is a fraught one. Locke notoriously invoked the idea that resources are originally acquired through their admixture with labour. This has been widely rejected as a conceptual confusion,[i] and some have argued that Locke used this language to privilege sedentary agricultural land-use over the less sedentary use that was the practice of the indigenous peoples of the Americas so as to stack the deck in favour of the property claims of settlers, and territorial claims of colonies.[ii] Still others have argued that the Lockean labour theory involves a commitment to an ontologically confused theory of economic value – that the mere application of labour produces value irrespective of whether the result of one’s labour is actually valued by anyone.
Van der Vossen acknowledges the notoriety of the remarks in Locke, and argues that if we look past the invocation of admixture, the proper role of labour within the justification of the property rights that are essential to commercial society can be located. Individual property rights are justified not because they have, in the past, come about through a process of labour-mixing, but because they will, in the future, enable individuals to enjoy the fruits of their labour. The role of labour is teleological and not historical. In short, he defends a labour theory of property without labour-mixing.
My first line of enquiry is how far a historical role for labour can be done away with in a labour-based justification for property claims.
All productive activity requires the use and disposition of various resources. Individual rights to the particular resources that are put to productive use (land, tools, fuel, machinery), combined with the right to freely cooperate with others on mutually agreed upon terms (a division of labour and a division of the fruits thereof) is a recipe to ensure each person gets to own, in that metaphorical sense, the labour of their hands. Individual property rights and freedom of contract are essential components to commercial society, and commercial society secures to each person the fruits of their labour – that is the role labour plays in justifying private property and the individual’s right to use it and transfer it as she wishes. Property and contract constitute the socioeconomic environment in which labour is given its due.
A core tenet of classical political economy was that, in a marketplace, each factor of production, that is, land, labour, and capital each get a return proportional to their contribution to production,[iii] generally speaking.[iv] The scheme of distribution was regarded as just on the basis that land was at root acquired through labouring upon it, and capital was also accumulated through labour.[v] Hence, contributing land or capital still constitutes a contribution of labour in the form of past labour. And if one acquired the land or capital in exchange rather than through labourious initial acquisition, one would have had to pay the equivalent, which it would have taken labour to earn, and so on. Of course, productive activity seldom involves the passive combination of these factors of production by their distinct owners. An essential “factor” is that which actually does the combining: entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship involves alertness to new opportunities to creatively draw together these otherwise dead factors of production in a way that meets the ever-changing needs of society in the context of ever-changing conditions.[vi] Indeed, entrepreneurship so understood is something every member of society is engaged in, strictly speaking, whether they are owners of capital or not.[vii]
The socialists among the classical political economists endorsed the normative power of the idea that everyone should get out what they put in, but they were concerned with the history of the manner in which land, capital, or both came to be owned and concentrated – which is to say, how labour came to be landless and without means of production.[viii] The worry was that the original accumulation of the means of production that labour would make productive was not a merely economic process involving work and the application of the law of value, but one of political rent-seeking, violence, plunder, and injustice. [ix]
One might think that since so little of the value contributed to modern economies comes from the discovery and acquisition of new physical resources, the question of original acquisition is vanishingly irrelevant to distributive justice.[x] However, if it is important that each individual receive a return proportional to the value they contribute because it is important that each maintain (albeit metaphorical) ownership of their labour, then it is essential that the property each person contributes can be said to represent their labour, and not a theft of the labour of someone else.[xi] If there were no property, and we simply laid down a random assignment of property rights such that almost all land was given to one small family, and a small amount of property given to everyone else, how could we say that the resultant distribution of wealth, once productive commerce had begun, truly rewarded each person with the fruits of her labour?[xii]
Therefore, whilst pivoting from an historical to a teleological account of the normative place of labour, is an attractive one, some historical place must also be given for it. Whilst the mode of acquisition may not be the only thing that contributes toward the justification of property (granting that much of van der Vossen’s teleological account), we still need to know the process by which property comes into being, and as we can see this carries at least some moral import with regard to that ultimate teleological basis.
I now turn to my second line of enquiry.
Van der Vossen plausibly argues that having a right to control how one makes a living is an essential component of freedom and equality. If some other person determines how we make a living then we do not enjoy freedom, nor can we be said to be morally equal to this person, but rather we are their inferior. Our productive life is something so deeply personal that personal freedom must include occupational freedom. So, some kind of system of individual property rights and freedom of contract is required at least to this extent by the values of freedom and equality.
Property and contract as such are multiply realisable institutions; there are an open-ended variety of concrete forms these abstract institutional ideals can take. Presumably, van der Vossen wants to say that we should select the instantiation that best enables people to keep what they make. Now, the sense in which commercial society is said to enable everyone to keep what they make is not in any physicalist sense. When two people decide to cooperate to provide advertising solutions for other firms, they do not keep the advertising campaigns that they make. Indeed, if they did, they could not divide these between themselves in a way that meant each person literally kept the part that they made. Indeed, an important benefit of a division of labour is that they make something irreducible to the mere sum of the inputs! In order for each individual to keep what they make, they have to transform what they make into something more abstract – they must exchange it for money and then split the money between them. The actual physical work of their hands they quickly alienate on the market for its monetary equivalent so that they can acquire the things they really want that they can’t directly make with their hands. I do not deny that keeping the monetary or exchange-value based equivalent of what one makes is a morally appropriate application of the general principle of keeping what we make. However, I am curious as to its relationship to the more fundamental values whence this principle is said to be derived – freedom and equality. If every person were denied 25% of the value of their labour (for example, by a tax collector), in what way would their right to control their labour be undermined or violated? They still get to work how they want and with whom they want – how do freedom and equality relate to the number that shows up on one’s pay-cheque?
The ideals of freedom and equality are highly deontological and relational, whereas the ideal of keeping what one makes is teleological and utilitarian. How does the monetary value of our labour (something that only emerges in the social context of market institutions) relate to our autonomous control of that labour (something that Robinson Crusoe could enjoy)? In centering property on just economic deserts, do freedom and equality not fade into the background?
[i] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Lewis Amherst Selby-Brigge (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1739), sec. III.II.II.VI n; J. P. Day, ‘Locke on Property’, The Philosophical Quarterly 16, no. 64 (1966): 207–20; Jeremy Waldron, ‘Two Worries About Mixing One’s Labour’, The Philosophical Quarterly 33 (1983): 37–44; Jeremy Waldron, The Right to Private Property (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 184–91. Hillel Steiner boldly attempts to rescue a physical admixture account in his An Essay on Rights (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 233. Elsewhere I have argued this attempt is unsuccessful (Property and Justice: A Liberal Theory of Natural Rights (London: Routledge, 2021), 73–77).[ii] James Tully, ‘Aboriginal Property and Western Theory: Recovering A Middle Ground’, Social Philosophy and Policy 11 (1994): 153–80; Barbara Arneil, John Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), chap. 6; Andrew Fitzmaurice, Sovereignty, Property, and Empire, 1500-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
[iii] See, for example, David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004); John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, ed. W. J. Ashley (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1920).
[iv] Different political economists gave different caveats about what might interfere with the law of value from returning to each the value that they put in: conditions of market entry, availability of land, and reproducibility of certain kinds of goods.
[v] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 276–78.
[vi] Israel M. Kirzner, ‘Producer, Entrepreneur, and the Right to Property’, Reason Papers 1 (1974): 1–17; Israel M. Kirzner, ‘Entrepreneurial Discovery and the Competitive Market Process: An Austrian Approach’, Journal of Economic Literature 35 (1997): 60–85; Israel M. Kirzner, Competition and Entrepreneurship, ed. Peter J. Boettke and Frédéric Sautet (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2013); Israel M. Kirzner, Discovery, Capitalism, and Distributive Justice, ed. Peter J. Boettke and Frédéric Sautet (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2016).
[vii] Ludwig von Mises Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), pp. 252-253. Michael C. Munger, Tomorrow 3.0: Transaction Costs and the Sharing Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
[viii] Important historical figures in this vein are Thomas Hodgskin, The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (London: B. Steil, 1831)., Benjamin R. Tucker, Instead of A Book, By A Man Too Busy to Write One (Boston: Benajmin R. Tucker, 1888))., and Henry George, Progress and Poverty (New York: Modern Library, 1929)).. See Kevin A. Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Fayetteville: Self-published, 2007). for a contemporary treatment of socialist classical political economy.
[ix] Marx’s critique of these “utopian” or “bourgeois” socialists was that they mistakenly believed that correcting the distribution of property could ensure the law of value operates properly, and everyone gets to keep what they make. Marx believed that the law of value, even (or, especially) when it operate properly, unsure the capitalist appropriates a portion of value that is created by his workers (Karl Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, in Marx/Engels Selected Works, vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970)). Marx’s version of the labour theory of value was the theory of “surplus value” which was not subscribed to by other classical political economists Karl Marx, Capital: A Critque of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 2010), chaps 1–18; Karl Marx, Value, Price, and Profit (New York: International Co., 1969); Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1932).
[x] Dan Moller, ‘Property and the Creation of Value’, Economics and Philosophy 33 (2017): 1–23.
[xi] Christmas, Property and Justice: A Liberal Theory of Natural Rights, 3–5.
[xii] Murray N. Rothbard, ‘Justice and Property Rights’, in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, 2nd ed. (Auburn: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000), 95.