Say on a person’s property right in their own “industrious faculties” (1819)

Jean Baptiste Say

In the chapter “On the Right of Property” in his Treatise (1803, 1819) the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) argues that property is not limited to ownership of “things” but also includes an individual’s “talents and faculties”:

The property a man has in his own industry, is violated, whenever he is forbidden the free exercise of his faculties and talents, except insomuch as they would interfere with the rights of third parties….

The industrious faculties are, of all kinds of property, the least questionable; being derived directly either from nature, or from personal assiduity. The property in them is of higher pretensions than that of the land, which may generally be traced up to an act of spoliation; for it is hardly possible to show an instance, in which its ownership has been legitimately transmitted from the first occupancy. It ranks higher than the right of the capitalist also; for even taking it for granted, that this latter has been acquired without any spoliation whatever, and by the gradual accumulations of ages, yet the succession to it could not have been established without the aid of legislation, which aid may have been granted on conditions. Yet, sacred as the property in the faculties of industry is, it is constantly infringed upon, not only in the flagrant abuse of personal slavery, but in many other points of more frequent occurrence.

Say’s Treatise on Political Economy had a profound impact in both France and America where it was used as a college text book throughout the 19th century (there were several editions after its first appearance in 1803). Unlike modern economics textbooks Say includes a chapter on the right to own property fairly early on in the treatise, in fact just before his famous chapter “On Markets.” This passage includes a very interesting footnote in which Say talks about property in things other than material things, such as what he terms “les talents industrielles” which the 19th century American translator calls “the industrious faculties.” By this Say has in mind those aspects of an individual’s person and character which makes him or her a productive or “industrious” individual such as knowledge, skills, motivation, capacity to plan or invent, and so on. A Lockean political philosopher might call this “self-ownership”. Say described this right to property in one’s own faculties and talents as “sacred.” Also of interest is Say’s claim that the justice of this form of property is more clear cut (or “supérieur”) than other, more commonly recognized forms of property such as land or capital. The former, he thought, could often be traced back to an original act of plunder (such as dispossession of an original owner), or in the case of the latter, from some piece of favorable government legislation which allowed the accumulation of capital to take place.