Property Rights and the Firm
This book presents a new analysis of capitalism. The analysis is new to the conventional stylized debate between capitalism and command-socialism. But the ideas are not new. The labor theory of property, democratic theory, and inalienable rights theory are part of the humanist and rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment.
The theory of the democratic worker-owned firm walks on two legs. That is, it rests on two principles.
(1) The property structure of the democratic firm is based on the principle that people have a natural and inalienable right to the fruits of their labor.
(2) The governance structure of the democratic firm is based on the principle that people have a natural and inalienable right to democratic self-determination.
This chapter deals with the labor theory of property (the fruits-of-their-labor principle) while the next chapter deals with the application of democratic theory to the firm.
The Fundamental Myth about Private Property
The understanding of what private property is and what it is not—is clouded in both capitalist and socialist societies by a “Fundamental Myth” accepted by both sides in the capitalism-socialism debate. The myth can be crudely stated as the belief that “being the firm” is a structural part of the bundle of property rights referred to as “ownership of the means of production.” A better statement and understanding of the myth requires some analysis.
Consider any legal party that operates as a capitalist firm, e.g. a conventional company in the United States or the United Kingdom that produces some product. That legal party actually plays two distinct roles:
— the capital-owner role of owning the means of production (the capital assets such as the equipment and plant) used in the production process; and
— the residual claimant role of bearing the costs of the inputs used-up in the production process (e.g. the material inputs, the labor costs, and the used-up services of the capital assets) and owning the produced outputs. The “residual” that is claimed in the “residual claimant” role is the economic profit, the value of the produced outputs minus the value of the used-up inputs.
The Fundamental Myth can now be stated in more precise terms. It is the myth that the residual claimant’s role is part of the property rights owned in the capital-owner’s role, i.e. part of the “ownership of the means of production.” The great debate over the public or private ownership of the residual claimant’s role is quite beside the point since there is no “ownership” of that role in the first place.
It is simple to show that the two roles of residual claimant and capital-owner can be separated without changing the ownership of the means of production. Rent out the capital assets. If the means of production such as the plant and equipment are leased out to another legal party, then the lessor retains the ownership of the means of production (the capital-owner role) but the leasee renting the assets would then have the residual claimant’s role for the production process using those capital assets. The leasee would then bear the costs of the used-up capital services (which are paid for in the lease payments) and the other inputs costs, and that party would own the produced outputs. Thus the residual claimant’s role is not part of the ownership of the means of production. The Fundamental Myth is indeed a myth.
Who is to be the residual claimant? How is the identity of that party legally determined—if not by the ownership of the means of production? The answer is that it is determined by the direction of the contracts. The residual claimant is the hiring party, the legal party who ends up hiring (or already owning) all the necessary inputs for the productive operations. Thus that party bears the costs of the inputs consumed in the business operations, and thus that party has the legal claim on the produced outputs. The residual claimant is therefore a contractual role, not an ownership right that is part of the ownership of the means of production.
The ownership of the capital assets is quite relevant to the question of bargaining power; it gives the legal party with the capital-owner’s role substantial bargaining power to also acquire the contractual role of residual claimancy. But there is no violation of the “sacred rights” of private property if other market participants change the balance of bargaining power so that the capital assets can only be remuneratively employed by being leased out. Markets are double-edged swords.
Understanding the Fundamental Myth forces a re-appraisal of certain stock phrases such as “ownership of the firm.” That usually refers to the combination of the capital-owner’s role and the residual claimant’s role. But residual claimancy isn’t something that is “owned”; it is a contractual role. What actually happens when party A sells the “ownership of the firm” to party B? Party A sells the capital assets owned in the capital-owner’s role to B, and then B tries to take over A’s contractual role as the hiring party by re-negotiating or re-assigning all the input contracts from A to B. Party A cannot “sell” the willingness on the part of the various input suppliers to re-negotiate or renew the contracts. Thus A’s contractual role as the previous residual claimant cannot be “sold” as a piece of property like the capital assets. If B could not successfully take over the contractual role of residual claimancy, then it would be clear that by “buying the firm,” B in fact only bought the capital assets. Thus buying the capital assets is not a sufficient condition to “become the firm” in the sense of becoming the residual claimant.
Buying the capital assets is also not a necessary condition for becoming the firm. A rearrangement of the input contracts could result in a new party becoming the residual claimant of the production process using the capital assets without there being any sale of the capital assets. The prime example is a contract reversal between the owners of the capital and the workers. We will later discuss examples where worker-owned firms are established by leasing the capital assets from the legal party that previously operated as the residual claimant in the production process using those assets. For example, this sometimes happens in distressed companies when the capital-owner no longer wants the residual claimant’s role. It also happened in the Former Soviet Union and China when the means of production in certain enterprises were leased to the collectivity of workers.
The “ownership of the means of production” is neither necessary nor sufficient to being the firm in the sense of being the residual claimant in the production process using those means of production. Contrary to the Fundamental Myth, being the firm is not part of the ownership of the means of production.
Ownership of a Corporation is not “Ownership of the Firm”
The logical structure of the above argument is, of course, independent of the legal packaging used by the capital owner, e.g. is independent of whether the capital is owned by a natural person or by a corporation. Thus understanding the Fundamental Myth also allows us to understand what is and what is not a part of the bundle of property rights called “ownership of a corporation.”
Suppose an individual owns a machine, a “widget-maker.” It is easy to see how that ownership is independent of the residual claimant’s role in production using the widget-maker. The capital owner could hire in workers to operate the widget-maker and to produce widgets—or the widget-maker could be hired out to some other party to produce widgets.
That is a simple argument to understand. But it is amazing how many economists and lawyers suddenly cannot understand the argument when the individual is replaced by a corporation. Indeed, suppose the same individual incorporates a company and issues all the stock to himself in return for the widget-maker. Now instead of directly owning the widget-maker, he is the sole owner of a corporation that owns the widget-maker. Clearly this legal repackaging changes nothing in the argument about separating capital ownership and residual claimancy. The corporation has the capital-owner’s role and—depending on the direction of the hiring contracts—may or may not have the residual claimant’s role in the production process using the widget-maker. The corporation (instead of the individual) could hire in workers to use the widget-maker to manufacture widgets, or the corporation could lease out the widget-maker to some other party.
The legal ownership of the corporation only guarantees the capital-owner’s role. The residual claimant’s role could change hands through contract rearrangements or reversals without the ownership of the corporation changing hands. Therefore the ownership of the corporation is not the “ownership of the firm” where the latter means the residual claimant’s role in the production process using the corporation’s capital assets (e.g. the widget-maker). The idea that the repackaging of the machine-owner’s role as corporate ownership is a transubstantiation of capital ownership into “ownership” of the residual claimant’s role is only another version of the Fundamental Myth.
The Appropriation of Property
Property rights are born, transferred, used, and will eventually die. In production, old property rights die and new property rights are born; in exchange, property rights are transferred. In production, the new property rights to the outputs are born or initiated. The acquisition of the initial or first-time property right to an asset is called the “appropriation” of the asset. Property rights die (i.e. are terminated) when the property is consumed or otherwise used up. In production, it is the property rights to the inputs (materials and services of capital and labor) that are terminated. When a property right is terminated that is a negative form of appropriation; it can be termed the appropriation of the liability for the used-up property.
In production, there is the appropriation of the assets produced as outputs and the appropriation of the liabilities for the used-up inputs. Some symbolism can be used to capture the idea. Consider a simple description of a production process where the people working in the enterprise perform the labor services L that use up the inputs K to produce the outputs Q. Thus the produced outputs are Q and liabilities for the inputs could be represented by the negative quantities –K and –L. Let us represent these three quantities in a list where the quantities are given in the order:
(outputs, inputs, labor).
Then the list (or “vector”) giving the assets and liabilities appropriated in the production process is given by what will be called the:
whole product = (Q, –K, –L)
(“whole” because it includes the negative as well as the positive results of production).
There is a descriptive and a normative question about property appropriation:
— Descriptive Question: In a private property market economy, how is it that one legal party rather than another legally appropriates the whole product of a technically-described production process?
— Normative Question: Which legal party ought to legally appropriate the whole product of a technically-described production process?
We have already answered the descriptive question. “Legally appropriating the whole product” is a property-oriented description of the residual claimant’s role: Whole Product Appropriator = Residual Claimant. We saw that residual claimancy was contractually determined by being the hiring party. The hiring party hires or already owns all the inputs services used up in production (i.e. K and L) so that party, as it were, appropriates the liabilities –K and –L. Hence that party certainly has the legally defensible claim on the produced outputs (i.e. Q). In that manner, the contractually determined hiring party legally appropriates the whole product (Q, –K, –L) of the production process.
Perhaps the only surprise in the above argument is that the property rights to the whole product (i.e. the property rights behind residual claimancy) are not part of the ownership of the means of production, i.e. are not part of the capital-owner’s role. The capital owner may or may not legally appropriate the whole product (i.e. be the residual claimant) depending on the direction of the hiring contracts.
For example, let K be the services of the widget-maker per time period, let L be the labor that uses up the services K to produce the widgets Q. If the corporation that owns the widget-maker hires in the labor services L, then it will have the claim on the widgets Q, so the corporation will appropriate the whole product (Q, –K, –L). If the corporation leases out the widget-maker (i.e. sells the services K) to some other party who hires or already owns the labor L, then that party will be able to claim Q and thus legally appropriate the same whole product (Q, –K, –L). The idea that the appropriation of the whole product is somehow an intrinsic part of the ownership of the widget-maker is only another version of the Fundamental Myth.
What is the traditional normative basis for private property appropriation? The natural basis for private property appropriation is labor—people’s natural and inalienable right to the (positive and negative) fruits of their labor (see Ellerman, 1992 for a discussion of John Locke’s theory of property). That is the traditional labor theory of property (see Schlatter, 1951).
We will develop the argument that in any given productive enterprise, the liabilities for the used-up inputs are the negative fruits of the labor of the people working in the enterprise (always including managers). The produced outputs are the positive fruits of their labor. The democratic worker-owned firm is the type of enterprise where the people working in it are the legal members of the firm so they then legally appropriate the positive and negative fruits of their labor. Hence we will argue that the labor theory of property—the natural basis for private property appropriation—implies democratic firms, not traditional capitalist firms.
We previously saw that as a matter of descriptive fact, the appropriation of the was not part of the private ownership of the means of production. We now will argue that as a matter of normative principle, the whole product should be appropriated by the people who produced it, the people working in the enterprise. Thus, it is private property itself—when refounded on its natural basis of labor—that implies democratic worker-ownership.
This labor theoretic argument finds a resonance in both capitalist and socialist thought. That dual resonance has always been associated with John Locke’s theory of property. Some interpreted it as the foundation of private property, while others took it as a forerunner to radical theories arguing for some form of “socialism” based on worker self-management. There is merit in both interpretations. We turn now to the labor theory of property as it has been interpreted and misinterpreted in socialist thought.
“The Labor Theory” of Value—or of Property
At least since Marx’s time, any discussion of the labor theory of property in socialist thought has been dominated by Marx’s labor theory of value and exploitation. The labor theory of property simply has not had an independent intellectual life. Yet many of the ideas underlying the support and interpretation of the “labor theory of value” actually are based on the labor theory of property. Hence it is best to speak firstly of “The Labor Theory” (LT) as a primordial theoretical soup without specifying “of Value” or “of Property.” Then the various overtones and undercurrents in LT can be classified as leaning towards the labor theory of value (= LTV) or the labor theory of property (= LTP).
Since so much of the literature is formulated in terms of LTV, it is further necessary to divide treatments of LTV that are really veiled versions of the labor theory of property from treatments that are focused on value theory as a quasi-price theory.
“The Labor Theory”
The property-oriented versions emphasize labor as the source or cause of (the value of) the product, while the price-oriented versions consider labor as the measure of value. The arrow from the “Labor as the SOURCE (of Value) of the Product” box back to the “labor theory of property” box indicates that (as will be explained below) the source-versions of LTV are essentially veiled versions of LTP.
Is Labor Peculiar?
It is remarkable that the human science of “Economics” has not been able to find or recognize any fundamental difference between the actions of human beings (i.e. “labor”) and the services of things (e.g. the services of the widget-maker machine). Neoclassical economics uses two pictures of the production process—an “active” poetical picture and a passive engineering picture—both of which view labor as being symmetrical with the services of things.
The poetic view animistically pictures land and capital as “agents of productions” that (who?) cooperate together with workers to produce the product. Land is the mother and labor is the father of the harvest. This personification of land and capital is an example of the pathetic fallacy. It has long been criticized by radical economists such as Thomas Hodgskin:
...the language commonly in use is so palpably wrong, leading to many mistakes, that I cannot pass it by altogether in silence. We speak, for example, in a vague manner, of a windmill grinding corn, and of steam engines doing the work of several millions of people. This gives a very incorrect view of the phenomena. It is not the instruments which grind corn, and spin cotton, but the labour of those who make, and the labour of those who use them... . (Hodgskin, 1827, pp. 250–1)
All capital is made and used by man; and by leaving him out of view, and ascribing productive power to capital, we take that as the active cause, which is only the creature of his ingenuity, and the passive servant of his will. (Hodgskin, 1827, p. 247; quoted in King, 1983, p. 355)
For instance, the name “widget-maker” pictures the machine as making widgets. Marx was later to ridicule the same animism in capitalist economics.
It is an enchanted, perverted, topsy-turvy world, in which Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre do their ghost-walking as social characters... . (Marx, 1967, p. 830)
This active poetic view can be represented as follows.
The Active Poetic View of Production
The other view favored in capitalist economics (particularly in technical contexts) is the passive engineering view. Human actions are treated simply as causally efficacious services of workers alongside the services of land and capital.
The engineering view switches to the passive voice: “Given input K and L, the outputs Q are produced.”
The Passive Engineering View of Production
The question “Produced by who?” is off-limits because the “who” (the workers of the enterprise) has been reconceptualized as just another input, the labor input, in an engineering description of the production process. There is no active agent who uses up the inputs to produce the outputs. Production is pictured as a technological process that just takes place.
There is a third view, the humanistic view of production. Neo-classical economics does not emphasize this view. The humanistic view portrays human beings as using capital and land to produce the outputs. It treats human beings as persons who are not symmetrical with things like capital and land. Human actions, or “labor services,” use up the services of capital and land in the process of producing the product.
The Humanistic View of Production
Radical economists have also attempted to find a unique and relevant characteristic of labor (“Only labor is the source of value”) that would differentiate it from the other factor services. These attempts have not been particularly fruitful.
Marx attached great importance to his “discovery” of the distinction between labor power and labor time. Yet that distinction is not even unique to labor. When one rents a car for a day, one buys the right to use the car (“car power”) within certain limits for the day. The actual services extracted from the car are another matter. The car could be left in a parking lot, or driven continuously at high speeds. To prevent being “exploited” by heavy users of “car time,” car rental companies typically charge not just a flat day rate but have also a “piece-rate” based on the intensity of use as measured by mileage.
The labor-power/labor-time distinction gets heavy play in literary presentations of Marxian exploitation theory. That distinction, aside from being non-unique to labor, plays no role whatsoever in the modern mathematical development of the Marxian labor theory of value and exploitation using input-output theory (see Ellerman, 1992). There “is in fact no place in the formal analysis at which the labor/labor power distinction gets introduced” (Wolff, 1984, p. 178). But the relevant point here is that the development of the whole labor theory of value and exploitation is not based on any unique property of labor. One could just as well develop (say) a theory of corn value which would show how corn is “exploited” in a productive economy (see Wolff, 1984).
Thus we have the twofold situation wherein conventional economics does not recognize any fundamental and relevant differentiation of the actions of human beings from the services of things, while Marxian economics tries to isolate a unique and relevant property of labor (labor time versus labor power) as a basis for its theory of value and exploitation—but it fails to do so successfully.
Marx touched on deeper themes when he differentiated human labor from the services of the lower animals (and things) in his description of the labor process.
We presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. (Marx, 1977, pp. 283–4)
This conscious directedness and purposefulness of human action is part of what is now called the intentionality of human action (see Searle 1983; Ellerman, 1995, Chapter 7). This characterization does have significant import, but Marx failed to connect intentionality to his labor theory of value and exploitation (or even to his labor-power/labor-time distinction). This is in part because Marx tried to develop a labor theory of value as opposed to a labor theory of property.
Only Labor is Responsible
If we move from the artificially delimited field of “economics” into the adjacent field of law and jurisprudence, then it is easy to recognize a fundamental and unique characteristic of labor. Only labor can be responsible. The responsibility for events may not be imputed or charged against non-persons or things. The instruments of labor and the means of production can only serve as conductors of responsibility, never as the source.
An instrument of labour is a thing, or a complex of things, which the worker interposes between himself and the object of his labour and which serves as a conductor, directing his activity onto that object. He makes use of the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of some substances in order to set them to work on other substances as instruments of his power, and in accordance with his purposes. (Marx, 1977, p. 285)
Marx did not explicitly use the concept of responsibility or cognate notions such as intentionality. After Marx died, the genetic code of Marxism was fixed. Any later attempt to introduce these notions was heresy.
While Marx did not use the word “responsibility,” he nevertheless clearly describes the labor process as involving people as the uniquely responsible agents acting through things as mere conductors of responsibility. The responsibility for the results is imputed back through the instruments to the human agents using the instruments. Regardless of the “productivity” of the burglary tools (in the sense of causal efficacy), the responsibility for the burglary is imputed back through the tools solely to the burglar.
The natural sciences take no note of responsibility. The notion of responsibility (as opposed to causality) is not a concept of physics and engineering. The difference between the responsible actions of persons and the non-responsible services of things would not be revealed by a simple engineering description of the causal consequences of the actions/services. Therefore when economists choose to restrict their description of the production process to an engineering production function, they are implicitly or explicitly deciding to ignore the difference between the actions of persons and the services of things.
The various pictures of production—the active poetic view, the passive engineering view, and the humanistic view—can be illustrated by three possible confessions from George Washington after he used an ax to chop down the cherry tree.
— Active Poetic View: I cannot tell a lie; an ax cooperated with me to chop down the cherry tree.
— Passive Engineering View: I cannot tell a lie; given an ax and some of my labor, the cherry tree was chopped down.
— Humanistic View: I cannot tell a lie; I used an ax to chop down the cherry tree.
What is the difference? There is no difference from the viewpoint of the natural sciences. The difference concerns responsibility; each confession gives a different shading to the question of responsibility. The inability of capitalist economics to recognize that unique and relevant characteristic of labor is an ideological blindspot which reflects the symmetrical fact that both labor services and the services of land and capital are salable commodities in a capitalist economy. To analytically treat labor as being fundamentally different—when the capitalist system treats labor as a salable commodity like the services of capital and land—would be a perversity as abhorrent as preaching abolitionism in the middle of the Ante-bellum South.
Juridical Principle of Imputation = Labor Theory of Property
The pre-Marxian Ricardian socialists (or classical laborists) such as Proudhon, William Thompson, and Thomas Hodgskin tried to develop “the labor theory” as the labor theory of property. The most famous slogan of these classical laborists was “Labour’s Claim to the whole product” (see Hodgskin, 1832 or Menger, 1899).
This claim was hindered by their failure to clearly include the liabilities for the used-up inputs in their concept of the “whole product.” This allowed the orthodox caricature, “all the GNP would go to labor and none to property” (Samuelson, 1976, p. 626), as if there were no liabilities for the used-up inputs to be appropriated along with the produced outputs. If Labor appropriated the whole product, that would include appropriating the liabilities for the property used up in the production process in addition to appropriating the produced outputs. Present Labor would have to pay input suppliers (e.g. past Labor) to satisfy those liabilities.
The Ricardian socialists’ development of the labor theory of property was also hindered by their failure to interpret the theory in terms of the juridical norm of legal imputation in accordance with (de facto) responsibility. LTP is concerned with responsibility in the ex post sense of the question “Who did it?”, not with “responsibilities” in the ex ante sense of one’s duties or tasks in an organizational role. A person or group of people are said to be de facto or factually responsible for a certain result if it was the purposeful result of their intentional (joint) actions. The assignment of de jure or legal responsibility is called “imputation.” The basic juridical principle of imputation is that de jure or legal responsibility is to be imputed in accordance with de facto or factual responsibility. For example, the legal responsibility for a civil or criminal wrong should be assigned to the person or persons who intentionally committed the act, i.e. to the de facto responsible party.
In the context of assigning property rights and obligations, the juridical principle of imputation is expressed as the labor theory of property which holds that people should appropriate the (positive and negative) fruits of their labor. Since, in the economic context, intentional human actions are called “labor,” we can express the equivalence as:
The Juridical Principle of Imputation:
= The Labor Theory of Property:
People should have the legal responsibility for the positive and negative results of their intentional actions.
People should legally appropriate the positive and negative fruits of their labor.
In other words, the juridical principle of imputation is the labor theory of property applied in the context of civil and criminal trials, and the labor theory of property is the juridical principle applied in the context of property appropriation.
De facto responsibility is not a normative notion; it is a descriptive factual notion. The juridical principle of imputation is a normative principle which states that legal or de jure responsibility should be assigned in accordance with de facto responsibility. In the jury system, the jury is assigned the factual question of “officially” determining whether or not the accused party was de facto responsible for the deed as charged. If “Guilty” then legal responsibility is imputed accordingly.
Economics is always on “jury duty” to determine “the facts” about human activities. These are not value judgments (where social scientists have no particular expertise). The economist–as–juror is only required to make factual descriptive judgments about de facto responsibility. The normative and descriptive questions should be kept conceptually distinct. That separation is difficult since, given the juridical principle, de facto responsibility implies de jure responsibility.
In a given productive enterprise, the economist-as-juror faces the descriptive question of what or, rather, who is de facto responsible for producing the product by using up the various inputs? The marginal productivity of tools (machine tools or burglary tools) is not relevant to this factual question of responsibility either inside or outside the courtroom. Only human actions can be responsible; the services provided by things cannot be responsible (no matter how causally efficacious). The original question includes the question of who is responsible for using up those casually efficacious or productive services of the tools.
One of the original developers of marginal productivity theory in economics, Friedrich von Wieser, admitted that of all the factors of production, only labor is responsible.
The judge,... who, in his narrowly-defined task, is only concerned with the legal imputation, confines himself to the discovery of the legally responsible factor,—that person, in fact, who is threatened with the legal punishment. On him will rightly be laid the whole burden of the consequences, although he could never by himself alone—without instruments and all the other conditions—have committed the crime. The imputation takes for granted physical causality.
... If it is the moral imputation that is in question, then certainly no one but the labourer could be named. Land and capital have no merit that they bring forth fruit; they are dead tools in the hand of man; and the man is responsible for the use he makes of them. (Wieser, 1930, pp. 76–9)
These are remarkable admissions. Wieser at last has in his hands the correct explanation of the old radical slogans “Only labor is creative” or “Only labor is productive,” which even the classical laborists and Marxists could not explain clearly.
Wieser’s response to his insights exemplifies what often passes for moral reasoning among many economists and social theorists in general. Any stable socio-economic system will provide the conditions for its own reproduction. The bulk of the people born and raised under the system will be appropriately educated so that the superiority of the system will be “intuitively obvious” to them. They will not use some purported abstract moral principle to evaluate the system; the system is “obviously” correct. Instead any moral principle is itself judged according to whether or not it supports the system. If the principle does not agree with the system, then “obviously” the principle is incorrect, irrelevant, or inapplicable.
The fact that only labor could be legally or morally responsible therefore did not lead Wieser to question capitalist appropriation. It only told him that the usual notions of responsibility and imputation were not “relevant” to capitalist appropriation. Capitalist apologetics would require a new metaphorical notion of “economic imputation” in accordance with another new notion of “economic responsibility.”
In the division of the return from production, we have to deal similarly ... with an imputation,—save that it is from the economic, not the judicial point of view. (Wieser, 1930, p. 76)
By defining “economic responsibility” in terms of the animistic version of marginal productivity, Wieser could finally draw his desired conclusion that competitive capitalism “economically” imputes the product in accordance with “economic” responsibility.
In spite of Wieser’s candid admission a century ago that “no one but the labourer could be named” and that the assignment of legal responsibility “takes for granted physical causality,” the author has not been able to find a single contemporary economics text, elementary or advanced, which similarly admits that among all the causally efficacious factors, only labor is responsible. The legal system’s treatment of “labor” as the only responsible “input service” is apparently a forbidden topic in economics. Contemporary texts cannot use the R-word. The same texts express their “puzzlement” at how so many earlier political economists could “overlook” land and capital, and believe that “labor was the only productive factor.” A closer reading of Wieser, not to mention common sense, would suggest another interpretation of the “labor theory.”
What is Labor’s Product?
Given a group of apple trees, consider the human activity of Adam picking apples for an hour to produce a bushel of apples. The human activity of picking the apples for an hour is reconceptualized in economics as another “input,” a man-hour of apple-picking labor, to the now subjectless production process. Given a group of apples trees and a man-hour of apple-picking labor as inputs, a bushel of apples is produced as the output. The question of who uses the inputs to produce the outputs has no answer because the actions of the people carrying out the process are construed as just another input in the engineering description of a technological input-output process.
Prior to conceptualizing the human activity of production as an “input” to a dehumanized technological conception of production, we could use two-component lists (or vectors),
The productive activities of all the people working in the given production example produce Q by using up K, so (Q, –K) is Labor’s product. The labor L performed by the people working in the enterprise is simply a way to refer to the human activity of producing (Q, –K).
Labor L = Human Activity of Producing (Q, –K)
But then that activity L is reconceptualized as another “input,” an input to the now subjectless production process. Using this artificial reconceptualization, the people working in the production process produce the labor services L and then use up K as well as L in the production of Q. Using the vector notation, they produce the labor (0, 0, L) and they produce the whole product (Q, –K, –L) which add together (by adding the corresponding components) to yield the three-component version of Labor’s product.
Labor’s product = (Q, –K, 0) = (Q, –K, –L) + (0, 0, L)
= whole product + labor services.
In capitalist production, the people working in the firm, i.e. the party herein called “Labor,” appropriate and sell only their labor services to the employer who, in turn, appropriates the whole product. In a democratic firm, Labor appropriates Labor’s product (which is the sum of the whole product and the labor services). The difference between the two forms of production lies in who appropriates the whole product which consists of the produced outputs Q and the liabilities –K and –L for the used-up inputs and labor activity. Under capitalist production, the workers still produce Labor’s product (since that is a question of fact unchanged by the legal superstructure) but only appropriate their labor services as a commodity. Hence the assets and liabilities that they produce but do not appropriate constitute the whole product (subtract corresponding components in the lists).
Labor’s Product = (Q, –K, 0)
Minus: Labor as a Commodity = –(0, 0, L)
Equals: Whole Product = (Q, –K, –L).
In words, the equation is as follows.
What Labor Produces
Minus: What Labor Produces and Appropriates
Equals: What Labor Produces and Does Not Appropriate.
The labor theory of property holds that the people working in every enterprise should appropriate the positive and negative fruits of their labor which in the vector notation is Labor’s product (= whole product + labor services). Thus in the comparison with the capitalist firm, the labor theory of property implies that Labor should appropriate the whole product. We saw before that “appropriating the whole product” was a property-oriented description of being the residual claimant, i.e. being the firm. In short, the labor theory of property implies that Labor should be the firm, i.e. that the firm should be a democratic worker-owned firm.
It is important to understand what this argument does not imply. We have already taken some pains to separate the residual claimant’s role from the capital-owner’s role. The labor theory of property implies that Labor should have the residual claimant’s role. It does not imply that the current workers in any enterprise should own the capital assets of that enterprise which have been accumulated from the past. The argument does imply that the current workers are de facto responsible for and should be legally responsible for using up the services of those capital assets (i.e. should be legally responsible for the input-liabilities –K).
Property Theoretic Themes in Marxian Value Theory
We turn now to the task of intellectual reclamation—trying to salvage some of Marx’s “labor theory”—a task that is little appreciated by both conventional and Marxist economists. Marx’s labor theory of value—as a theory to measure value—is one of the most spectacular failures in the history of economic thought (see Ellerman, 1992 for analysis and criticism). There is, however, the alternative interpretation of Marx’s theory which emphasizes labor-as-source instead of labor-as-measure. That turns out to be a disguised version of the labor theory of property, not a value theory at all. In this section, we try to tease out these property-theoretic themes in Marxian thought.
Marx started by singling out human action as the unique activity that acted upon the world to endow it with intents and purposes—even though Marx and latter-day Marxists do not use the notion of responsibility to differentiate human actions from the services of things (Marxists have been as unable as capitalist economists to find the R‑word).
But although part of Nature and subject to the determinism of natural laws, Man as a conscious being had the distinctive capability of struggling with and against Nature—of subordinating and ultimately transforming it for his own purposes. This was the unique rôle of human productive activity, or human labour, which differentiated man from all (or nearly all) other animate creatures ... (Dobb, 1973, pp. 143–4)
Marx clearly saw that physical causal processes can never be co-responsible with human agents; the causal processes serve only as “conductors” to transmit human intentions. Hence the assignment of legal responsibility in accordance with de facto responsibility “takes for granted physical causality.”
Marx also was by no means exclusively concerned with developing the labor-as-a-measure version of LTV. It was not simply that value is a function of labor, but that direct labor creates the value added to the material inputs.
For the capitalist, the selling price of the commodities produced by the worker is divided into three parts: first, the replacement of the price of the raw materials advanced by him together with replacement of the depreciation of the tools, machinery and other means of labour also advanced by him; secondly, the replacement of the wages advanced by him, and thirdly, the surplus left over, the capitalist’s profit. While the first part only replaces previously existing values, it is clear that both the replacement of the wages and also the surplus profit of the capitalist are, on the whole, taken from the new value created by the worker’s labour and added to the raw materials. (Marx, 1972, p. 182)
We previously drew a conceptual road map of “The Labor Theory” which saw it divide into LTP and LTV. Then LTV divided into “labor as source” and “labor as measure” theories. The source versions of LTV are best understood as (confused) value-theoretic renditions of the labor theory of property.
The source/measure dichotomy should not be confused with a prescriptive-descriptive dichotomy. “Responsibility for” (or “source of”) has a descriptive (de facto) and a normative (de jure) interpretation. The descriptive question of who is de facto responsible for committing a burglary is distinct from the normative question of who should be held de jure responsible for the burglary. The imputation principle—that de jure responsibility should be assigned according to de facto responsibility—provides the link between the two questions.
The source version of LTV and LTP also have both a descriptive and a prescriptive side. The controversy lies largely on the descriptive side although the normative parts are necessary to complete any critique of capitalist production. The descriptive side of neo-classical economics (e.g. marginal productivity theory) resorts to metaphor (pathetic fallacy) to picture causality as “responsibility”—to picture each causally efficacious factor as being responsible for producing a share of the product.
Classical laborists, such as Thomas Hodgskin, as well as Marx criticized this personification of the factors. They based the source-LTV and LTP on the unique attribute of labor that it is the only “creative” factor. That attribute of de facto responsibility is not a concept of the natural sciences. But it is central to the descriptive side of the source-LTV.
The crucial descriptive aspect remains the capturing of the human dimension of production and distribution in the labour theory of value viewed as a category of descriptive statements, rather than the possibility of “determining” or “predicting” prices on the basis of values,... (Sen, 1978, p. 183)
Economists who seem to take as their professional mission to rationalize an economy that treats persons as things (by allowing them to be hired or rented), may well tend to adopt the science of things (physics and other natural sciences) as the scientific model for “economics.” Attempts to use notions unique to the human sciences—such as the notions of “responsibility” or “intentionality”—to differentiate labor from the services of things are thus deemed inappropriate in the “science” of economics.
Marx did take labor as the unique source of the value-added so Marx played both sides of the source/measure dichotomy. It was not simply that direct labor was a measure of the value of the surplus product but that direct labor was the source of the surplus product. Indeed, Marx’s whole exploitation analysis only makes sense under the labor-as-source interpretation of the labor theory of value. The point was not that labor created the value of the product, but that labor created the product itself.
And it is this fairly obvious truth which, I contend, lies at the heart of the Marxist charge of exploitation. The real basis of that charge is not that workers produce value, but that they produce what has it. (Cohen, 1981, p. 219)
In the assertion that “labor created the value of the product,” the phrase “the value of” can be deleted and thrown, along with the measure-LTV, into the dustbin of intellectual history.
Some economists have been quite explicit about the (non-orthodox) property-theoretic interpretation of Marx’s value theory. Thorstein Veblen was never a slave to the standard or orthodox interpretation of any theory. Veblen saw natural rights arguments standing behind the general thrust of Marx’s theory. Veblen sees the claim of Labor’s right to the whole product implicit in Marx and traces it to the classical laborists or Ricardian socialists.
Chief among these doctrines, in the apprehension of his critics, is the theory of value, with its corollaries: (a) the doctrines of the exploitation of labor by capital; and (b) the laborer’s claim to the whole product of his labor. Avowedly, Marx traces his doctrine of labor value to Ricardo, and through him to the classical economists. The laborer’s claim to the whole product of labor, which is pretty constantly implied, though not frequently avowed by Marx, he has in all probability taken from English writers of the early nineteenth century, more particularly from William Thompson. (Veblen, 1952, p. 316)
Recent scholarship would, however, emphasize the influence on Marx of Hodgskin and Bray more than Thompson (see King, 1983 and Henderson, 1985).
Gunnar Myrdal finds a similar reason behind even Ricardo’s use of labor as the basis for his value theory in spite of criticism from Malthus, Say, and Bentham.
The solution of this puzzle may be found in the natural law notion that property has its natural justification in the labour bestowed on an object. (Myrdal, 1969, p. 70)
But the implications of the labor theory inevitably conflict with classical liberalism which fully accepted wage labor.
The foundation of the theory is the uniqueness of labor; of all the causally efficacious factors, labor is the only responsible agent.
Man alone is alive, nature is dead; human work alone creates values, nature is passive. Man alone is cause, as Rodbertus said later, whilst external nature is only a set of conditions. Human work is the only active cause which is capable of creating value. This is also the origin of the concept “productive factor”. It is not surprising that the classics recognized only one productive factor, viz., labour. The same metaphysical analogies that were used to establish natural rights were also used to expound the idea of natural or real value. It is an example of the previously mentioned attempt of the philosophy of natural law to derive both rights and value from the same ultimate principles. (Myrdal, 1969, p. 72)
Thus the Janus-headed “labor theory” has long served as both a property theory and a value theory—even though orthodox economists only want to see it as a (fallacious) price theory in Marx.
They tend to focus attention on the theory of exchange value [and] neglect its foundations ... Marx was right in saying that his surplus value theory follows from the classical theory of real value, admittedly with additions from other sources. Moreover, Marx was not the first to draw radical conclusions from it. All pre-Marxist British socialists derived their arguments from Adam Smith and later from Ricardo. (Myrdal, 1969, p. 78)
It is time to step back for a moment and consider Marx’s value theory in a larger context.
[T]he “naturalness” of labour as the moral title to what is created by that labour has been a commonplace of political and economic radicalism for three hundred years; and political and economic conservatism has had a continuous struggle to defuse the revolutionary implications of it. (Ryan, 1984, p. 1)
The central point of the labour theory as a theory of exploitation is that labour is the only human contribution to economic activity, and the exercise of labour power should be the only way in which a claim to the net product of a nonexploitative economic system is acquired. (Nuti, 1977, p. 96)
A typical response by Marxists is “None of this, by the way, implies that Marx intended the labor theory of value as a theory of property rights, à la Locke or even Proudhon” (Shaikh, 1977, p. 121) as if the question of what “Marx intended” was relevant beyond the confines of Marxology.
The Employment Contract vs. de facto Inalienability
“Private ownership of the means of production” is not the culprit. We have seen enough of the plot to ferret out the true villain of the piece. The labor theory of property normatively implies that Labor (the workers including managers) in each enterprise ought to be the residual claimant for that enterprise. We previously noted the descriptive fact that any legal party could be the residual claimant by becoming the hiring party, the party who hires (or already owns) all the inputs to be used up in production. The workers’ claim to the positive and negative fruits of their labor is thus legally defeated by the workers being hired, i.e. by the employment contract. It is thus the employment contract that defeats the legal implementation of the labor theory of property.
The employer-employee contract inherently conflicts with people’s right to the fruits of their labor. The employment contract is the contract for the voluntary hiring or renting of human beings. When a person is legally rented or “employed,” then the person has no legal responsibility for the positive or negative results of his or her actions; that legal responsibility goes to the employer. Renting capital gives financial leverage (“gearing” in the UK); it multiplies the effect of the equity capital. Similarly, renting people creates human leverage; it multiplies the effect of the employer—as if all the results were the fruits of solely the employer’s labor.
This conflict between “employment” and de facto responsibility has long been apparent in the law. We noted previously that the labor theory of property was only a property-theoretic rendition of the usual juridical principle of imputing legal responsibility in accordance with de facto responsibility. We also saw that—unlike the services of things—the actions of persons are de facto responsible. That de facto responsibility is independent of legal contracts, i.e. people do not suddenly become non-responsible tools or instruments when they sign an employment contract. The legal authorities only explicitly apply the juridical principle when a human activity ends up in court, i.e. when a criminal or civil wrong has been committed. When an employee—even within the context of a normal employment relation—commits a crime at the behest of the employer, then the employee suddenly becomes a partner in the enterprise.
All who participate in a crime with a guilty intent are liable to punishment. A master and servant who so participate in a crime are liable criminally, not because they are master and servant, but because they jointly carried out a criminal venture and are both criminous. (Batt, 1967, p. 612)
The legal authorities will not allow an employment contract to be used by an employee to avoid the legal responsibility for his or her de facto responsible actions.
But when the “venture” being “jointly carried out” is a normal capitalist enterprise, the workers do not suddenly become de facto non-responsible tools or instruments. They are just as much de facto responsible together with the working employer as when “they jointly carried out a criminal venture.” It is the reaction of the law that suddenly changes. Now the employment contract for the renting of human beings is accepted as a “valid” contract. The de facto responsibility of human action is nevertheless not factually transferable even though the legal authorities now accept the employment contract for the sale of labor as a commodity as “valid.”
The legal system faced the same internal contradiction when it treated slaves as legal chattel in the Ante-bellum South. The legally non-responsible instrument in work suddenly became a responsible person when committing a crime.
The slave, who is but “a chattel” on all other occasions, with not one solitary attribute of personality accorded to him, becomes “a person” whenever he is to be punished. (Goodell, 1969, p. 309)
As an Ante-bellum Alabama judge put it, the slaves in fact
are rational beings, they are capable of committing crimes; and in reference to acts which are crimes, are regarded as persons. Because they are slaves, they are ... incapable of performing civil acts, and, in reference to all such, they are things, not persons. (Catterall, 1926, p. 247)
It should be no surprise that the legal system involves the same contradiction when workers are rented instead of being owned. The rental relation is voluntary (unlike traditional slavery) but de facto responsibility is not voluntarily transferable. A person would not become a de facto non-responsible entity if he or she voluntarily agreed to the legal condition of slavery. And the hired criminal would certainly voluntarily agree to give up any and all responsibility for the results of his actions. But regardless of the language on the contract and regardless of the reaction of the legal system, the fact is that he remains a de facto responsible person.
It is useful in this connection to consider the de facto alienability of things. We can voluntarily give up and transfer the temporary use of a tool or instrument to another person so the other person can employ it and be solely de facto responsible for the results of that employment. The legal contract that fits the transfer is the lease or rental contract; the owner of the instrument rents, leases, or hires out the instrument to be used by someone else. The same facts do not apply to our selves. We cannot voluntarily give up and transfer the temporary use of our own persons to another person so the other person can “employ” us and be solely de facto responsible for the results of that employment. Our own de facto responsibility intrudes. From the factual viewpoint, we are inexorably partners. The so-called “employees” can only co-operate together with the worker employer but then they are jointly de facto responsible for the venture they “jointly carried out.” But the law still treats the legal contract for the hiring of human beings as a “valid” contract even though human actions are not de facto transferable like the services of a tool or instrument.
The nice word for this is “legal fiction.” The law will accept the de facto responsible co-operation of the “employees” as if that fulfilled the hiring contract. Or, at least, the law will do that if no crime has been committed. If a crime has been committed, then the law will not allow the labor theory of property (i.e. the juridical principle of imputation) to be defeated by the employment contract. The law will not allow this “fictional” transfer of labor to shield the criminous servant from legal responsibility. Then the fiction is set aside in favor of the facts; the enterprise is legally reconstructed as a partnership of all who worked in it.
The not-so-nice word for this is “fraud.” When the legal system “validates” the contract for the renting of human beings, that is a fraud perpetrated on an institutional scale. It is our own peculiar institution.
This argument is an application to the employment contract of the de facto theory of inalienable rights that descends from the history of anti-slavery and democratic thought (see Ellerman, 1992). De facto responsibility is factually inalienable, and thus without having a legalized form of fraud, it must be legally inalienable. The legal contract to alienate and transfer that which is de facto inalienable is inherently invalid. The natural-law invalidity of the voluntary self-enslavement contract (to sell all of one’s labor) is already legally recognized; the invalidity of the contract to rent or hire human beings should be similarly legally recognized.
The chapter began with an analysis of the Fundamental Myth of capitalism, that the residual claimant’s role was part of the property rights of “ownership of the means of production.” A frequent reply is that while it is “formally” true that residual claimancy is not part of capital ownership, the bargaining power of capital ownership is sufficient that “Capital hires Labor” at will. Thus residual claimancy is said to be “in effect part of the ownership of capital.”
The rejoinder is that we are not arguing that the determination of the hiring party should be left to marketplace bargaining power (any more than the question of the ownership of human beings should be left to market transactions). The argument for the invalidity of the hired-labor contract completes the argument. With the contract for the renting of human beings ruled out as invalid, it would not be a question of bargaining power. All industry would be organized on the basis of people renting (or already owning) capital instead of the owners of capital renting people. Thus the capital suppliers—as capital suppliers—are denied the residual claimant’s role (they might also work and be part of the residual claimant in that role). Since the residual claimant’s role was never part of their property rights, this is no violation of their actual (as opposed to imagined) property rights. They are only denied the “freedom” to make the naturally invalid contract to rent other human beings.
There is no need to “adopt” the labor theory of property; it is already adopted. It is the fundamental juridical principle of imputation. Our argument is to “dis‑adopt” the inherently invalid contract for the renting of human beings—the contract that defeats the application of the labor theory of property (when no crime has been committed). The facts of human are the same whether the venture is criminal or not. Every enterprise should be legally reconstructed as a partnership of all who work in the enterprise. Every enterprise should be a democratic firm.