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Labor Is Property


That’s right, labor IS property.  No, no, no!  This isn’t some right-wing rant suggesting that serfdom be reintroduced (although many argue that we’re already there).  Small-“L” labor is work performed.  And labor is the property of those that provide it—the workers—until it is transferred to someone else through a contractual transaction (i.e. the paying of a wage).

So, simply put:  Workers have the right to pool their resources, just like capitalists, and bargain to get the best deal in exchange for their property.  It’s the fundamental framework of a modern market.  Even Adam Smith used the image of a laborer in his effort to describe the invisible hand.  Despite what the right-wing would like you to believe, this father of modern economic thought was not a supply-sider, as he recognized the need for balance between the two.

Capitalists, when they buy stock (or “invest”) their cash, are really just pooling their property (money) with the property of other capitalists with the express purpose of gaining the economic advantages which a larger pool of resources will command.  Labor has every right to do the very same “pooling”.

Big-“L” Labor is part of the two essential inputs you will find in any production function (the other being Capital).  An economy which prides itself on being “market based” cannot sustain itself when one of the two inputs is given preferential treatment by government policies.  Laws which discourage, restrict, or even prevent workers from organizing—and thus gaining economic advantages from their own larger pool of resources—are onerous government regulations intruding on the free market.

Labor is where work actually gets performed.  And there is NEVER an economic output that does not include an element of labor.  Let me give you a classic example.  Let’s say that you need to dig a well.  You have many options on the proportions of Labor-to-Capital, but they will both be present.  If you rent a machine that does everything on its own, from GPS-mapping the site to fitting the pipes in the final well, a living person (labor) had to push the button to start it working.  On the other hand, if you chose to dig the well by hand—literally by hand, without shovel or other tools—you would still have capital in the equation, because the land itself is capital.

Since rhetorical framing has proven to be so important, as evidenced by the right-wing’s success at getting the Democrats to surrender to simple talking points, it is urgent that we start framing pro-Labor arguments using what has become the dominant language of the market paradigm:  Labor is a part of the market and the markets must be allowed to function.  Would a right-winger—for even a second— consider interfering with the formation or management of a corporation?  If not, then they can’t be faithful to their market fundamentalism when they try to interfere in the creation and workings of a Labor Union.

Conceptually, Labor should be on a perfectly equal footing to Capital, without the government intruding to give one side preferential treatment.  But in reality, U.S. government policies of the past few decades have specifically and purposefully relegated Labor to more of an inconvenience—if not a downright hindrance—to the profit motive, when in truth Labor is as an equal partner in profit’s creation.  You can’t create profit without labor.  What heresy, eh?

There may be right-wing market fundamentalists that disagree on the grounds that the government has, on the urgings of organized Labor, created workplace regulations regarding such things as minimum wage, maximum work-week, child labor restrictions—and even the weekend—which are intrusions on the market.  They should be careful in that reasoning; government action creates the entire environment for business itself.  Without the “intrusion” of contract enforcement, for example, no markets beyond subsistence-level barter could exist at all.

Societies have an absolute right to regulate the functioning of commerce.  There is no “natural” order to commerce.  There is no divinely-inspired set of economic “laws” which mandate how a society must define the workings of its internal and external trade.  And if there were, the American crony-capitalist “free market” that we know today could not survive within them.

Once a society decides on a set of principles under which it will govern the allocation of its resources, whether by the actions of individuals, the commands of a central authority, or a mix, those principles must be refereed fairly.  The people in power cannot pick and choose winners and losers.  Policymakers cannot create rules that conflict with the underlying principles by giving preferential treatment to one economic actor at the expense of another, and expect to sustain the system.  Inconsistency leads to uncertainty and uncertainty in a supposedly “free market” will slow—and even stop—commerce.  When the public philosophy of free markets collides with the private desire to advance the interests of one economic segment, such as Capital, it will lead to the collapse of the system.

Since labor is property, it is unjust and unwise for legislatures to interfere with the natural process of organization.  Individual labor with limited bargaining power in the face of hyper-organized capital leads to exploitation, which further leads to unnatural wealth- and income gaps, which in turn lead to economic and social instability.  And ultimately to revolution.  In order for capitalism to work, Labor must be an equal partner in production, and that requires organization.

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About Gary S. Barkley