Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Reflections on Property Relations

Posted Nov 18, 2012 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

In Smithian economics, human freedom means the capacity to sell one’s labor.  In fact, the difference between slave labor and free labor was precisely that slaves did not own their labor, but were owned as labor. As Adam Smith famously said, echoing John Locke:

The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable.

He was not writing about slaves here, but he was arguing that a free man’s labor was what he owned, and therefore had the freedom to sell to others.  The Smithian legacy of labor continues today in the U. S. where workers freely sell their property (labour) to an owner for a wage, and then the owner manages the property (labour) as he or she thinks fit, within some legal and moral restraints.  In many states in the U. S., business owners can terminate their workers without cause and without due process because they pay for the worker’s labor and can use it or not use it at will.  This may seem a bit extreme, but until our labor laws actually change, employees are “at will” employees, which means that the owner can will to terminate them with impunity.

Perhaps no one understood the extreme conditions of property relations when owners purchase the workers’ labor better than Karl Marx:

It goes without saying that the proletarian, i.e., the man who being without capital and rent, lives purely by labor, and by a one-sided abstract labor, is considered by political economy only as a worker.  Political economy can therefore advance the proposition that the proletarian, the same as any horse, must get as much as will enable him to work.  It does not consider him when he is not working, as a human being, but leaves such consideration to criminal law, to doctors, to religion, to the statistical tables, to politics and to the poorhouse overseer.

If the economy is based on property relations, then it seems that one can either rely on government and various civic organizations, including those sponsored by corporate philanthropy, to take care of the human misery caused by treating labor as property, or look for another way to understand the relationship between employee and employer.  I think there is another way.

First of all, we need to remember that not all relationships that involve money are property relations.  Students, for example, pay a fee to participate in higher education, but it would be a mistake to see their relationship with professors as a property relation.  Paying taxes also involves money, but to think of taxes as an exchange based on property relations is to have a very narrow view of the political community.

Furthermore, not all exchanges of property create property relations.  Let’s say I buy my neighbor’s car. Does this make our relationship a property relation, or are we still neighbors who have made a deal about the car?  If I understand Smith correctly, we should not let our membership in the neighborhood influence our bargaining about the car.  But is that right?  Perhaps our relationship as neighbors would actually facilitate a good deal.  That would depend on what defines the context: membership in the neighborhood or the ownership of property.

In her book, Contested Commodities, Margaret Radin examines various cases, some not unlike the one with my neighbor.  She argues for a broad view of relationships with commodities that could include both property relations and personal relations at the same time (1996).  In terms of relationships at work, she writes:

There is an irreducibly non-market or nonmonetized aspect of human interaction going on between seller and recipient, even though a sale is taking place at the same time.  That there should be an opportunity for work to be personal in this sense does seem to be part of our conception of human flourishing—which is why those who see increasing depersonalization deplore it.  Complete commodification of work—pure labor—does violence to our notion of what it is to be a well-developed person.

Radin’s distinction between work and labor signals the inclusion of a personal relationship between employers and employees.   This does not mean that there is not an exchange of property—labor for wages—but rather that the exchange occurs in a human context.

This human context can be founded on our common humanity, and constituted by civic conversations that recognize both what we share in common and what we do not, including what we own.   In this picture, property relations exist, but they do not constitute our context.  They belong to a civic context.


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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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