Can Labor Be Owned Under Libertarian Law? A Debate Between Block and Kinsella

Letter 1:  

From: Lewis
Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2019 2:50 AM
To: [email protected]
Subject: A question on fraud without theft

Hi, Professor Block.

Is fraud without theft a property rights violation?

I understand that libertarians consider fraud to be ‘theft by trick’, so if Person A sells Person B a toaster, but it’s actually just a bag of dirt, then Person A has essentially stolen Person B’s money by not giving them the product they paid for. You state you agree with this in Defending the Undefendable, so I’d like to build off of this point.

What about the instance where Person A employs Person B to work for them at a certain pay-rate, and Person B follows Person A’s job instructions, but then Person A just refuses to pay.

Technically no property rights violation has occurred as far as I can see, because no money or other item has passed hands so that Person B can be considered stolen from or aggressed against. Person B had given up his labour for Person A, yes, but, from a libertarian perspective, ‘labour’ is not a resource that can be owned or stolen (Stephen Kinsella argues this point, and I tend to agree with him).

Even in the instance where a contract is signed by both persons A & B – simply stating both parties agree to the premise of the work and the pay-rate – and Person A still decided not to pay Person B after the work is appropriately completed, I can’t see that Person B has had their property rights violated. I believe I have heard you make a similar case to how merely promising to work for someone and then not showing up to provide that work does not mean you have violated that person’s rights in any way, since they have only ‘lost’ the idea that they were going to have work provided for them, which isn’t a legitimate property right.

Would you agree that failure to uphold a contract or mere promise is NOT a property rights / NAP violation, and that we should instead look to market incentives to solve this issue? (e.g. insurance, ostracism, etc).

Or would you argue there is some property rights violation still at work in the “unfulfilled payment for labour” scenario with Persons A & B that I outlined? As long as nothing tangible has been taken from someone, I personally can’t see a logical libertarian argument for how theft, fraud, or any sort of property rights violation has been made.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Note: if you choose to post your response on your blog – as I see you like to do – then I would be honoured, but I would like to request you just refer to me as ‘Lewis’. I hope that’s okay.

Thanks very much for your time.

Letter 2:

Dear Lewis:

Where did Stephan Kinsella say that? Please give me the direct quote, and source.

In my view labor can indeed be owned. A stole B’s labor. A is a thief.

Best regards,


Letter 3:

From: Lewis

Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2019 12:03 PM

To: Walter Block

Subject: Re: A question on fraud without theft

Hi Walter.

I’ve found some sources here:

Kinsella gives a nice 1 minute description of his thoughts in this talk which I currently don’t have time to transcribe, but hopefully you can clickthrough and watch it.

Stephan Kinsella, Reflections on the Theory of Contract (PFS 2017) (, timecode 18:40 – 19:50).

I’ve also found some direct quotes in his writing here:

“I also do not need to rely on “ownership” of my labor; strictly speaking, labor cannot be owned, and labor ownership need not be relied on to show that I maintain ownership of my property as I transform it.”

(Stephan Kinsella, Against Intellectual Property, Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2008 p 37, footnote 73)

“Creation itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to gain rights in unowned resources. Further, there is no need to maintain the strange view that one “owns” one’s labor in order to own things one first occupies. Labor is a type of action, and action is not ownable; rather, it is the way that some tangible things (e.g., bodies) act in the world.”

(Stephan Kinsella, Against Intellectual Property, Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2008 p 38)

I would like to say, though, that I’ve been persuaded by some other libertarians which I’ve questioned on this, that Person A is indeed violating Person B’s rights in the sense of essentially making Person B a temporary slave by getting them to work for Person A without Person A’s promised payment, so I actually think I’ve switched my position, though I still don’t see labour as having the capacity to be owned or stolen.

I’m communicating with Kinsella as well, so I’m hoping he can set me straight if I’ve misinterpreted his arguments.

I’d be interested if you have any further comments.


On 6/03/2019, at 8:11 AM, Walter Block <[email protected]> wrote:

Letter 4:

On Tue, Mar 5, 2019 at 2:11 PM Walter Block <[email protected]> wrote:

Dear Lewis:

I think Stephan is one of the most gifted libertarian theoreticians on the planet. I disagree with him on this issue. I think you can own your labor. I think that slavery was (among other more serious things) a theft of labor. I think A is a criminal.

Best regards,


Letter 5:

From: Stephan Kinsella [mailto:[email protected]]

Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2019 3:05 PM

To: Walter Block

Cc: Lewis

Subject: Re: A question on fraud without theft

As I noted separately to lewis — I don’t think labor is ownable and failing to pay someone (when you are able to pay) is not a theft of labor. It’s a theft of the money that you owe them.

Letter 6:

On Tue, Mar 5, 2019 at 6:08 PM Walter Block <[email protected]> wrote:

Dear Stephan:

I see your point. I changed my mind. I agree with you. A stole $ from B, not labor. We both agree that A is a thief.

But, C enslaved D. Didn’t C steal D’s labor (plus much worse)?

Best regards,


Letter 7:

From: Stephan Kinsella [mailto:[email protected]]

Sent: Tuesday, March 05, 2019 4:11 PM

To: Walter Block

Cc: Lewis

Subject: Re: A question on fraud without theft

I don’t see the C & D example–where is this?

Letter 8:

Dear Stephan and Lewis

I just made it up. Mr. C, captures Mr. D and enslaves him. C compels D to work for him. Did not C steal labor from D?

Stephan’s main argument in the IP case is that IP is not scarce. Therefore, it cannot be owned. But, labor must certainly IS scarce, therefore, that IP argument does not work in this labor case. I am perfectly happy to say that A stole money from B, the salary agreed upon, not labor; fine. But C, the slave-master stole labor, not money, from D, the slave, in my humble opinion.

Stephen’s view, I think, is also incompatible with the Lockean, Rothbardian, Hoppean, Kinsellian analysis of “mixing ones labor with land” in  order to own it via homesteading. If the homesteader does not own his labor, then this “mixing” falls apart. I don’t see this as only “metaphorical” although, to be sure, it is also that.



3:23 pm on July 27, 2019