Labor, Ownership and Theft

The Lewis-Block-Kinsella exchange concerns labor, ownership and theft. Several questions arise in this exchange.

1. Lewis posits “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.”

This is theft. Person A doesn’t steal B’s labor. We know this because labor is not transferred from B to A. Labor cannot be transferred; it can’t be moved from one place to another. Control over a body and thence its labor can be transferred from one person to another, but that’s not a literal transfer of labor.

Example 1: S (for seller) bakes a loaf of bread from flour, a stove and other materials not owned by P (for purchaser). S uses labor to do the making and baking. P pays S $2 for the bread. The bread is a transformed or embodied product, a transformation of labor and capital goods. P does not buy either the labor of S or S’s capital goods. P buys the product, the bread. That’s what P pays for, what’s transferred and what he owns and controls after paying the $2.

Example 2: Same as example 1 except that after the transfer, P doesn’t pay the $2. Instead he takes the bread and leaves. This is a theft. Whether or not labor can be stolen or owned is irrelevant in deciding if a theft has occurred. It’s irrelevant in this case because P is not agreeing to buy S’s labor and he hasn’t. He’s buying a loaf of bread. P steals the bread. S has lost that loaf of bread. Its value is $2 to S; that was the bread’s price and the bargain was struck for $2 payment. P hasn’t stolen $2 from S. P has stolen $2 worth of bread from S. The money price measures the value of what is stolen (the bread), but the $2 is not literally what is stolen.

Example 3: Instead of bread, suppose that S provides a service, a haircut. Everything remains the same. If P doesn’t pay, he hasn’t stolen money. He has stolen the haircut. He hasn’t stolen the barber’s labor either, and he likewise hasn’t stolen a portion of the barber’s chair, comb, scissors, or space, etc. If you like, you can imagine for some purposes that the labor or capital is “embodied” in the product, but not in analyzing this theft.

Example 4: The service is that S sings a song for P, and P has agreed to pay the $2 for this service. The embodiment is, let us say, pleasure in hearing the song and also a memory. P doesn’t pay again. This too is theft. P hasn’t stolen S’s labor or a portion of the piano that S used while singing or a portion of all the labor that went into S’s training. P has stolen the playing and hearing of the song. It’s consumed and gone, apart from the memory and whatever pleasure P has in stealing from S. The money value is $2, but P didn’t literally take $2 away from S.

Example 5: S loans P $2 for a weekend and P agrees to pay S back with $2.20. At the payback date, P doesn’t pay up. In this case, not involving labor except incidentally which we neglect, P has stolen $2 but its worth is $2.20, and that amount is pertinent for judging the punishment if P is caught and judgment is made against him. Court and other costs also become pertinent. But the point here is that a literal theft of $2 of money is like a theft of some other good or service, that theft being done by not paying the agreed upon amount ($2.20) in exchange.

Example 6: H homesteads a plot of unappropriated “raw” land by mixing his labor with it. This is a transformation or the production of a product. Labor plus land results in something different from either. If T comes along and steals the plot by force of arms, he does not steal either H’s labor or the raw land. He steals the improved or transformed land.

Example 7: L is forced into slavery and becomes the property of M. Does M own the labor of L? No, he does not. Since M can make L act or use his body or labor on the tasks chosen by M, M controls L’s output via L’s creation of labor. L’s usefulness to M depends upon M’s being able to extract labor from L, but M does not literally own L’s labor. He owns L’s body. If you own a car, you control its motion. Do you own the motion? No, you produce it with the car. M could rent L out for a period of time. He’d be renting the body of L, not L’s labor.

If R steals L from M, R has not stolen L’s labor. R has stolen L, the slave, the body, the person. R can get L to produce labor, in the same way that M, the prior owner could. In this way, R now extracts L’s labor, but he has not literally stolen that labor from M.

Example 8: If M, a slave owner, can own and control the body of L, it must mean that a free person, F, owns and controls his body; but F also owns his labor. If that is true, and it is, then F can rent his body for its labor. The rental is known as a wage or a salary or as compensation or pay. It simply means that F agrees to use his body in ways designated by others. Loosely speaking, and this looseness extends to expositions of economics, F rents his labor; but it’s really his body he’s renting, to be used in certain ways.

I’ve just argued at length in these examples that labor is not stolen in those cases of a free market agreement being made and not stolen in the case of slavery.

Can labor ever be stolen? F’s labor that’s not exercised or remains potential can’t be obtained without stealing F’s body. Laboring is an act in which the body participates. One cannot gain the use of labor by force or fraud without controlling the body. That control amounts to some form of slavery, and forced control over the body is entailed by slavery. The force is initiated by others. This differs categorically from a man using his body to earn a paycheck. Wage-slavery is a fiction.

The difference between having a free body and having the body of a slave is in who controls the body: (a) Its occupant freely using it; or (b) someone freely designated by its occupant (someone with permission); or (c) someone who controls it without its owner’s agreement or willingness. In none of these cases is labor literally something that can be transferred from one person to another.


8:45 am on July 29, 2019