"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Labor and Stockholders: Applying Locke’s Notion of Property

John Locke’s view on how something becomes a person’s property could fundamentally alter labor-management negotiations in companies. Moreover, our assumption that management participates in the discussions may be upended. The key, I contend, lies in how we classify labor. I submit that the paradigm that has been handed down to us is deeply flawed in its fundamentals, and yet strangely we do not even question its contours.

In describing his notion of property, Locke begins with the state of nature, wherein “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself.”[1] Unlike Thomas Hobbes, Locke did not think that rights depend on the existence of government. From a person’s body, Locke goes next to its labor, as properly one’s own. It follows, Locke contends, that “(w)hatsoever then [a person] removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men. For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.”[2] The caveat at the end means that as parcels from the commons are belaboured, the resulting private property should not exhaust the commons itself, which nature provides to all. Yet even when all land, for example, has been claimed by individuals and government, surely Locke’s claim still holds that in mixing with an object, the labor of one’s person, being his or her property already, extend the property to the object too.

Yet what if another person already owns the object? Locke assumes the laboring person snatches it out of the state of nature, where anyone can appropriate the object with one’s own labor. If the basis of Locke’s theory of property is not the state of nature itself, but, rather, that a person’s own person and labor are one’s property—whether in the state of nature or in an arranged society—then a right of property is still in the mixing of a person’s labor in an object. In cases in which the object is already owned by another and he or she consents to the labor of another being mixed with said object, then either the laborer has an ownership share or he or she contracts with the pre-existing owner to sell the share.

Hence, companies, whether owned by private interests (capitalism) or a government (socialism), contract with employees essentially to purchase their property rights that naturally accrue as their respective laboring mixes in with the means of production. I distance the labor from the means of production because the latter do not gain a property right in working on an object, for it makes no sense to say that a machine has its machine and work as property. The implications of this distinction are nothing short of huge with respect to the assumptions we make about business and capital.

In financial reporting, labor is classified as an expense to be deducted from revenues to arrive at profit. The returns to a company’s owners (e.g., stockholders) come off after the profit, rather than being an expense of doing business. If Locke is correct that labor also gives rise to a property right, then the sale of the stake is also extra-business, rather than a mere means of production. That is, the cost of labor should rightfully be classified with dividends after profit.

By implication, rather than negotiating the sale of the labored property as if it were an expense, the talks would be between owners. For one group of owners, that of capital, to say, “We can pay more, but we’ll have to cut expenses” would be a category mistake. So too, would the common (and convenient) assumption, “If we pay you more, we’d have to raise prices and we’d lose business.” Within the property classification, buying up the labor-property shares would come out of dividends, rather than to be made up for by intra-business revenue or expenses. This “third rail” is never brought up as even an alternative—the capital-owners’ dividends presumably being off the table. Such a narrowing of a debate goes a long way in getting what you want in negotiations. John Locke might just say, not so fast!

1. John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, section 27, in Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2003), p. 287.
2. Ibid., p. 288.