Can One “Own Labor”?

An idea I picked up from Stephan Kinsella is that you can’t “own your labor,” because labor is not an object that can be owned but a process, an act.

It’s an act of laboring.

You can own wood, but not “chopping wood.” You can own a house but not “building a house.” It is senseless to speak of owning actions rather than owning things.

Why the Labor Theory of Property Is False

It follows from the previous post that the labor theory of property is immediately undone.

For according to it, you take a thing you don’t own, namely, a piece of land; “mix” it with a thing you can’t meaningfully own, namely, labor; and magically, all of a sudden, you end up with something you are definitely entitled to own.

This does not mean that there is no grain of truth in or plausibility to the labor theory of property, only that it can no longer be considered valid on the face of it in its original formulation.

Homesteading Property: Purposeful Use vs. Labor

Property can be seen from two different perspectives: (1) as a relation between a man and an object; (2) as an understanding between members of society. I covered (2) in previous posts. (1) can exist even for an isolated Crusoe. But why would Crusoe need “property” in his solitary state? Perhaps in order to make the following counterfactual true: “If another person, Smith, suddenly appeared nearby, then these are the objects that Smith would have to recognize as Crusoe’s own and abstain from stealing them.”

How then does Crusoe appropriate unowned resources? The labor theory of property is lacking; according to it, as before, Crusoe takes an unowned object, mixes it with something that cannot be owned, namely, an act of laboring, perhaps shaping matter into a form that pre-exists in his mind but which, since this form is ideal, he also cannot own in a meaningful sense, and somehow ends up owning the resulting good.

There is an easy solution, however. We can permit an isolated Crusoe to come to own anything he uses for an end that demands that he has exclusive control over it. Now the human body is not just that which lives but that by which one lives and by which one enjoys. As such, it is a capital good. A fishing spear is a detachable extension of body. The spear is more obviously an extension than a caught fish, and yet both are intermediate goods on their way to utility or pleasure. It would be senseless to own the spear with no hope of catching fish, or to own fish with no hope of cooking them, or having cooked fish without a chance to eat them to either sustain life or enjoy the food.

A futuristic bodily implant that enhances human powers may be impossible to extricate without killing the owner; on the other hand, we’ve all heard stories of a homeless guy who goes to sleep on a park bench and wakes up elsewhere without a kidney. So, which parts of the body are “detachable” varies with available technology.

Once Smith appears next to Crusoe, Smith would only need to ascertain which objects Crusoe has been using in pursuit of his happiness. If the consumption of these objects is rivalrous, then Smith would know exactly what Crusoe’s “properties” are and be obliged to restrain himself. Once Smith has settled on the island and is cooperating with Crusoe, that man obtains ownership over further unowned objects who has homesteaded them first.

What of labor? Well, that a man is pursuing an end is best realized by third parties by their watching him work on it, pay the costs of the means of attain the end. After all, the end is hidden in the heart. Crusoe’s laboring on X is evidence to Smith that Crusoe is using X for his own ends and has set his mind to maintain the exclusive control over it that he needs. But laboring as such does not cause anything to become one’s property.

Creating an Anarchist Nature Preserve

I emailed Walter Block the following question: Can a nature preserve exist in an anarcho-capitalist society? By the definition of this term, a nature preserve cannot have any human labor mixed with it. So it seems that it will always be unowned and therefore capable of being homesteaded (and developed, thereby ceasing to be a preserve) by someone else.

In addition, if it stays unowned, it will be unmanaged and uncared for and so may suffer the tragedy of the commons.

But what if a small preserve could be a profitable business if it could come to be owned? The owner could gain by selling tickets or licenses for outdoor activities, hunting, or scientific research on wildlife. What if such use is in fact the most socially valuable for a given lot?

He replied with a link to his paper addressing this very question.

Now first, my question assumes the correctness of the labor theory of property (LTP). In his paper, Block assumes this, too. I argued before that the LTP is not without serious defects.

The second assumption is that, even if the LTP is valid, it is the only way to homestead property. Block thinks so, but as we will see, perhaps not entirely sensibly.

Block defines a nature preserve as fully pristine and unspoiled wilderness. The owner “will not allow any customers to tread upon his territory, since to do so would be incompatible with a pure nature preserve. He will charge them a fee for keeping the land untouched; they will benefit from the mere contemplation of this offering.”

He then goes through and rejects several possibilities of how one can mix labor with this land without “imprinting a stamp of his own person,” as Rothbard put it, onto it. Placing popsicle sticks all over the grounds, sending out cows, planting trees all involve untoward interference with nature. Block concludes with the following prescription: the homesteader is to capture and immediately release “beetles, frogs, ants, worms, snakes, butterflies, caterpillars, and other such species” within the area. We capture them

either with birds we have trained for this purpose or by utilizing nets with long poles. Thus we homestead and thus come to own these creepy, crawly creatures. Subsequently, we release the members of these species we have previously homesteaded and thus now own to do our homesteading of the land for us. …

We own these living things, they now “work” for us, whether they know it or not. …

We release these creatures right back where they came from, where we got them from, thus obviating any objection on the ground that we are upsetting nature in this terrain.

Hilarious. I suppose it’s an amusing exercise. But let’s be honest: the recommended procedure seems like a meaningless ritual. Labor is being mixed but without any discernible goal. In fact, there is no goal at all other than formally to satisfy the letter of the homesteading law; it’s a complete waste of scarce resources.

This magical incantation is in its spirit completely unlike what Block writes earlier. Normally, homesteading involves the following work: “For agricultural purposes, he must clear the tree stumps, move away the big rocks, plow the land, seed it, and gather a crop from these efforts of his. For urban areas, he must build a road or a house or a factory on it,” and so on. The process of homesteading in this manner creates wealth. It contributes to society both in itself and as a sign that the development and improvement of the land will continue in the future, once the title to the property is granted.

The process of homesteading a nature preserve described by Block actually harms society. Even as a sign, it signifies only that precisely no improvements will ever be made.

Would it not be simpler to add a special proviso to the LTP instead: another way to homestead wilderness is to go to the local temple of Zeus and sacrifice an ox to him. It would be just as effective — or rather as ineffective and absurd — but possibly less costly.

An admitted virtue of Block’s solution is that the amount of work it requires to create a nature preserve may deter greens from stealing huge tracts of land from the people by making them so obviously unproductive. On the contrary, making a sacrifice to Zeus does not specify which land is to be homesteaded or how much of it. It’s too easy.

Well, one possibility is to make the number of oxen to be sacrificed proportionate to the “fair market value” of the land, if there is such a thing. This way, if maintaining a nature preserve is truly the most profitable use of the land, its homesteader will need to pay the opportunity cost of this use measured in the cost of the sacrifice.

At any rate, I did not have in mind the fanatical greens who want to keep the land 100% untouched. I was thinking about a piece of wilderness that on the one hand is somewhat removed from a park but on the other allows plenty of human activities. Perhaps there is a mountain there for climbing or extreme sports, or herds of deer for hunting (who will need to be carefully conserved by the owner), or ways to engage in a study of plants and wild animals. Although in this case, even such a place will probably need some “paths, lighting, bathrooms,” and so on which will be sufficient for ordinary homesteading.

The implicit libertarian view of nature which I personally share here is that nature is to be fully conquered and subdued. The Garden of Eden is to be ultimately recreated on the global scale. Perhaps the proper answer to this problem is that nature preserves are vicious and inhuman institutions which have no place in a civilized and perpetually economically improving society that libertarianism promises to all people.

As a result, that the labor theory of property appears to prohibit keeping any parcel of land forever idle is a virtue of the theory, not its weakness.

Saving the Labor Theory of Property

I was influenced by Stephan Kinsella in the idea that one can’t own his act of laboring any more than one can own walking or climbing or punching.

This poses a problem for the labor theory of property.

But is the problem fatal? I think not. It is true that if I own a good such as a lamp, then it is awkward to say that I own the services of the lamp such as illumination. Very well, let us say that I have a right to the lamp’s light instead. But why have such a right if not to be secure in the enjoyment of the activities that the lamp’s services make possible?

Again, I own my body which Kinsella admits; hence I have a right to chop wood; but this is for the sake of the security of enjoying the wood that has been chopped; which is identical to saying that I own the wood created through the exercise of my labor.

A sculptor has a right to work on an unowned piece of clay; but why perform the work if the statue thereby produced cannot become exclusively his?

I (and everyone else) have the right to plant crops on a parcel of land, since planting is laboring which is an act of the body which I own. But the right would be for naught unless the harvest could be gathered and profited from. But this can only occur if I can exclude others from using the land. I ipso facto end up owning not just the crops but the land, as well.

The formal argument then is as follows:

1) If I do not come to own the good labored on, then the fruits of my labor are not secure from expropriation.
2) If the fruits of my labor are not secure (in the legal sense), then the right to labor is meaningless.
3) If the right to labor is meaningless, then I do not really own my body.
4) But I do own my body.
Therefore, by modus tollens,
5) I own what I labor on.