Monday, December 22, 2014

Natural that it be paid

Thomas Piketty, on page 423 of Capital in the 21st Century, says, “If capital plays a useful role in the process of production, it is natural that it should be paid.”  Actually, I think it is not. 

When I read those words of Piketty, back in October of 2014, I wrote in my notebook, “It is only the separation of property ownership from labor characteristic of capitalism (but not unique to capitalism) that makes this seem reasonable.  If all the wealth in the world were evenly distributed (but still privately owned), and everybody labored, then I would expect to use my own property in my work.  I would expect my labor to bear return, more than enough to cover any of my property used up in the production process (otherwise I am falling behind).  But I would not naturally think of paying myself a rent on my own property.  I would not demand a return on my capital, per se.  It is only the fact that some have not enough property, while others have more than they need, that makes paying for the use of capital seem ‘natural’”.

Rereading those words, I have a couple of additional thoughts. One is that there is no reason to assume that property should be privately owned, rather than somehow held in common.   Then, also, I question whether I would necessarily expect my labor to at least replace the capital “used” in it.  Certainly, this would not necessarily be true if there were other, intangible, benefits to the labor.  The real point is, I would expect my labor to bear fruit in some fashion (otherwise, I would not labor).  And I would use whatever material goods I had access to in pursuit of my ends.  But the idea that “my” capital should be “paid” is not necessarily intuitive.  Consider also that, outside of capitalism, saved property does not generally multiply.  Food stockpiled may be a hedge against starvation (as long as the stockpiles survive vermin and decay), stockpiles of fuel or clothing may guard against the cold, etc.  But if I do not add to them, eventually my stockpiles will be used up.  “My” fruit trees may naturally replenish their fruit, with little labor on my part.  But most kinds of “stuff” do not naturally multiply on their own.  I see no reason that it should be “natural” to assume that they would.

If you leave cultural bias aside, there is nothing more natural in an ethic that people should profit from “their” property than in an ethic that those who have more than they need should share with those who do not.  People trained to “classical” (i.e., capitalist) economics may be tempted to assert that the former is enforced by the “invisible hand” of self-interest, whereas the latter necessarily requires collective action to counter “natural” selfishness.  That reaction unjustly deprecates people’s very real impulse to selfless, generous social behavior, which exists alongside their impulse to self-interested greed.  But besides this, it denies the massive cultural edifice we have erected to the protection of private property, starting with definitions of same, complex and controversial, which we have created so that people may know what is and is not “their” property, because people do not necessarily spontaneously see this the same way.  Then there is almost the entire body of contract law, most of the police and court systems, arguably even much or most of the military. 

The resources that go into regulating the “natural” relationship of people to each other’s private property are enormous!  There is no obvious reason why the social structures required to support an ethos of sharing would be more unwieldy than those we have erected to support an ethos of greed.  And they would probably generate a far, far better world.

1 comment:

  1. Well, but even if wealth were evenly distributed, it might consist of different kinds of stuff (even if everyone had the same amount of all the different kinds). And then if people wanted to specialize in their labor, they might want to exchange access to their wealth for access to other people's wealth (I lend you my arable land, because you want to farm, and you lend me your kitchen, because I want to cook) which could lead to rents...