Mixing one’s labor does not prove property rights!

A common justification for property rights given to us is that one deserves to acquire property by “mixing one’s labor” with natural resources. It is this “mixing” which magically turns a resource from a property. This formulation comes to us from John Locke:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath 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 joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

I’ve already debunked self-ownership, so I won’t say anything further on Locke’s false assumption that “every man has a property in his own person.” Also note what we now call the Lockean proviso, “enough and as good,” which is another point of contention. But this entry is not about either of these things, so I will merely mention them here.

What concerns me is more specifically the belief that mixing one’s labor is a sufficient condition for turning a resource into property, from something small and consumed such as an apple to an entire piece of land:

As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common.

Locke believed that the proviso ensured that no one would be deprived because there has to still be “enough and as good” for everyone else. But even that is besides the point. The point here is, what is this magical transmutation that turns a piece of land into property?

In Qu’est-ce que la Propriété?, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon debunks the concept of property. He specifically refutes the argument that property is the result of mixing one’s labor:

I maintain that the possessor is paid for his trouble and industry in his doubled crop, but that he acquires no right to the land. “Let the laborer have the fruits of his labor.” Very good; but I do not understand that property in products carries with it property in raw material. Does the skill of the fisherman, who on the same coast can catch more fish than his fellows, make him proprietor of the fishing-grounds? Can the expertness of a hunter ever be regarded as a property-title to a game-forest?…

To change possession into property, something is needed besides labor, without which a man would cease to be proprietor as soon as he ceased to be a laborer. Now, the law bases property upon immemorial, unquestionable possession; that is, prescription. Labor is only the sensible sign, the physical act, by which occupation is manifested. If, then, the cultivator remains proprietor after he has ceased to labor and produce; if his possession, first conceded, then tolerated, finally becomes inalienable, — it happens by permission of the civil law, and by virtue of the principle of occupancy.

He also argues that if the principle that labor-mixing led to property was valid, it could only lead to equality of property:

Admit, however, that labor gives a right of property in material. Why is not this principle universal? Why is the benefit of this pretended law confined to a few and denied to the mass of laborers?…

If the laborer, who adds to the value of a thing, has a right of property in it, he who maintains this value acquires the same right. For what is maintenance? It is incessant addition, — continuous creation. What is it to cultivate? It is to give the soil its value every year; it is, by annually renewed creation, to prevent the diminution or destruction of the value of a piece of land. Admitting, then, that property is rational and legitimate, — admitting that rent is equitable and just, — I say that he who cultivates acquires property by as good a title as he who clears, or he who improves; and that every time a tenant pays his rent, he obtains a fraction of property in the land entrusted to his care, the denominator of which is equal to the proportion of rent paid. Unless you admit this, you fall into absolutism and tyranny; you recognize class privileges; you sanction slavery.

Obviously libsocs do not dispute that a person owns the product of their labor, but disagree that one can claim a piece of land as property and thus demand rent from anyone else deciding to mix their labor with that land. Proudhon makes clear that the reality of land ownership has no relation with labor-mixing, since one can own a piece of land and stop laboring on it, either by sitting on it or by hiring others to do it instead. This leads to rent and the inherent contradictions of “property.”

Proudhon was talking about the cultivation of land, but this rebuttal of labor-mixing applies to capitalist work contracts as well. From ethicist Brian Zamulinski:

Now, suppose that two people work together. Although it may be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the shares of the two in the product in practice, if people acquire property by mixing their labour with things, it must be the case that each owns a share proportional to the labour performed that actually went into the product. Otherwise, one is appropriating the property of the other.

If one of the two is the employee of the other, the problem is that the share that the employee receives will be determined not by the amount of labour he contributes but by competition with other potential employees, assuming that there is freedom of contract. Occasionally, he will receive proportionally more than he should but other times, he will receive proportionally less. The latter outcome will occur far more frequently than the former. Either way, the employee will almost never get what he deserves in light of the labour-mixing theory of property acquisition. It will be a fortunate accident if he does.

Zamulinski goes on to rightly point out that the end product of capitalist work contracts is incompatible with labor-mixing theory, and that in order to make any sense of their own position, capitalists must logically abandon labor-mixing as their justification for property. In this he again joins Proudhon. I don’t know if Zamulinski believes there is any valid justification for property, but Proudhon definitely did not, at least at the time he wrote Qu’est-ce que la Propriété? (his opinions did change quite a bit as his thought evolved).

3 thoughts on “Mixing one’s labor does not prove property rights!

  1. […] are fatal problems with this already: the whole “mixing your labor” principle is incompatible with “property rights”, and, even if you can justify a person’s initial property claim, there’s no way to […]

  2. […] natural world only gains any sort of value at all through an alchemic transmutation called “mixing one’s labor,” or “transformation.” The message here is clear: nature itself is only valuable […]

  3. Richard Hunter September 12, 2017 at 05:32

    Another problem with ‘mixing your labour’ to obtain property is that it’s not clear to me that it has ever happened. Where there is no rule of law to govern property, people obtain property through force and are only able to hold onto it until someone more powerful comes along.

    The American settlers didn’t gain property by ‘mixing their labour with the land’ they got it by taking it from the native Americans who already occupied it.

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