Is my salary really the fruit of my work?

Is my salary really the fruit of my labor

During the modern period, a strong ideological link was established between work and appropriation. This link is one of the pillars of what I called the proprietary ideology in my previous book The common part. One of the constituent beliefs of this ideology consists in considering that only work can legitimize the ownership of something and, in a complementary way, that all work deserves wages. This belief makes it very difficult to decouple income from work. Yet today it is an essential issue of justice.

In reality, to appropriate something, many other ways are possible: one can buy, receive a gift, find, hunt something, for a long time, moreover, one acquired land by conquest and by war. Conversely, some voluntary or invisible work – such as parental work more often assumed by women – do not give rise to any salary.

All Work Deserves Reward: The Legacy of John Locke

The idea that the naturally legitimate form of acquisition should be labor and that all labor deserves reward probably found its first expression in the pen of the English philosopher of the seventeenthe century, John Locke, in chapter 5 of the Second Treaty of Government (1689). In this chapter, Locke is interested in how one can become the owner of a parcel of the natural resources delivered by God to all men.

To do this, he sees only the work. This is easily understood through the argument of the mixture that it gives. Here is how the professor of philosophy restores it Jeremy Waldron :

  1. An individual who works a thing mixes his work with the thing; provided that this thing belongs to no one;

  2. Now, this individual is the owner of the labor which he mixes with the thing;

  3. So the thing that has been worked contains "something" that belongs to the worker;

  4. So taking the thing away from the worker without his consent implies also taking away from him that "something" that he has mixed up with the thing through his work and which belongs to him;

  5. So no one can take from the worker the thing he has worked on without his consent;

  6. So the object is the property of the worker.

Perhaps the best example of the structure of justification presented here in the abstract is that of the farmer who mixes his labor with his land. Once the mixture has been made, no one has any more moral legitimacy to take possession of the soil, to the precise extent that our peasant, while plowing his field, has put something there which is naturally his (and which no one would have the idea of ​​challenging him), namely his painstaking effort. As a result, master in his field, he could dispose of what he has acquired through his labor as he pleases without anyone having permission to interfere.

A farmer plows a field of vines
A farmer plows a field of vines. Pxhere, CC BY-NC-ND

Of course, we must put Locke in context and beware of making him a theoretician of the market economy as the Canadian political science theorist of the mid-twentieth century was able to do.e century Crawford Brought MacPherson, because that was not his perspective.

Rather, he sought to establish a doctrine of natural rights against arbitrariness. And he called these rights of the natural properties of individuals which he enumerated thus: existence, freedom and goods. It is this line that will follow William of Orange with the "Bill of Rights" (Charter of Rights) of 1689. Gold Locke gravitated in the circles of Guillaume, who took power in England in 1689 following the second English revolution, known as the Glorious Revolution.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that by unearthing a moral basis for individual rights in order to establish a limit beyond which a legitimate government should not go, Locke participated in shaping an ideology which continues to powerfully structure our modern societies.

Weber's Protestant Ethics

We could also associate the importance given to work with what the German sociologist and economist Max Weber called the protestant ethic. Work would be redemptive and work would be part of the spiritual vocation of human beings on earth. This idea is also not absent from Locke's thought insofar as the latter presents work as a duty imposed by God on his creatures to appropriate the resources necessary for their conservation and to enhance Creation. .

Work is, in this sense, a meritorious effort because it enhances Creation while allowing the satisfaction of our needs, thus bringing together the lexicon of the law of nature and that of individual rights. Work would, in this sense, found a merit and would justify the reward.

This is not the place to return to the existence or not of limits to appropriation in Lockean philosophy. It seems to me more interesting to discuss the ideological link between work and property that Locke operates because it obstructs much progress.

Let us think, for example, of the basic income or universal income. One of the progressive arguments – for example those raised by the sociologist Mateo Alaluf – to challenge the principle is that it would be a way of accommodating mass unemployment instead of giving work to all, with the underlying idea that income should necessarily derive from work and that an income without work would be like an effect without a cause.

In reality, there are many arguments against this thesis of a natural link between labor and property.

Indemnify to make up for what was effortlessly produced

I will only briefly examine some of them. First of all, it is quite easy to show that labor is an insufficient factor to explain production. Indeed, it is obvious that the peasant who works fertile land and the one who works a lot of stony land will not have the same harvest, regardless of the intensity and quality of the effort provided.

The work of the richest among them will therefore not alone explain his good fortune. The latter will not only reap the fruits of his labor, but will perhaps benefit above all from a natural resource that he did not create and from which he is lucky to benefit to the exclusion of others. Obviously this example can be generalized: there enters into any production a part that I have not produced but on which my effort depends in order to be productive.

Let's admit that I am the owner of my work, can I, for all that, appropriate the natural resource that I exploit for my own benefit when I did not produce it, am I not then a spoliator by withdrawing rest of humanity a resource from which I derive exclusive benefit?

One could certainly answer that this profit is not exclusive because by harvesting the fruits of the trees which grow in my field and by selling them I make benefit my congeners. But, even if that were the case, it wouldn't take away from the fact that I improperly appropriated something that existed before my work in the form of a common natural resource.

Women picking fruit
Can I appropriate the natural resource that I exploit for my own benefit when I did not produce it? Pexels, CC BY-NC-ND

It is this intuition that was developed by the English philosopher and French revolutionary Thomas Paine, at the end of the XVIIIe century in his work, agrarian justice.

He considered that the owners should compensate the rest of humanity that they had plundered by abounding a fund. This would be able to provide enough to give every young adult a universal inheritance to enable them to start adult life and any elderly person unable to work to receive a pension. It is an equivalent of what, later, in the XIXe century, the American economist Henry George will call the "Land tax".

It is also an idea that left-wing libertarian philosophers like Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne or Michel Otsuka will take advantage of. While accepting, like right-libertarians, the principle of absolute self-ownership, left-libertarians propose a normative theory that makes it possible to justify forms of redistributive justice.

Hillel Steiner, for example, argues that not everything we produce is ours because any production process depends more or less closely on two sets of resources that are independent of our individual choices and labor. These two sets are the external resources (like the field we just talked about) on the one hand and on the other hand what he calls the internal resources like the genetic heritage that we receive as a gift from nature.

As a result, no one can be considered as the full owner of everything he produces by exploiting his genetic heritage when this gives him an advantage over others. Conversely, people with disabilities do not have to suffer from a position that harms them regardless of the meritorious efforts that they can otherwise make. It would therefore be appropriate, according to Steiner, that the best endowed in the genetic lottery pay compensation to the others for correct genetic injustice.

Take into account the external context

It is not a question of saying then that all our talents would come from our genetic code and would be independent of our work. Some could also say that between two genetically well-endowed people, what will make the difference is, precisely, the work because a raw talent which would not be exploited by individual effort would have no value. Admittedly, a football champion was able to take advantage of an advantageous genetic heritage, but he had to work hard to take advantage of it. It is this work that must be rewarded.

Except that this argument itself is debatable in the sense that the ability to get down to work depends, among other things, on self-confidence, on the belief that our effort can produce something that has value in the eyes of others, and this confidence depends very largely on the parental love and the experiences of the past which will or will not have given the person confidence.

The self-confidence itself which, alone, allows us to get to work is therefore very largely given to us by a social context outside of ourselves. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to distinguish between what comes back to us because we have worked to obtain it and what does not come back to us because it comes from an external context over which we have no control. by will.

In addition to the benefits unduly provided to us by natural resources, we always tend to also appropriate what the opportunities and advantages of social life bring us by drawing exclusive personal benefit from them.

This intuition can be expressed in Pascal's phrase that when we work and produce something, we always do it. perched on the shoulders of giants. We are content to serve ourselves in the common trunk provided by the company without ever asking ourselves if we are indebted to it for that.

A social debt

Such a thesis consists in defending that we contract, without knowing it, a debt with regard to the rest of the society because of the free advantages which it provides to us and on which our personal success largely depends. But if we imagine having to be full owners of the fruits of our labor which contain an irreducibly social material, we are once again appropriating something that does not belong to us.

It is an intuition that has been exploited by philosophers and politicians called solidarists. Léon Bourgeois, for example, who was president of the council in 1895, defended the principle of income tax (which did not yet exist at that time) on this basis: not everything we earn comes back to you because we would all have a "social debt", a debt that would increase as we benefited from the advantages of life in society. The idea that human association produces something which cannot be reduced to the sum of individual labor and which makes each individual a debtor to society is, moreover, also a central intuition of working-class thought in the second half of the XNUMXth century.e century, for example at Proudhon.

Are the things we buy and possess really the result of the labor we put into acquiring them? Photo montage "Morning Shopping.". Eole Wind/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

One could, moreover, add that it is often luck rather than merit that explains the trajectories of social success. Inheritance phenomena also permanently distort the distribution of resources within society and make it very difficult to attribute this or that fortune to the sole isolated work of a person. Property thus makes it possible not to work when one is an annuitant, and the market itself does not function on merit and on the reward of work, it is simply the result of contractual exchanges and many coincidences.

In short, we should break with the idea that work is the only legitimate basis for fair distribution. Yet today, including those who criticize the exploitation of labour, remain, in a sense, faithful to Lockean thinking, insofar as they believe that production should return to the workers while it is being hijacked by the owners of the means of production. Faced with these dated ideas, it seems urgent to me to dissociate work and appropriation in order to think about the executives of a just society on other bases.

Peter Cretan, Researcher in philosophy, lecturer, Bordeaux Montaigne University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/ Inside Creative House

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