Render unto Caesar (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey Robin’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.

I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”

Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).

How does all this relate to self-ownership? In my view, this is nothing more than a linguistic confusion.[^2] Our relationship to our bodies and thoughts, to our friends and family, and even to the objects we use in our daily life, is fundamentally distinct from the property rights we may, or may not, derive from, and have enforced by, states. That’s true even though the same grammatical structures (genitives and clitics) are used for both. This is most obvious from the fact that most (if not all) actually existing property rights in the world today can be traced back to systems which encompassed some form of slavery.

Moreover, systems of property that do recognise self-ownership must necessarily allow some form of slavery. Ownership implies alienability, so that freemen can sell themselves and their families[^3] into slavery, peonage or indentured servitude.

This brings us to the idea, shared by Marx and Calhoun (among many others) that wage employment is inherently a form of slavery. This conclusion, I think, reflects the fact that self-ownership is the wrong starting point for thinking about these issues.

The fact that most employment relationships involve some degree of exploitation of the worker by the employer reflects the fact that employers are mostly richer and more powerful than workers. A change in the formal relationship, doesn’t change the facts and is often associated withintensified exploitation. An example is the conversion of workers into nominally independent contractors, often used in Australia as a method of unionbusting.

To sum up, the whole idea of basing a theory of social justice on self-ownership, or any kind of natural right to property derived from self-ownership, is inherently self-contradictory. State-created and enforced property rights, including the associated taxation systems, are social institutions which may or may not contribute to socially just outcomes, but have no moral standing in themselves.

[^1]: All three have been badly served by (many/most of) their followers, which is, I suppose an inevitable consequence of the difficulty of their teaching. But the fact that the followers of Jesus, the first great preacher of universal love and non-resistance in the Western tradition, should go on to found the first real persecuting religion is a truly tragic irony.

[^2]: As I mention in the linked post, for example, no one has ever complained about the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin even though both Tom and the cabin are the property of the slaveowning Shelbys. We perfectly well understand that the sense in which both the cabin and Tom’s body are his bear no relation to the property system.

[^3]: In all actually existing cases of which I’m aware, the male head of the family (who might be the father of a nuclear family, a paterfamilias or a clan chief) owned the entire family. My own ancestry includes the MacLeods many of whom were allegedly kidnapped by their own clan chief, Norman MacLeod, with the aim of selling them into slavery in North America. At some point (not sure when) the US ended slavery for whites but not for blacks. It appears that free blacks could still sell themselves back into slavery, at least in some jurisdictions.

But even if a system of this kind established gender equity and notionally gave everyone self-ownership, it would not change the dependence of children on their parents or other adults. So, by the time children reached adulthood, they could be burdened with unrepayable debts, as typically happens in systems of debt peonage.

5 thoughts on “Render unto Caesar (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. Weird.

    Since when is opposing exploitation confirming (implying) self-ownership, and there for acceding to inequality.

    Fancy Cohen and Quiggin trying to insert this into Marxism. Marxism is entirely opposed to Nozick and has no difficulty irrespective of claims otherwise.

    Only under certain adverse forms of political economy does a employment relationship involve some degree of exploitation. This has to be arranged by the creation of classes of economic activity. It disappears under cooperatives.

    For Marxists – self-ownership applies to personal property including tools used to make private property (knitting needles, garden spades, paint brushes etc). Self-ownership (code for private property) should not apply to social means of production.

    The conclusion that wage employment is inherently a form of slavery is not derived from a starting point of self-ownership. Wage slavery can occur where there is no self-ownership. Wage slaves producing wealth for sovereign wealth funds is an example.

    There is nothing inherently self-contradictory in the:

    idea of basing a theory of social justice on self-ownership, or any kind of natural right to property derived from self-ownership,

    where this is based on personal private property or cooperative social production. Social justice can be based on self-ownership (code for private property) where this is personal PP and society has been transformed into a new form.

    The contradiction is in society, what it does, socially, with property – not property itself (irrespective of ownership). Recognising private property does not

    necessarily allow some form of slavery

    this is entirely the flaw of capitalism (in particular) and bourgois production (in general).

  2. @GrueBleen

    In simpler terms

    You can base

    a theory of social justice on self-ownership, or any kind of natural right to property derived from self-ownership

    provided everyone has the same right equitably. This is the whole point of Marx when he wrote about higher civilisation and concluded:

    “from each according to ability – to each according to their needs.”

    Obviously – when each individual “gets according to needs”, they then own this property and this is the only real basis of social justice.

  3. I’m back

    MMT understanding also requiers great and demanding ethics/morals/ politics let alone its policy presctriptions. How to accept that 5 countries in the world give its citizens such a generous ability to achieve great prosperity using fiat money?

    Another point with fiat money is that allows capitalism without exploitation of employees by employers. That is true with large corporations and less correct with small businesses. Marx wrote about exploitation of labor within gold standard capitalism, fiat money changed that.
    Much more significant exploitation is by highly payed employees of those that earn bellow average of that corporation, but total employee expenses are usually total income of corp (sometimes hugher sometimes lower then total income of a corp) while profit comes from other directions, mostly higher debt and higher equity or from income of workers in failing corporations. Everexpanding credit that fiat money allows is a source of profit much much bigger source then exploitation of workers.

    Further explanation: Since value of work is determined by price of products and services provided by work so it is tautological. Cost + profit= total sold. Also Cost +profit= income of employees and owners. But Total sold is much higher then total income. Where does the additional money to buy more then the total income comes from? From state deficit and ever higher debts. Which implies that prices are determined mostly by state deficits and credit money, not so much by labor cost.

    What determines prices? Witness prices of the same product acros state lines; they are different from country to country. So what is the value of work to produce them? What determines the pricess? The cost of production is less and less relevant to price levels. Witness $12 cost of producing an iPhone and price above $1000. Prices determines buying power of buyers which is determined by credit issuance which is then eaten by inflation.
    Remove inflation that reduces debt burden and you get conditions and buying power is reduced to income, same as under Gold Standard and you get back to extraction of value from labor. Fiat money allows for elimination of extraction of surplus by owners. There is still extraction of surplus by management from other employees which is allowed by low marginal taxes.
    Return 90% marginal tax within fiat money and moderate inflation and there will be very little extraction of surplus labor. Fiat money that allows for ever increasing debt levels proves Marx wrong, and MMT takes his place.

    But then there is extraction of surplus by financial institutions in times of low inflation. With moderate inflation provided by financial institutions providing loans to consumers at everincreasing rate there is no extraction of surplus by them. They also provide higher incomes in times of inflation so they give some and take back some, no extraction of surplus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s