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David Ellerman: Reframing the Labor Question

On Marginal Productivity Theory and the Labor Theory of Property.

David Ellerman, Visiting scholar at the University of California in Riverside


Neoclassical economics uses the perfectly competitive market paradigm to frame and limit questions. Concerning labor, the key aspect of the competitive paradigm is marginal productivity theory which shows that, under competitive conditions, workers are paid "according to what they produce." It takes a theory to kill a theory. This paper reframes the labor question according to the normal juridical principle of imputation whose application to property appropriation is the modern treatment of the old natural rights or labor theory of property. The same critique also reframes the labor question about the employment contract, a reframing that has nothing to do with the pay, benefits, or working conditions. The point is that the whole idea of hiring or renting human beings, i.e., selling responsible human actions, is invalid due to the factual inalienability of responsible human agency—as is recognized in juridical imputations for hired criminals. This treatment of the "core of the whole modern labor question" is an updating of an argument made long ago by Ernst Wigforss, one of the founders of Swedish social democracy.


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