Friday, December 2, 2011

Capital and Labor: distorted definitions leading to sophistical debate.

"The discussion of "the relations of labor and capital" has not hitherto been very fruitful. It has been confused by ambiguous definitions, and it has been based upon assumptions about the rights and duties of social classes which are, to say the least, open to serious question as regards their truth and justice. If, then, we correct and limit the definitions, and if we test the assumptions, we shall find out whether there is anything to discuss about the relations of "labor and capital," and, if anything, what it is.

Let us first examine the terms.

1. Labor means properly toil, irksome exertion, expenditure of productive energy.

2. The term is used, secondly, by a figure of speech, and in a collective sense, to designate the body of persons who, having neither capital nor land, come into the industrial organization offering productive services in exchange for means of subsistence. These persons are united by community of interest into a group, or class, or interest, and, when interests come to be adjusted, the interests of this group will undoubtedly be limited by those of other groups.

3. The term labor is used, thirdly, in a more restricted, very popular and current, but very ill-defined way, to designate a limited sub-group among those who live by contributing productive efforts to the work of society. Every one is a laborer who is not a person of leisure. Public men, or other workers, if any, who labor but receive no pay, might be excluded from the category, and we should immediately pass, by such a restriction, from a broad and philosophical to a technical definition of the labor class. But merchants, bankers, professional men, and all whose labor is, to an important degree, mental as well as manual, are excluded from this third use of the term labor. The result is, that the word is used, in a sense at once loosely popular and strictly technical, to designate a group of laborers who separate their interests from those of other laborers. Whether farmers are included under "labor" in this third sense or not I have not been able to determine. It seems that they are or are not, as the interest of the disputants may require.

1. Capital is any product of labor which is used to assist production.

2. This term also is used, by a figure of speech, and in a collective sense, for the persons who possess capital, and who come into the industrial organization to get their living by using capital for profit. To do this they need to exchange capital for productive services. These persons constitute an interest, group, or class, although they are not united by any such community of interest as laborers, and, in the adjustment of interests, the interests of the owners of capital must be limited by the interests of other groups.

3. Capital, however, is also used in a vague and popular sense which it is hard to define. In general it is used, and in this sense, to mean employers of laborers, but it seems to be restricted to those who are employers on a large scale. It does not seem to include those who employ only domestic servants. Those also are excluded who own capital and lend it, but do not directly employ people to use it.

It is evident that if we take for discussion "capital and labor," if each of the terms has three definitions, and if one definition of each is loose and doubtful, we have everything prepared for a discussion which shall be interminable and fruitless, which shall offer every attraction to undisciplined thinkers, and repel everybody else".  - 1883, William Graham Sumner,  What Social Classes Owe to Each Other.

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