Capitalism can be fair

Aug 22 JDN 2459449

There are certainly extreme right-wing libertarians who seem to think that capitalism is inherently fair, or that “fairness” is meaningless and (some very carefully defined notion of) liberty is the only moral standard. I am not one of them. I agree that many of the actual practices of modern capitalism as we know it are unfair, particularly in the treatment of low-skill workers.

But lately I’ve been seeing a weirdly frequent left-wing take—Marxist take, really—that goes to the opposite extreme, saying that capitalism is inherently unfair, that the mere fact that capital owners ever get any profit on anything is proof that the system is exploitative and unjust and must be eliminated.

So I decided it would be worthwhile to provide a brief illustration of how, at least in the best circumstances, a capitalist system of labor can in fact be fair and just.

The argument that capitalism is inherently unjust seems to be based on the notion that profit means “workers are paid less than their labor is worth”. I think that the reason this argument is so insidious is that it’s true in one sense—but not true in another. Workers are indeed paid less than the total surplus of their actual output—but, crucially, they are not paid less than what the surplus of their output would have been had the capital owner not provided capital and coordination.

Suppose that we are making some sort of product. To make it more concrete, let’s say shirts. You can make a shirt by hand, but it’s a lot of work, and it takes a long time. Suppose that you, working on your own by hand, can make 1 shirt per day. You can sell each shirt for $10, so you get $10 per day.

Then, suppose that someone comes along who owns looms and sewing machines. They gather you and several other shirt-makers and offer to let you use their machines, in exchange for some of the revenue. With the aid of 9 other workers and the machines, you are able to make 30 shirts per day. You can still sell each shirt for $10, so now there is total revenue of $300.

Whether or not this is fair depends on precisely the bargain that was struck with the owner of the machines. Suppose that he asked for 40% of the revenue. Then the 10 workers including yourself would get (0.60)($300) = $180 to split, presumably evenly, and each get $18 per day. This seems fair; you’re clearly better off than you were making shirts by yourself. The capital owner then gets (0.40)($300) = $120, which is more than each of you, but not by a ridiculous amount; and he probably has costs to deal with in maintaining those machines.

But suppose instead the owner had demanded 80% of the revenue; then you would have to split (0.20)($300) = $60 between you, and each would only get $6 per day. The capital owner would then get (0.80)($300) = $240, 40 times as much as each of you.

Or perhaps instead of a revenue-sharing agreement, the owner offers to pay you a wage. If that wage is $18 per day, it seems fair. If it is $6 per day, it seems obviously unfair.

If this owner is the only employer, then he is competing only with working alone. So we would expect him to offer a wage of $10 per day, or maybe slightly more since working with the machines may be harder or more unpleasant than working by hand.

But if there are many employers, then he is now competing with those employers as well. If he offers $10, someone else might offer $12, and a third might offer $15. Competition should drive the system toward an equilibrium where workers are getting paid their marginal value product—in other words, the wage for one hour of work should equal the additional value added by one more hour of work.

In the case that seems fair, where workers are getting more money than they would have on their own, are they getting paid “less than the value of their labor”? In one sense, yes; the total surplus is not going all to the workers, but is being shared with the owner of the machines. But the more important sense is whether they’d be better off quitting and working on their own—and they obviously would not be.

What value does the capital owner provide? Well, the capital, of course. It’s their property and they are letting other people use it. Also, they incur costs to maintain it.

Of course, it matters how the capital owner obtained that capital. If they are an inventor who made it themselves, it seems obviously just that they should own it. If they inherited it or got lucky on the stock market, it isn’t something they deserve in a deep sense, but it’s reasonable to say they are entitled to it. But if the only reason they have the capital is by theft, fraud, or exploitation, then obviously they don’t deserve it. In practice, there are very few of the first category, a huge number of the second, and all too many of the third. Yet this is not inherent to the capitalist work arrangement. Many capital owners don’t deserve what they own; but those who do have a right to make a profit letting other people use their property.

There are of course many additional complexities that arise in the real world, in terms of market power, bargaining, asymmetric information, externalities, and so on. I freely admit that in practice, capitalism is often unfair. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the mere existence of profit from capital ownership is not inherently unjust, and in fact by organizing our economy around it we have managed to achieve unprecedented prosperity.

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