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Routes to Economic Vision: Exploitation


By being exploitative we generally mean a condition in which some person or agency gets from our labors more than they ought to which in turn leaves us less than we deserve. Some own many mansions. Others live in cardboard shelters under bridges. Some earn so much per hour that they have millions of dollars of disposable income yearly. Others earn so little per hour that after eating frugally and other bare necessities, they have no disposable income at all.


If we are to decide what we prefer what access to income we want all people to universally enjoy in place of some benefiting from exploitation and others sufferings its woes, we have to first clarify what constitutes people getting more than they ought to – and what constitutes people getting less than they deserve.

Does Bill Gates get more than he deserves, or Michael Jordan, or Julia Roberts, or lawyers and doctors and ceos? What about short order cooks, assemblers, window washers, do they get less than they deserve?

We should all get, I would like to propose, an amount for our work that is commensurate to the effort that we put forth and the hardship that we endure in doing it. If we work longer, or harder, or we work under worse conditions, we should get more income. If we work less long, or less hard, or we work under better conditions, we should get less income. From some given working condition, why else would you agree to work longer, or harder, or under worse conditions, if not due to being remunerated for doing so, or in some way coerced?

Put differently, what moral justification is there for me to get more income if I happen to produce something highly valued as compared to producing something that is less valued but still warranted? What morality would justify you getting more if you have better tools that make your output greater, or if you have special talents that increase your output, much less if you have some power that enables you to simply take it – but the work you do is the same, in the conditions, for the same duration, as the work I do?

Typically rewarded attributes such as property, power, and output aren’t (solely) a product of you or I doing something we deserve reward for, but are largely a product of luck regarding our position or our genetic endowment. Of course, there are caveats. If you produce stuff of such low value to others that it ought not to have been produced in the first place because your time would have been better put to other ends, then you haven’t done socially valuable work at all and shouldn’t get anything, so a precondition in any scenario is that the work we do is valued. And if you can’t work, for health reasons, then in a just and worthy society of course you should have income anyhow, for simply being a person.

Exploitation, in this view, is when my labors lead to someone getting returns that exceed what their effort and hardship warrant while I get returns that fall short of what my efforts and hardship warrant.

If that’s our meaning of exploitation and we want to avoid it, then we can’t have an economy grant profits for property thereby giving someone like Bill Gates as much income for having a deed in his pocket as millions of people earn for doing the exceptionally hard work of tending fields. Nor can we allow people to take as much as they can grab, giving those with more power thousands of times the income of those with virtually no power. Nor can we reward people for producing more output due to having better tools that others lack, or more productive genes that they didn’t work hard to give themselves. To avoid exploitation, that is, we would have to reward everyone in the economy on the single standard — according to the effort and hardship endured in doing socially warranted labor.

(Implementing that non-exploitative norm institutionally would take us right into discussions of parecon, available from the links all over this blog).

Of course, if we instead say that exploitation is when you get less than you can take, or when you get less than the value of your output, or when you get less than the value of your output and that of the property you own – then the above remunerative norm goes by the wayside and so do advocacy for the institutions which could implement it.

Likewise, if pursuing the norm advocated above, remunerating effort and sacrifice, which is the norm that parecon implements, were to sacrifice highly valued economic outcomes such as efficiently utilizing our capacities to meet needs and develop potentials, then we would have to assess whether we wanted to endure those losses in order to attain the moral benefits. If, however, there are only gains because the norm gives us desirable incentives as well as admirable morality, , as advocates of parecon argue, then the choice is simple.

For more discussion of remuneration including the morality, the options, the incentive effects, and the institutions, some options are…

Next time, in this sequence of posts we take up a more interesting and subtle concept, alienation, trying to determine what it would entail to have an economy that has none.

Comments about exploitation and remunerative norms are welcome, please.

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