Who Said It?

I was lucky enough to spend yesterday in Tucson, talking with George Smith, Roderick Long, Kevin Vallier, Dan Russell, David Schmidtz, Charles Johnson and others about the history of libertarianism book that I’m writing with John Tomasi. During the course of a discussion of property and self-ownership, George brought to my attention a rather striking quote from a surprising source. Can you guess who said it?

The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property. It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him. As it hinders the one from working at what he thinks proper, so it hinders the others from employing whom they think proper. To judge whether he is fit to be employed, may surely be trusted to the discretion of the employers whose interest it so much concerns. The affected anxiety of the law–giver lest they should employ an improper person, is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive.

Click here for the answer, and the context.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • eccentric-opinion

    With these “who said it” questions, I always assume Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, or Ayn Rand.

    • Sean II

      For intellectuals, I just always guess Spencer. Play that strategy without fail and you win 51% of the hands.

      • adrianratnapala

        My strategy is to go for Hedy Lamar “”.

        The rationale is that she was excelled in two independent fields, thus you double your chances. This strategy has never worked for me yet, but I still like it.

        • Sean II

          Interesting. I ruled Hedy out, because she’s so well known for her saying “wealth is a social product, borne of capital and labor collaboratively produced, so that it is neither oppressive nor impertinent for society and its legislators to take an interest in the uses to which capital and labor may properly be put.”

          Naturally, that’s from Her Highness and The Bellboy, MGM, 1943.

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            Was that before or after she invented the radio guided torpedo?

          • Sean II

            I just showed Lamar’s wikipedia page to a wiki-skeptic friend of mine, and said “clearly this is an example of satiric vandalism…and yet, IT’S NOT. Hahahahaha!”

  • David Friedman

    Why a surprising source? It seemed obvious who it was, and I followed your link to see whether it was surprisingly someone else. It wasn’t.

    • a) Many things that are obvious to David Friedman are not to most other people
      b) The surprise stems from the fact that Smith, especially in WoN, is generally (if incorrectly) thought to shun moral arguments in favor of broadly consequentialist ones. He’s certainly not one of the people who springs to mind when most people think about appeals to self-ownership. So, surprise!

      • gliberty

        It wasn’t surprising to me either — my skimming / partial reading of WoN (sadly I have not read the whole thing carefully end to end yet, but have read many parts of it online many times…) made it among my top guesses except I thought it must not be right, since I was expecting a surprise–like Marx except that I knew it was not Marx…

    • adrianratnapala

      Yes really why is it not obvious?

      In fact Smith was the only suspect I had in my head, but I dismissed him (b) because I thought this was a trick question and (a) because Smith is the only economist whose book I have ever read, so I distrust my priors.

      It seems my (a) is a nearly perfect counterexample to Matt’s (a).

  • Josh Rosenberg

    I believe Justice Field cited part of this passage in his famous Slaughterhouse Cases dissent. I’m looking forward to the next time it gets quoted.

  • Steven Horwitz

    I named that tune in half a sentence. 🙂

  • martinbrock

    I also wonder why this sentiment is surprising coming from the source, who opposed taxes on labor in favor of taxes on rents and luxurious consumption for example.

  • Steve Reilly

    The answer surprised me because I thought it was him, and then dismissed him because I thought he wouldn’t be surprising enough. So when it turned out to be him, I was surprised.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Matt double faked you out.

  • adrianratnapala

    I have no idea who said it, like eccentirc-opinion, I suspect a trick question. Even if it is not a trick question, it would not be Hayek since the prose seem pre 20-th century. But the sentiment seems to be right in line with _Road to Serfdom_ – since the main concrete point in that book seemed to be that workers should be allowed to practice trades of their choice, rather than having them assigned by central planning.

    Whoever did it is less skeptical than me about labour == property. The first few sentences could be interpreted (by some) to support intellectual property maximalism. Even if IP maximalism were philosophically sound, it does not benefit the poor relative to the rich.

  • SimpleMachine88

    Ah, we’re playing this game. How about this. He certainly did understand how government works, and took that message to heart.

    You are giving a little man a biscuit to eat, and you put a barrel of flour more taxes on top of his head to carry</i?

  • Damien S.

    Alternate opinion:

    All Property, indeed, except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his
    Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary
    for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it.
    All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of
    the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right,
    which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous
    to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws,
    have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it,
    whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.

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  • David Levy points out this passage in his History of Economic Thought course. Among the most interesting things to note is that this is the only instance of the phrase “just liberty” in all of Smith’s corpus. One’s own labor is the source of “just liberty” and restrictions on the sale of one’s own labor are therefore the most unjust form of intervention in markets.
    Nathan Snow