Yesterday in talking about the right to transfer property to heirs, I alluded to the general restriction on women owning any but personal property, in Great Britain and the United States. (Okay, I just filled that out a little.) To my mind that provides a graceful segue to the last common property rights institution I wanted to mention as something once taken for granted-- the ownership of human beings and their productive powers.
Unfree labor has been common around the world and has taken many different forms. Race slavery, which USians tend to think of, strikes me as the most horrible of these, as that system incorporated the right to sell ownership claims on a human being and to claim ownership of their offspring by right of claiming ownership of a parent, and did not incorporate any regularized path toward manumission or enforceable legal rights for the enslaved.
In a grotesque debate economic historians have argues over whether those claiming the right to own humans didn't "treat them well," anyway, to preserve the value of their property. However, human social relations are not much like the relationship between a human and a plot of land. Even apart from any individual taste for sadism, destruction, or proof of one's power, individual accounts make it clear, to my mind, that many claimants to own humans wanted to feel good about it. More than a few of them went about this by subjecting the humans they claimed to degrading behavior, and then feeling superior to such degraded people. And they all could, and so could their heirs.
But I want to be very emphatic that these systems were once taken as casually as most of us take the right to bequeath property. And defended as some sort of obvious or even God-given institutions.
Remember, a right to a property is not a simple thing, but a bundle of rights that may or may not include rights to exclude others from use, to transfer ownership, and a possibly-limited right to use the property.
Race slavery included a very broad bouquet of ownership rights, which was a part of what made it such a horrendously destructive institution.
Serfdom, helotry, and the Roman system of coloni didn't include the right to transfer ownership of the human labor. In fact, these people belonged to specific tracts of land more than to individual owners of the land.
The inability to transfer ownership meant that land owners lacked the interest in serf (etc.) well-being that comes with the ability to cash in the value of investments in their health and skills. It also meant that threats of sale couldn't be used to extract effort from the serfs.
Yet at the same time, serfs in a sense held the owners' land hostage. In the long centuries of labor scarcity, owners of large tracts of land depended on serfs to use it to create the income of animal and vegetable produce. They also depended on serfs to maintain the fertility of the land. Both of these gave landholders incentives to treat land-based unfree labor well. Interestingly, it ony occurred to me this minute that I think
management of the landowner's herds and flocks was handed on other contractual grounds. That makes sense given their mobility and quick vulnerability. (But don't trust me on this-- I am so not an expert.)
Another form of unfree labor that has been very common and that still exists is unfree labor acquired through war-- which has indeed been a motivation to go to war. (Through most of human history labor has been scarce, sought after, and not generally regarded as mendicants to employers.) Unlike with race slavery and serfdom, those who claim ownership of captives of war could and can easily imagine being similar captives themselves.
Penal servitude is another form of unfree labor that has been and is common-- unpaid or very low-paid labor of those imprisoned for violation of laws. Nowadays in the US this wor is voluntary within a system with few choices. In the US past, it has often been involuntary and has involved unnecessary hardship on the grounds that that would improve the moral character of those imprisoned.
I mention these forms of unfree labor mostly for completeness-- of a sort, since I'm not going to discuss unfree labor within households.
Debt servitude was common in the ancient world. It was at least formally finite in duration, and seems generally to have ben so in fact. It did not include property rights over the debtor's offspring, for the creditor. I don't know whether there was any general rule about transferability over the contract of the debtor.
As with the unfree labor of prisoners of war, most creditors could likely envision themselves as possible debt servitors. And strict laws governed the treatment of debt servants.
The ability to sell a fuller command over one's productive powers than employment contracts involve clearly gives scope for acquiring a lump sum that might not otherwise be available, and it doesn't seem to have worked ot too terribly, historically*. So why is it illegal in the United States and many other countries? Isn't this a monstrous imposition of regulation on exchange and on individual rights?
I think a substantial reason for its illegality is that, once in servitude, the debtor is not in much position to enforce the terms of the contract.
* Indenture, such as that paying for passage from Europe to the then-American-colonies, is not an instance. It turns out-- research by economic historian David Galen-- that few actually signed such contracts. Most supposed indentured servants in colonial North America were kidnaped by contractors in Europe. And the mortality rate among nominal indentured servants was dreadful, particularly as the end of the customary seven year term approached.
Facebook posts incorporated:Claims to own humans: Race slaveryClaims to own humans: Land-based slaveryClaims to own humans: prisoners of war and justice systemsDebt servitude: Contracts, enforcibility, regulation