Re: Contract v. Property

Robin Hanson (
Sun, 20 Oct 96 16:56:48 PDT writes:
>>You can have a contract without much property,
>I'm not sure that I can imagine a contract totally bereft of any reference to
>property, since the capacity to enter into contracts seems to presume a level
>of (self-)control sufficient to support (self-)ownership. That is, unless
>the contracting parties can make good on their promises, they will of
>necessity breach their agreements. Further, if the power to execute promises
>does not generally vest in (or through) the contracting parties, the notion
>of contract lacks sense.

And Greg Burch writes:
>I've been turning this over and over and can't seem to imagine a contract
>that doesn't involve _some_ reference to property rights. It is possible to
>imagine a contract of "pure" personal service ... "I'll think for you about
>such-and-such a subject and tell you what I come up with for so many
>dollars," for instance. But it seems that this contract can be translated
>into the statement: "I sell you the right to know what I think about
>such-and-such". You now _own_ that right. This may be a mere word game, but
>since property rights are obviously fundamental to more concrete
>transactions, what am I missing?

First, note that I said "without *much* property".
But also note that even slavery is never absolute. Since slaves have
information that slave-owners don't have, and since it is expensive to
monitor every little thing a slave does, real slaves do have some
autonomy that they can contract with.

Two slaves can, for example, agree to monitor each other's spouses,
and to inform each other of any infidelity. Even if their slave
owner's ban this behavior, such a ban will be rather hard to enforce.
Slaves can even agree to marry each other without their slave-owner's

U.S. slave owners often gave their slaves their own plot of land to
grow food on, allowing them to keep any extra proceeds. Or they were
allowed their own time to do their own housework, and could retain any
proceeds from work they did on that time. The added incentives with
this approach were preferable, even if that meant that some slaves
eventually were able to buy their own freedom.

Robin D. Hanson