The House Always Wins

March 23, 2009

To justify labor contracts, we need to look at them from a new point of view. We need to see them as wagers. For example, you do not exchange title to your body and its labor for money. Instead, you make a bet with your employer. You bet that you will work for the employer and he bets that you won’t. You risk nothing except your reputation for promise-keeping (which you don’t own anyway) and the transformations that you make to the employer’s property that result from any labor that you may perform at his request. The employer risks paying you money (wages) and other benefits, and capital investment. If you perform the services as prescribed by the terms of the bet (employment contract) then the employer “loses,” and the wages that he wagered (note the similarity between these two words) and the other benefits he risked become your property and the transformations that you made to his property by the labor that you performed become the employer’s property. If you decide not to work for the employer (if you quit your job) then you lose (or fail to gain) title to whatever wages and benefits were detailed in the terms of the bet.

Roy Halliday, “The Gambling-Stakes Paradigm for Loans and Labor Contracts”


With all due respect to Halliday, whose essay is otherwise very good, this is just another example of the bizarre metaphors some people feel compelled to create to avoid simply describing work as it is: cooperation.

First of all, in no version of reality that I’m familiar with is the employer “betting” on the employee not working. Of course the employer wants the employees to work. That’s the whole point.

Also, Halliday seems to overlook the fact that for this metaphor to work, he has to deny any payoff to the employer who wins the bet. Who places a bet that has zero payoff other than getting your bet back? And to top it all off, if the employer “loses”, he still gets “the transformations that you made to his property by the labor that you performed”. Man, I’m going to the wrong casinos! Where are the ones where you lose and still win something? I can see the employer now, pushing the chair away from the table, teeth gnashing:

Employer: Damn cheats! All I have to show for my time is this lousy product?

Pit Boss: Sir, please keep your voice down.

Employer: I demand my money back!

Pit Boss: Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.

Employer: Screw this place! Rigged, I say. RIGGED!

Metaphor fail.

And that is rather unfortunate for Roy because before unveiling his “Gambling-Stakes Paradigm”, he had come to a point in his overall story where he felt that “[t]o justify labor contracts, we need to look at them from a new point of view”. This followed on the heels of a triptych of arguments concerning moral autonomy, inalienability and fraud. The conclusion was that “you have no right to give up total control of your mind and body”, “purposeful actions such as your labor are controlled by your will, which is inalienable” “[t]herefore you cannot sell your labor”. Likewise “you have no right to trade (give away, sell, rent, wager, or use as collateral) something that you don’t own” and “your future labor and services and everybody else’s future labor and services are uncontrolled and unowned”.

This is a far cry from other arguments that simply dismiss any concern with selling or renting labor. I think Halliday is quite right to arrive at the need to rethink how the labor contract is interpreted and I applaud the work he put into reaching that conclusion.

Furthermore, he concedes something when, in the course of his ill-fated metaphor, he mentions that the employee wagers “the transformations… that result from any labor that you may perform”. To risk something is to assume that you own it, i.e. he must believe that the “transformations” are at first labor’s property. Likewise, how can they “become the employer’s property” upon losing the bet, as Roy says later, if they, as many people assume in the standard account, already are the employer’s property. This is a very logical conclusion given his arguments about the inalienability of the will and such. Through will and rational action, labor appropriates the new property, being de facto responsible  for it. Despite the fact that I think I’ve demonstrated the absurdity of the gambling paradigm, this way of viewing labor’s product does not seem to depend on it; it is presupposed and quite reasonable in my view.


4 Responses to “The House Always Wins”

  1. db0 Says:

    It’s funny to see the mental acrobatics apologists will go through to justify what the promote morally. Acrobatics which incidentally can be ruined by a puff of rational wind.

  2. Danny Shahar Says:

    I’m not sure I understand. Are you making an analogy between labor agreements and slave contracts, and rejecting both as inherently unethical? If so, why wouldn’t any contract involving a promise to perform a positive action fall under this umbrella?

  3. Neverfox Says:


    I am not equating labor agreements with slave contracts. I am only agreeing with Halliday that any attempt to describe labor contracts as the selling or transfer of labor is problematic. However, arguments against voluntary slavery are relevant to the degree that slavery involves classing a person as a legal thing (except, inconsistently, in the case of crime) or as someone who has given up some inalienable aspect of their will. Employment obviously has an “at will” element that slavery lacks. But I also wanted to be clear that despite seeing a need to reject the “selling labor paradigm”, I don’t accept the “gambling paradigm” he offers up.

    I think that agreeing to work for someone is invariably agreeing to cooperate with them as a responsible agent. I don’t believe there is any transfer from laborer to employer of anything called “labor” and there is certainly no betting. As for what this will entail in application, I purposefully limited the scope of the post to leave that for another time; but many of my older posts touch on it.

  4. Danny Shahar Says:

    Fair enough; thanks for the clarification.

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