The Case for Employee-owned Companies -- PBS

By David Ellerman

You are called in for jury duty. You protest to the judge that you are not a lawyer. How can you be expected to make a legal decision? But the judge points out that the jury is not there to interpret the law but to make a decision about the facts. Is the defendant in fact responsible for committing the crime as charged — or not? Guilty or not guilty?

The legal system then assigns the legal responsibility according to the jury’s decision about the factual responsibility.

That is the basic principle of justice: assign the legal responsibility to the people who arein fact responsible for the deeds in question.

With that principle of justice, injustice falls into two categories:

  • assigning legal responsibility to a defendant who was not in fact responsible for the crime — that is, convicting an innocent person, or
  • not assigning legal responsibility to a defendant who was in fact responsible — that is, not convicting a guilty person.

There is something else to notice about the basic norm of justice. Criminals have their “tools of the trade,” which can be quite important in committing crimes. But tools cannot be factually responsible for committing a crime, only people. For example, guns can’t be responsible for killing people, but people find it much easier to kill someone, deliberately or accidentally, if guns are available. Thus, regardless of the tools, instruments or other things being used in committing a crime, only the peoplecommitting the crime are in fact responsible for it.

This basic principle of justice — assign legal responsibility according to factual responsibility — is used by the courts of law, but there’s no reason this principle should be applied only to negative results like crimes or misdeeds. When people deliberately produce something positive, shouldn’t they also get the legal “credit” or “ownership” of that result? The justice principle can thus be seen as applying to both positive and negative results of all responsible human actions.

But there is a problem — our current economic system does not follow the justice principle. In the previous system — prior to the arrival of modern democracy — masters could own other people involuntarily (the slaves).

To read David Ellerman’s article in its entirety, please visit the PBS Newshour site here.