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How Will Goods and Services be Distributed in Socialist Society?: Labor Vouchers vs. Free Access

There are two major issues keeping the socialists in the SLP (Socialist Labor Party) and the WSP (World Socialist Parties) from being united. One of these things is De Leonism, or the use of Socialist Industrial Unionism (SIU) as a possible template for the running of the future socialist society, and this will be discussed at length in other sections on this site. The other main point that I want to discuss here is the manner in which we will procure items for ourselves in a socialist economy. I will describe the two means here, then I will give a description of which method I support, and why.

The SLP supports the use of labor vouchers to replace money as a medium of exchange, whereas the WSP (and myself) supports free access, or no medium of exchange. I will illiterate upon both of these methods below.

Labor Vouchers

Labor Vouchers were envisioned by Robert Owens in 1820, and then supported by Karl Marx himself in 1875. The SLP still supports their usage, and is adamant that they are not the same thing as money. This is a description of labor vouchers as taken from the SLP's official newspaper, The People, in its December, 1999 issue:

[T]here will be no money under socialism. With the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and of production for sale and profit, the need for money as a medium of exchange will disappear. With the establishment of a system of production for use, labor-time vouchers, which the worker may exchange for goods and services, will replace money.

Accordingly, under socialism workers will receive a labor-time voucher from their unions showing that they have worked a certain number of hours. This time voucher will entitle workers to withdraw from the social store as much as they contributed to it, after the necessary deductions are made for replacement of worn-out equipment, expansion of production, schools, parks, public health, etc.

Since under socialism the means of production will be collectively owned (as they were cooperatively produced), "deductions" for maintaining and replacing them actually will not be deductions. And since the schools, parks, medical services, etc., will be for the use of all, neither will these really be deductions. In short, since the workers under socialism will collectively own the tools of production, the social services and everything else, making deductions for their maintenance and/or replacement, etc., simply will be providing for themselves, exactly as they will be providing for food, shelter, clothing, etc. Thus the workers will receive directly and indirectly all that they produce.

For a further description of labor vouchers, and for a specific critique of them, see the WSP's web site (a link is provided for it in the links section; surf over to the WSP page and go to Introduction, and from there to the section on other "socialist" parties, and at the bottom of the page you will find a link to a section which provides an in-depth critique of labor vouchers from the WSP's perspective; the SLP has no section on its site featuring a counter argument in favor of labor vouchers at this time).

The socialists in the SLP believe that labor vouchers (also called labor-time vouchers or labor credits) will enable workers in this future economy to acquire the non-essential goods and services while accounting for the fact that they are actually contributing x amounts of hours of work. How many hours of work needed will doubtless be dependent upon the specific occupation, and under socialism, workers will only need to work a fraction of the hours that they work today, since not only will full employment be achieved, but at least 50% of the jobs done today under capitalism (such as work involving banking, accounting, insurance, social security, collection, police, security, military) will not be necessary under socialism. As for needed products and services, such as food production, health care, housing and education, these will be given freely to every one as a result of the "deductions" taken from the collective wealth economically embodied by the collective labor vouchers. It should be pointed out that unlike money, labor vouchers will not circulate; they cannot be collected or hoarded, or transferred from one worker to another. Thus, they will be deposited once, and then destroyed. They cannot be used to acquire the means of production or services privately, and they will not be kept in the system, nor will the amount being used "devalue" the use of the existing labor vouchers, as is the case with money under the capitalist system. Labor vouchers are not intended or capable of being used by any individual or group to personally acquire the collective wealth of the industries or services. Also, all work will be materially rewarding, not just certain types of work, as under capitalism, with the majority of jobs under the current system only entitling us to a fraction of the wealth that we contributed. Labor vouchers are intended to give a worker full access to the social store while ensuring that work is performed.

Free Access

The socialists who make up the WSP (as well as others, such as myself) envision another method of exchange, or rather, the lack of one. Free access will be chosen if the vast majority in the future socialist society deems that labor vouchers are unnecessary and undesirable. In short, free access simply means that workers will be allowed to take freely of the goods and services available to them, and in which they had a hand in collectively producing. Common sense will prevent over consumption, and due to the fact that we will be allowed to work at jobs which we have a natural interest and aptitude in, the enforcement of work entailed by labor vouchers will be seen as unnecessary. Therefore, free access consumption will not be based on how many hours we work, but on the self-defined needs of the individual. Of course, if we don't collectively agree not to over consume, or if we collectively choose not to work, socialism in general and free access in particular will not work. However, since everybody in a socialist society will be working at jobs in which they have an aptitude for and personal interest in, and since work will encompass only a fraction of the time for each worker that it does under capitalism (with far more leisure time available to workers than under capitalism), the need for some medium to enforce work will be unnecessary. It is very possible that as technology continues to advance, and as production becomes more and more efficient over the course of time under socialism, it will become increasingly easier to produce what we need and want in greater abundance, making artificial limits on production for the purpose of limiting consumption and enforcing work to appear more and more absurd in the eye of the worker.

The WSP further describes what it perceives as the benefits of free access in the aforementioned section on its own site. Free access can basically be defined as no paper, plastic, metal or other physical medium of exchange necessary for taking goods and utilizing services. If we need a certain item from the store, we will simply walk in and sign it out of the inventory. Any type of barter in an advanced industrialised society is believed to be ludicrous by people who are aware of the material possibilities in an era of abundance which we live under today. In fact, it will be probable under a free access system that people will keep consumption in check by agreeing to share items in which we now purchase for every family, such as methods of transportation and home maintenance. As the WSP web site points out, lawn mowers, for example, will probably be shared by several families on one block, and future means of superior public transportation will lessen the demand for personal means of transportation, such as automobiles. Also, without the need for market hungry advertising, needs will not be created, and the demand for outlandish and unnecessary devices sold in abundance under capitalism will be seen as a waste of production under socialism.

The opinion of one socialist

It is my opinion that while either of these methods may be utilized by the future socialist society, it will be up to the workers at the inception of the new society as to what will be used to check consumption and to exchange goods. Personally, I see free access as a more moral and desirable alternative to labor vouchers. I believe that labor vouchers are just a bit too similar to money for my tastes. Yes, they do not circulate, nor will they result in disproportionate amounts of wealth to accrue in one or a few individuals, but still I believe they will cause people to risk their health in working unnecessary overtime in order to be able to accrue more goods for themselves. This is a severe problem under capitalism that socialists agree needs to be, and will be, remedied under socialism. Also, it is possible that if labor vouchers are used people under socialism will still retain individual value based on how much goods a person owns or is able to acquire, and it won't take into account that the satisfaction of needs will be a highly individual thing, with different people needing and wanting different things. The motto of socialism, illiterated by Marx himself, governing work will be "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

Obviously, some who work more hours will take less goods, but they will not be concerned with how much his neighbor will be taking as long as he himself will be satisfied. Contrary to what capitalism attempts to teach us, to work is natural for is only under captialism that work becomes something which we are forced to do too often, or because we are forced to take a job that we hate, that makes people lazy and unwilling to work. Once doctors are allowed to practice medicine, gardners are allowed to create beautiful floral gardens, chefs are allowed to cook, artists are allowed to draw, writers are allowed to write and engineers are allowed to design and advance technology, and work will be made interesting to everyone and controlled by the workers themselves, then people will gladly be willing to do the work society requires of them, with a lot less stress and a lot more cooperation between everyone, and we will probably not even see a well-defined difference between work and leisure that we see under capitalism today.

Labor vouchers may subvert some of what we are able to collectively enjoy under socialism, and some bad habits from capitalism and the days of money may be unwittingly retained. Further, the WSP points out that if labor vouchers were used, many workers would have to maintain jobs "cashing" them in and ensuring their proper use, which would be an unnecessary diversion from more productive labor, and also create a policing agency of sorts, which we do not want or find desirable in a democratic socialist world. Also, the "deductions" described by the SLP sound a bit too much like taxes to me. One of the worst features of captitalism is the workers being forced to support the political state with monetary deductions from their wages. Granted, the Socialist Republic of Labor will be serving the interests of all society, and not just a despotic ruling class, but I still don't like the wording of the subject matter. In addition, one may be concerned that some individuals would still resort to stealing under the labor voucher system, and that socialist society would retain the equivalent of "fiscal concerns."

It should be restated here that work under socialism will be completely voluntary, and should have no need to be enforced as under capitalism. Goods must be free to all in addition to the required services, and since people will be able to work jobs in which they have a personal aptitude, work will be a pleasure under socialism, and not the unmitigated burden that people try to avoid under capitalism. Hence, virtually all individuals will be happy to do their share of the useful work required in society, and much leisure in which to enjoy it will be available (there is a saying that goes "those who love their occupation never work a day in their life", a saying very applicable to what our life will be like under socialism concerning our jobs). Further, labor vouchers may also fail to work since many will not be working for the entire year under socialism. In fact, some occupations, such as the medical field, may require around the year work for most doctors, whereas other fields, such as the education workers, probably will not need to work for an entire year. This also fails to take into account the many people who may be choosing to work more than one occupation out of sheer enjoyment for two different areas in which they excel, such as those who may both teach and write, or scientists who have expertise in different fields of research. Thus, those without families may choose to work all year long, and they will be free to do so, such as dividing the year between occupations, rather then being forced to work two jobs for the entire year as we do under capitalism. As a result, labor vouchers may prove unwieldy for a fair distribution of the output, and free access may be far more helpful in satisfying the needs of every individual. I think being forced to work so many hours in order to acquire goods and services is not a good idea under modern material conditions, and this would be especially true in the economic democracy of socialism.

Also, the economic situation and the limited level of technological development under which Robert Owens and Karl Marx lived in, which featured a degree of true scarcity of goods that no longer exists thanks to modern technology, and which caused them to support the use of labor vouchers, should definately be taken into consideration when we decide whether or not to utilize labor vouchers in the future socialist society. I believe that since what may have been appropriate during the shortages in 1875 (which prompted Marx to support the use of labor vouchers) is no longer true today, we definately need to update and re-evalute measures which may have useful then, but would not be so under the material conditions of today. Thus, I believe that the members of the SLP (and the New Union Party, now known as Campaign for a Working Democracy) really need to re-evalute their support of labor vouchers, as they have often acknowledged that many of the edicts which Marx supported under the material conditions under which he lived have since become outdated with the advent of further technological advances in production of goods. Labor vouchers are clearly one of these (another such example is Marx's description of the role of the state in forming socialism, described in The Communist Manifesto, which the SLP readily acknowledges to be outdated and no longer supports).

However, it may actually be possible that labor vouchers may be temporarily used to allow workers to purchase goods during the brief transition period that will occur when the workers are completing the transformation from a capitalist to socialist economy, and may even be useful to help a society that is used to using a form of currency to acquire goods and services to slowly wean themselves off of it (as some supporters of labor vouchers have argued); however, once this brief transition period is ended (which should be no more then a year and a half, at most, if the working class was sufficiently organized and, as a possible example, the workers were firmly in control of the industries), we should then switch over to free access. The WSP is adamant that labor vouchers will not be needed even on a temporary basis, however.

Thus, while the workers will collectively decide at socialism's inception which method will be used to enable us to acquire the goods and services under the new system, I hope to see free access eventually chosen. Of course, even if we initially decide on labor vouchers as an exchange method, we will be able to democratically decide if they are working for society or not, and thus choose whether to continue using them. That will be the greatest gift to humankind with the advent of socialism...the right to collectively choose our destiny without a political state or ruling class to decide for us.