Sunday, January 11, 2009

Property Defined, Defended

Since I said I would try to blog this month as if for new readers unacquainted with my take on property rights, I should give a quick definition of property and a checklist of reasons to prefer property to its opposite, things held in common. I’d say property could be roughly defined as things (whether physical or abstract, such as contractual obligations) over which specific owners have control (the ability to use, trade, give away, destroy, alter, improve, etc.) that is (or ought to be) legally-enforceable and cannot be (or ought not to be) compromised by physical or fraudulent seizure by other parties, including ones calling themselves “government.”

More basically, I ought to say that there is an ambiguous yet important distinction (even when one is not talking about or advocating property rights) between the moral/political system that exists and the one that ought to exist (to my mind, the system of sustainable rules most conducive to long-term maximum happiness for all moral agents) — and thus that I am not willing merely to defer to the existing legal system or latest whim of Congress to define property, any more than I’d defer to a burglar who entered my apartment on the question of who really owns my TV.


As a philosophy buff, I fear I often underestimate the extent to which lots of intelligent but (for lack of a better word) unphilosophical people take it for granted that property is whatever the law says it is — and indeed that morality and rights are whatever the law (or commonly-held opinion) say they are. Nuts to that. It is entirely possible for the whole world to be wrong, in so far as the whole world may be pursuing some system that decreases rather than increases human happiness (e.g., communism or fascism — not to mention government in general, in my more-radical opinion). So in a moral rather than mere legal sense, I can meaningfully assert that I own something even if in point of fact it’s being taken from me by non-property-respecting agents, including an insufficiently property-respecting legal system (via, say, eminent domain, taxes, fines for victimless crimes, etc.).

It’s not just authoritarian statists (or unphilosophical people) who sometimes display the almost might-makes-right belief that rights don’t exist unless they are routinely enforced, though. My friends in London’s left-wing-but-libertarian-friendly Spiked-Online/Institute of Ideas crowd, to my mind, revealed a bit of their social-democratic tendencies in a conversation I had with some of them seven years ago (!) in which they dismissed the idea of animal rights, not on utilitarian or metaphysical grounds, but on the realpolitik grounds that animals cannot form parliaments or enact laws and thus have no rights.

To American ears, this sounds disturbingly like claiming that a lone frontiersman in an ungoverned land cannot complain of being morally mistreated since he is not part of a political system, which is surely a dangerous attitude and not conducive to maximum happiness. Similarly, the anarchist Max Stirner was of the opinion that property is whatever you manage to seize and hold, even if someone else continues claiming it as his own. This way lies not freedom or mere realism but brutality, I think.


By contrast, one of the great things about property is its radically depoliticizing effects. Taken to its logical conclusion — the privatization of every atom in the universe, as I like to put it — property leaves us without government, without collective (public) “property,” without regulations, without taxes, and without any need to think of some human beings as “politicians” and others as “the governed” — a distinction that should repel us as much as the distinction between aristocrat and peasant, master and slave, or kidnapper and hostage.

(The question of how purely-private entities make and enforce law is a complex one that I know is painfully counter-intuitive for many people, but it isn’t an insurmountable problem and has been written about in great detail by David Friedman, Randy Barnett, and others. If people insist that the complete absence of government is impossible, though, I once more urge you at least to think of strict property adherence as the default or starting position, adding only as much government as is necessary to sustain the system — perhaps merely a legislature and courts for resolving cases of theft, fraud, and physical assault, nothing more.)

But property has other virtues besides depoliticization (though that in itself would do wonders to decrease violence, time-consuming intellectual combat, and general hostility in this world):

•Unlike government-mandated interactions, strict property rights create a matrix within which each interaction, each trade, is a mutually-beneficial one in the eyes of those choosing to engage in the trade (I give Jones five dollars and receive a meal because each of us prefers the post-trade state of affairs to the one that existed before the exchange; we do not trade because someone told us to make the exchange on pain of imprisonment or because one of has “exploited” the other by some chicanery, as Marx-influenced leftists would have you believe). So no matter how awful things may start out in a strict property regime, they are constantly improving thereafter with each interaction, which certainly cannot be said of a world of government-mandated actions, which may well please no one or merely please half the population in a lesser-of-two-evils way.

•Property tends to create radical decentralization, giving each of us shields against the will of the mob — and the ability to peacefully ignore often-insane collective fads or just routine public deliberations gone awry.

•Property means being able to say “no” to the will of the mob, no matter how convincing the mob or its leaders think their latest cause is. Nothing improves discourse and diminishes bullying like knowing that your audience has the power to simply walk away.

•Property, by enabling people to function in markets, tends to move resources efficiently toward their most-valued uses — as opposed to the uses people (or some highly-influential or rhetorically skilled people) merely say are the most valuable. Talk is cheap. Markets reveal real preferences, without which allocation is always a rhetoric-driven, politicized shot in the dark that no sane person should assume increases overall happiness.

•Property creates the security that enables people to engage in rational long-term planning and thus to make investments (which can go awry, obviously, but the relevant question is whether they would go awry less often if our rulers chose for us, and there is no evidence of that; when asked if stock markets should be more heavily regulated, Warren Buffett rightly noted that the government already had hundreds of regulators tasked specifically to watch Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — and gave them clean bills of health right up until the financial meltdown, a reminder that regulators should not simply be assumed to be some sort of superhuman beings who know better than the rest of us).

•Property and markets create constant feedback loops, a system of incentives in which you gain (i.e., profit) by making others happy — not, as in politics (or warfare), merely by defeating others.

By contrast, the more property rights are eroded or limited:

•the more we see the withering of competition (and thus progress),

•the more we see the controllers of collectivized resources (the roughly one third of our income taxed away each year) engage in uplifting rhetorical flourishes about their desire to help the rest of us even while they serve their own selfish ends,

•the more we see vast wealth vanish into hard-to-trace public boondoggles — while private projects most of us have not even imagined (but might have drastically improved the world) are lost to us due to lack of funding — even as crucial voting blocks are ostentatiously presented with a few crumbs back from the public till, designed to make the government appear “magnanimous” (while all its wealth comes ultimately only from its predations upon the private sector),

•and the more we see what economists rightly call “the tragedy of the commons,” in which everyone (and diverse interest groups) race to use up resources before the next individual or group gets to them, thinking like parasites falling upon a carcass, looters at a broken shop window, or pigs at a trough instead of potentially-productive individuals wondering how best to invest or produce over the long haul.

To the extent property rights are weak, humans become lazy parasites and political influence-seekers instead of productive, creative, rational, beneficial agents — and no amount of rhetoric about public covenants, compassion, change, solidarity, or what have you can dispel this reality. Production or pillage — choose sides, and choose the sort of world that you want to live in (and that you think humanity can best live in).

Naturally, we find ourselves living in a world that mixes production and pillage in endless varieties — with exaggeratedly apocalyptic arguments made about minor variations in the balance between the two (a dime’s worth of difference often being made to sound like a choice between night and day). To some, this mushy middle may seem the safe, reasonable place to remain — but consider the possibility that the muddle lends itself to manipulation of the apathetic public by a handful of interested intellectuals and political players, and that we’d be far better off in a world of simple rules easily understood by the general population and thus easily enforced, to the general freedom and prosperity of all. (This is but the broadest overview, hardly an answer to every hard case or objection, but it’s where we ought to start.)


Brain said...

“Taken to its logical conclusion รข€” the privatization of every atom in the universe, as I like to put it”

To start the argument, the fundamental flaw in your philosophy is exemplified in the above statement. “Property”, as you explain it, is not the legal or sociological thing we are familiar with, but some all-encompassing metaphysical meson. I suppose an absurdly illustrative question to ask is who owns the moon, or gravity, or the number 3?

Good of you to spell it all out, at least. It’s a lot easier to act clever and obscure than explain yourself fully and expose yourself to criticism.

Todd Seavey said...

I should perhaps say, in Lockean fashion, every atom that’s actually being _used_ in some substantial way — but I admit that’s an area of ambiguity. And I hesitate, for example, to claim the Andromeda Galaxy without at least knowing who, if anyone, lives there — but if anyone does, I would respect their already-existing property claims, rights far more fundamental than mere “human nature.”

Brain said...

So who own the moon? It’s certainly used in a substantial way, and has been since time immemorial. It’s doubtful that there are any lifeforms on it.

Who owns the Sun? Or let’s consider this on a smaller scale – who owns the Pacific Ocean?

To most people, these seem ridiculous questions, but if I read your explanation correctly, they are, in fact, vital questions for which you can provide meaningful and practical answers.

Todd Seavey said...

I think these questions warrant a full “tricky questions” entry, within the next few days.

On Property Rights | theCL Blog said...

[...] In “Property Defined, Defended,” Todd Seavey defines of private property, and gives reasons to prefer private property over things held in common. I’d say property could be roughly defined as things (whether physical or abstract, such as contractual obligations) over which specific owners have control (the ability to use, trade, give away, destroy, alter, improve, etc.) … [...]