Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Property Is Concrete, Concrete Is Property


To connect a few dots from earlier entries: say what you will about property rights as a candidate for a “metaethic” (of sorts, anyway, though it’s merely the output of a background rule utilitarianism), you have to admit it at least makes legal rules concrete enough to enforce with relative clarity and ease.

If you want the average person to know when he’s transgressing and when he’s within his rights — a basic goal of law since the Code of Hammurabi nearly 4,000 years ago — things that you can see (or make contracts about) are likely to generate a lot less bickering (with all the lost time and energy that entails) than, say, abstractions like “serving the common good” or “contributing to the wholesomeness of the town.”  (Assuming plenty of physical evidence was on hand with which to draw the correct conclusions, I’d much rather be a defendant in court accused of stealing a car than accused of “disrupting the social fabric.”  Who knows what might happen in the latter case.)

People who long for something like the amorphous, abstract rubrics — whether rightwing or leftwing, academic or populist — are likely people who spend a lot more time talking than doing, roughly speaking (be they media folk like myself or Bible-thumping preachers).  They are not properly unnerved by the idea of having to abandon productive activities to go join a scrum, parliament, grad school bull session, Islamic council, or protest that could come to unpredictable, faddish, or mob-mentality conclusions.  Society cannot live on politics alone (nor can an economy survive on government alone — which means that even people with a leftwing agenda ought to approach the private sector humbly, a bit guiltily, with hat in hand, rather than thinking they’ve “created” something — such as jobs — by legislating money around or badgering others into action through protest; someone has to make the things your talking causes to be redistributed).

Even libertarians (who tend to be intellectuals if only because there are so few ordinary people who adhere to libertarianism) should be wary of letting the “fun” of democratic talk lull them into thinking less-concrete, more democratic-consensus-based laws are sustainable.  We’ve seen how quickly the U.S. — lacking a solid, explicit property base for its laws but steeped in constitutionalism and democracy — went from laissez-faire to European-style welfare state.  Murray Rothbard saw this as the best real-world argument for anarchism: We tried “limiting government” already and failed.


Property rights: no other system offers the same clarity, incentives for production and progress, feedback loops of constant improvement, peace, decentralized flexibility, and transcultural “neutrality” (in the simple headcount sense of treating all revealed preferences as relevant).  To rightists who say, with Irving Kristol, that capitalism lives on the accumulated moral capital of religious tradition, it is time to start saying, no, capitalism was merely built in the historical scaffolding of religious tradition, which would have had little to show for itself (scaffolding being a rather empty thing) had not something as beneficial and real as commerce been created within it.  Similarly confident and moralistic messages must be delivered to adherents of democracy, liberalism, and leftism — and to the subsidized corporations who fancy themselves the realists.

And just as the average citizen, to defend himself, needs to be able to spot rights violations with tripwire ease, so too the intellectuals must eventually spread the truth of property rights so far and wide that the average roomful of intelligent people will recognize in an instant when someone’s contradicted the property norm — the way elite circles now can immediately spot someone who makes a racist comment or says something implying he doesn’t recycle.

If intellectuals engaged in politics are selling some message other than property rights, they implicitly suggest that property rights are secondary, negotiable — but we know how poorly those rights fare and how quickly they are deformed in such an intellectual environment.  So just don’t steal.


Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

I admire your practical approach Todd, but I still think you need to address how private property is derived. Arguments around the beneficence of private property will always regress to “Why does this land belong to Jane, instead of to Nimilitzli, who is a descendant of the earliest-known inhabitants who were driven off the land 3,000 years ago?” Or, for that matter, “What makes this water Nimilitzli’s, just because she took it out of a stream that runs through her property?”

Until we can give a clear, definitive answer as to how these questions are resolved, most people are not going to pay much real attention to property rights, except in the sense of “get off my lawn”.

Todd Seavey said...

For economic rationales for property’s benefits, I recommend the likes of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Henry Hazlitt — but tomorrow, a look at the deeper moral foundation of such arguments (properly formulated)…

Brain said...

I must recommend“Beyond BabylonArt, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March. It studies the wide-ranging international trade networks in commodities and luxury goods from the dawn of history. It certainly supports your thesis on the elemental importance of trade and property, even from the dawn of history.

Heck, you should organize a field trip, as it’s rare that Libertarians get to ground their arguments in fact.

: p

Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

I’ll take a crack at it and others can respond.

Property rights derive from the willing application of overwhelming violence.

Jane owns the land because all other relevant parties recognize that Jane is both willing and able to violently defend her ownership of the land against the suit of anyone or everyone else. That’s it. Nimilitzli loses out because Nimilitzli is weaker than Jane. We might not like it but that’s reality.

Now, unless “Jane” is a killer cyborg with fusion plasma beams, Jane probably can’t credibly defend “her” land against, say, Michigan. To prevent ending up like Nimilitzli, Jane will probably want to form a contract, based on the mutual pledge of (violent) force, with Becky, Bob, Bill and a bunch of others, to ensure that sufficient force is available to defend her property interest.

However, Becky, Bob, Bill etc. have no reason to believe that Jane will live up to her end of the contract, just as Jane has no reason to believe they will live up to theirs. If Jane gets to make the decisions, what is to keep her from using her newfound power to seize Becky’s land? And vice versa. So it behooves each of them to require that the other signatories of the contract cede some portion of their capacity for violence to some central repository.

Let’s call this central repository “Ohio”. How much capacity for violent force must its stakeholders cede to Ohio? Well, enough to ensure that it can both defend their property against invaders, as well as enforce the contract internally.

Thinking about this for a bit, we can see that the amount of force necessary to enforce the contract and defend all of Ohio against invasion by the barbaric Michiganers, is probably enough that Ohio – or, at least, the killer cyborgs who maintain Ohio’s plasma defense systems, is also enough that “Ohio” – whatever it is – can pretty much kick Jane off her land (or vaporize her) whenever it wants. Of course, the killer cyborgs are busy recharging the solar plasma fusion cells, so they really don’t have all that much interest in farming hydroponic soyalgae. They are probably willing to let Jane keep using her land, and reaping the algaerific fruits of it, if she pays them some sort of regular stipend, such as a percentage of her yield (solar plasma fusion cells are not free). In order to make Jane happy (and more productive) perhaps the killer cyborgs will call her rent “taxes” and let her tell everyone that the land, and its produce, is “hers”, and that she can sell it. (Subject to the ultimate approval of the killer cyborgs. For which they may require…taxes.)

Is there any practical difference between “Ohio”, as described, and a “government” or “State”? If so, what is the difference?

Extra credit: How many distinct governments/States are there in the world? (Approximate if you need to do so.)

theCL said...


I can make it simpler.

You, Brian, Todd and myself are settlers here in the new land. A new government has been formed, but it’s so far away that our daily reality is that of living stateless.

We each stake out some land and build our homes. It’s just us … that’s it …

I’ve never brandished a weapon, or made any type threat. Nor have we made any agreements. For all you know, I’m completely harmless.

Would you attempt to take my home and/or land?

If your answer is no, why?