Sunday, March 28, 2010

Good Sense about Property

I highly recommend Less Antman's essay on property here. A teaser:
I believe that property is a problem solver, a useful tool for achieving social peace and economic efficiency that benefits society enormously. However, it is a useful social convention, not a an absolute right derivable from self-ownership: there is no reason that a person born in the year 2100 should have fewer rights than a person born in the year 2000, but if all the world becomes private property, and property owners can establish all the rules for their property, then every person born after that date will be born a slave, and self-ownership will become a joke....

All anarchy requires is that we accept the idea that other people are not our property. With that alone, we’ll create whatever order and organization is needed in an environment of mutual respect. When we have disputes we can’t resolve, we’ll create tools for resolving them. History tells us that private property is one of those tools, but we shouldn’t raise it to the level of a fetish that overrides our common sense and our humanity.

11 comments:

Robert Higgs said...

I fail to see how the last sentence of the first paragraph you've quoted follows logically. Antman seems to be assuming that private property owners wish to enslave other people, including, one presumes, their own offspring. But if that is the sort of people we are dealing with, any conventions they devise will be, not "tools" for resolving disputes, but instruments for turning social life into a hell for most of the people, even if those people are not enslaved outright.

Less Antman said...

Bob, I hope I can clarify my point without being guilty of altering it in the process. I believe it is clearer in the context of the entire post, which isn't a rant against property, but a defense of of the need for the tools and social conventions you mentioned in your response to modify the absolute propertarian view I'm criticizing in that paragraph.

Social contract theory treats you as consenting to all the rules of a government simply by being within their territory. Some Lockeans take the same position with respect to the rules they set for all people on their property. And non-proviso Lockeans hold that it's just too bad if all the property was taken before you arrived.

If you have no reasonable access to a location where you are not subject to the absolute authority of another, you are a slave. A choice of masters doesn't change that. The issue is not whether your parents and others will misuse their authority over you, but whether they will have it. Of course, power tends to corrupt, and not all children are lucky enough to have parents that can be trusted with absolute power over their children. Moreover, unless they spend their life in the home of their parents, they will always depend on the kindness of strange property owners.

My argument is that custom modified property rights and created exceptions specifically because of the problems associated with absolutism. I linked to Hasnas' TOWARD A THEORY OF EMPIRICAL NATURAL RIGHTS, which provides examples, for those who want to pursue this issue.

Sheldon Richman said...

Bob, I didn't read Less that way. I read him as pointing out the problem of squaring self-ownership with a world in which the entire surface of the planet has been claimed. (Herbert Spencer wondered about this too, in Social Statics.) I don't think this is a practical problem, but only a theoretical (but still interesting) one. For one thing, I think, like Roderick Long, that we would have nonstate "public" property, commons, as we have historically. Further, the problem need not assume that owners would want to enslave anyone. They may generously allow others on their property. But wouldn't these others still be guests, occupying land at the pleasure of the owner?

The value of Less's essay (like Hasnas's), for me, is the reminder that custom will play a major role in the sort of property rights any community adopts. The details are not deducible from first principles, and we can't predict exactly what will arise. Hasnas and Benson show us that where custom can evolve freely, there's a good chance of getting something like libertarian rights -- people see the benefits of respect and reciprocity. Competition and freedom of movement will tend to reward the most libertarian property regimes.

This point is easily overlooked by libertarians, who often approach such things rationalistically. The laws of property will be evolved on the ground rather than springing from the mind of a political philosopher.

Robert Higgs said...

I conceive of private property rights as encompassing much more than rights to land surface. They include also such personal claims on others as the rights to life and liberty. If one recognizes the fullness of private property rights, then many of the fears that private property in land seems to inspire must evaporate--e.g., no landowner has a right to enslave anybody, not even a trespasser on his land.

Having said that, I am not opposed to viewing private property rights as evolved social conventions, as Tony de Jasay has long argued, following Hume. Indeed, in reality, we have little alternative to viewing them in that light, because any attempt to trace all property claims back to original "homesteading" and to a subsequent chain of voluntary transfers is bound to founder on (1) the inability to trace many rights back very far and (2) the discovery that when we can trace them back, we virtually always find them to have been contaminated at some point by some kind of force or fraud. From the dawn of history to the present day, scarcely anything has come down to us in a pristine Lockean fashion. Finding ourselves thus unable to found existing property claims on such a foundation in practice, we are left with the necessity of proceeding along some alternative path, and evolved convention has some claim to providing this foundation, no matter how queasy we may feel about it in specific cases.

Funny story: Back in the mid-1970s, when Hayek was lecturing in Seattle to a large audience at Seattle Center, I rose during the Q&A period after his talk to ask him how we can justify currently held private property rights when we know for a fact that much of the property holding arose from murder and theft (e.g., of the American Indians by advancing Euro-Americans). He replied rather testily that such a question is the sort raised by the enemies of civilization -- a response that I considered somewhat unsatisfactory at the time, and still do.

Mark D. Hughes said...

I think this quote sums things up nicely:

"In an anarchist society, the rich never forget that they cease to be rich if the rest of society chooses not to recognize their property claims: the moment you claim the right to more than what you can personally control, you are relying on other people to honor your claim. So be nice to people."

Matt Flick said...

"there is no reason that a person born in the year 2100 should have fewer rights than a person born in the year 2000"
Now, even if property rights didn't follow from self ownership, I don't see why it matters if the whole world is privatized. 90% of the people around here probably never went into the unclaimed wild and tilled the land to create new ownership, at least to a significant degree. The fact is almost everybody is born into the world only owning their body, and they still acquire wealth and capital, not at the expense of others, or unclaimed resources, but they acquire the wealth.
I don't see why people think all land will becomes owned, and by the time that come around, we will be fucked, everyone who lives in a city deals in a society already owned by people for generations, and we aren't having less housing ownership because of it.

Less Antman said...

Matt, I hope you get a chance to read my entire essay and see the context of this paragraph: I am not arguing against private property, but in favor of it.

It isn't merely land ownership, but a particular view of the rights of land owners, that leads to the absurd result I'm describing, one which some libertarian writers have expressed as being the only correct derivation of property rights from the first principle of self-ownership.

It is because property rights are a social convention arising from custom and the desire to promote social peace and economic efficiency, rather than an absolute right to exclude arising from self-ownership and homesteading, that they contain all the necessary common sense exceptions and limitations we see in property law, such as easements.

On the issue of whether all property should or would be private in a free society, Roderick Long (http://libertariannation.org/a/f53l1.html) and Randall Holcombe (http://mises.org/journals/jls/19_2/19_2_1.pdf) have both written quite persuasively, and Elinor Ostrom's recent Nobel Prize in Economics was specifically for her exploration of the alternatives to both government and private property answers to the "tragedy of the commons" issue.

Bob Kaercher said...

"One can make even finer distinctions. If I homestead property to build a house, that might include a right not to have loud noise disrupt my sleep, but if I homestead property to build a factory, that right might not exist. We can look at my homesteading property for growing food, another might use the same property for hiking, another as a travel route to the other side, and as long as the later uses don’t interfere with the earlier ones, each has homesteaded a right to the same property. Granted, homesteading a location for a personal residence should provide more of a right to exclude others. Still, reason must prevail."

Les, this seems somewhat similar to what might be called "Rothbard's proviso" in his retooled concept of Lockean property rights: the relevant technological unit. This is the idea that property rights properly understood imply not just the right to the exclusive control of a scarce resource, but exclusive control for a specific use.

Maybe I'm just not as well read as I ought to be, but I find this concept underdiscussed by both ancaps and their critics. The most recent discussion of Rothbard's interpretation of the RTU that I've come across was in B.K. Marcus' "Radio Free Rothbard" for the Journal of Libertarian Studies a few years ago:

http://mises.org/journals/jls/20_2/20_2_2.pdf

I see that you're influenced by David Friedman--have you read any Rothbard? He also has some stuff about the enforceability of contracts. He basically says that the enforcement of any contract that implies theft of property or any kind of rights violation is certainly illegitimate.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, btw! Gave me a lot to think about.

Anonymous said...

^ was me...

Mark D. Hughes said...

Less, I don't think you really addressed Matt's concerns. No one doubt your devotion to property rights (at least no one who has read the essay). The paragraph in question, both in context and outside context, is troubling for me also.

You say:

"there is no reason that a person born in the year 2100 should have fewer rights than a person born in the year 2000, but if all the world becomes private property, and property owners can establish all the rules for their property, then every person born after that date will be born a slave, and self-ownership will become a joke...."

First, even if all land is owned by others and they establish absurd usage rules (like forbidding easement), it in no way follows that every person thereafter born is a de facto slave. Self ownership would not be a "joke." Each and every one of us, by virtue of self ownership, would still be able to engage in trade and commerce by way of the market process. Each of us would continue to have the opportunity to build wealth by way of savings ...starting with nothing but the ability to trade our self-owned labor.

Indeed, building a vast fortune need have nothing to do with land ownership, or even access to land ownership, and ,indeed, in today's world it generally doesn't. Most of the multi-millionaires living in Singapore, don't own a scrap of land, never have and probably never will.

Now, by creating wealth through savings, our landless brothers can then contract with the evil land owners to establish such things as easements. Some may refuse to have any truck with these moneyed peasants, but not all. And, those who do reject commerce with the landless will soon discover their land is of considerably less value.

The subtext of the paragraph in question seems make the same error made by may who simply do not understand sound economics. Namely, wealth accumulation is not a zero-sum game. It is only a zero-sum game if it is accumulated by way of theft. In all other cases (perhaps with the exception of forced inheritance) wealth is created by way of voluntary exchange, including gift giving and philanthropy. This is the essence of the market process and is, by definition, wealth creating rather than wealth dividing.

Finally, self-ownership provides the only ethical foundation/defense (at least that I know of) for establishing and maintaining property rights. Relying on social convention alone just will not due. Even gangs of murderers and robbers have some kind of social convention or else they would not be a gang...how safe are property rights with them?

Following self-ownership to its logical conclusion, i.e., external property rights by way of the fruits of our labor, does not in any way preclude the establishment of social conventions in the proper or ethical use of that property. Indeed, that is the history of the common law and I know of few "hard core" propertairians who see things differently.

All this notwithstanding, I enjoyed your essay immensely and found some genuine pearls of wisdom in it.