Let us consider a hypothetical example of the failure of the utilitarian defense of private property. Suppose that somehow government becomes persuaded of the necessity to yield to a clamor for a free-market, laissez-faire society. Before dissolving itself, however, it redistributes property titles, granting ownership of the entire territory of New York to the Rockefeller family, of Massachusetts to the Kennedy family, etc. It then dissolves, ending taxation and all other forms of government intervention in the economy. However, while taxation has been abolished, the Rockefeller, Kennedy, etc. families proceed to dictate to all the residents in what is now "their" territory, exacting what are now called "rents" over all the inhabitants. It seems clear that our utilitarians could have no intellectual armor with which to challenge this new dispensation; indeed, they would have to endorse the Rockefeller, Kennedy, etc., holdings as "private property" equally deserving of support as the ordinary property titles which they had endorsed only a few months previously. All this because the utilitarians have no theory of justice in property beyond endorsement of whatever status quo happens to exist.
. . .We conclude that utilitarianism cannot be supported as a groundwork for property rights or, a fortiori, for the free-market economy. A theory of justice must be arrived at which goes beyond government allocations of property titles, and which can, therefore, serve as a basis for criticizing such allocations. ("Justice and Property Rights," in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays)
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Murray Rothbard tirelessly insisted that advocates of the free market must have a theory of justice in property, and he often loosed his ire at utilitarian economists who defended markets and "property rights" without such a theory. Here's what he wrote in a 1973 paper on the subject. This is classic Rothbard, and the relevance to today's privatization issues is clear.
Posted by Sheldon Richman at 5:36 PM