We Are Wrong About Property

Anarcho-capitalists and Libertarians often view their position as simply an extension of a set of axioms that are self-evident, entailing that their position is self-evident to anyone who thinks about it for long enough.

I think their position is far less logically unyielding than they care to imagine. Many of those axioms are arguably mutually incompatible leading to contradictions that are swept under the carpet by arbitrary ruling. Take, for example, the so called non-aggression principal [1]. You could argue that in a literally free market anyone is free to be aggressive and limiting everyone’s right to aggression is a breach of base principals. Incidentally, we should be free to breach contracts if we like too. I assume that the argument against this would be either to discount it as irrelevant (i.e. not understand it) or argue that the definition of a ‘free market’ incorporates individual rights such as the right to deny everyone else the right to be aggressive or the right to breach a contract. Or deny the definition of personal freedom allows aggression or breach of contract. I think that’s just tweaking a definition to hide a contradiction.

I don’t think it’s a flaw to incorporate a principal of non-aggression, of course, but it is irrational to pretend that you have an airtight position that follows inextricably from self evident axioms when you really don’t. The right to not be attacked by others is as morally self-evident as such things get. It just doesn’t play well with some of their other ideas.

Not all of the axioms are so self evident. I have seen many discussions between Libertarians and people that (they assume) are socialists or communists in which the backstop of the Libertarian/Anarcho-capitalist position is ‘property rights’. They will accuse the other of not accepting property rights, say, because they think something shouldn’t be privatised, then, well… will really just laugh at the other person for being so ignorant as to not accept or grasp the self evident nature of property rights and their intrinsic importance for production.

Believing that resources should be shared is communism. In reality (almost) everyone is communist to some limited extent because everyone shares things. Similarly, no-one is a ‘pure’ communist, everyone has limits to what they think should be shared. I suspect that even the most left-leaning people accept the idea of property rights.

I want to make two observations: 1) those people, the communists or liberals or whatever word people use, really don’t have an issue with property rights, they have an issue with claimer rights and 2) property rights are not fundamental rights.

Property Rights are not Fundamental Rights

It’s interesting to note that property rights, variously defined, have a property of exclusivity that other fundamental rights really don’t have. A person’s right to self-expression, or religion, or education, or freedom, does not necessarily deny others any rights. However, the right of property, whichever way you define it, intrinsically does necessarily deny others that same right. To me this makes it a very different type of thing to the fundamental rights.

It could be pointed out that if I am ultimately free then I have the right to do things to others that infringe their freedoms, so in some situations my right to freedom can inhibit others’ right to freedom. For example, if I really liked locking people up. The counter argument would be that once you have violated someone else’s rights you have invalidated your own, therefor someone can’t claim those rights as a means to violate someone else’s. But, again, this isn’t the case for property rights. To maintain property rights over a thing others have to be denied the same rights.

Claimer Rights

So let’s follow this through. You own a field. How did you come to own it? You bought it off someone. How did they come to own it? Obviously, ultimately, there was a point in time in which that field belonged to no-one. Someone somehow claimed it and it became owned by them. What happened is that someone decided that no-one else in the universe can have property rights over this field. How did that person get that right? Property rights can’t come to the rescue here because you have to have the property to claim that right. There exists no right to claim anything as property without reference to some other genuinely fundamental right. Further, neither communism nor socialism, or taxation for that matter, intrinsically breach property rights because denying someone the right to claim a thing as property does not infringe on a persons property rights, because you have to have the property to have that right. What communists really support is not limited property rights, but limited claims to property.

It’s a deep irony that those so against state or government intervention, without even realizing it, endorse arbitrary state intervention. Once upon a time the idea of property didn’t really exist. People had no need for it. In fact ‘time’ here is a bit misleading, such people exist now, history is multithreaded. Then people started to create the religions we’re familiar with and started to believe natural resources belong to God (ideas held throughout the middle ages by Christians and still held by Muslims), and therefor cannot be privately owned. Then some monarchs and religious leaders came along and made everyone believe that they were God’s representatives while States simply insisted they own everything. Over time this was refined into a theory of property ownership designed to protect those with property from those denied it. Eventually this capital was sold back to people, bringing it into the possession of capitalists. Today, some anti-statists are trying to preserve the fruits of statism under the banner of anti-statism. Priceless.

It’s a further irony that our modern understanding of (the legal fiction of) property come almost entirely from the Roman Empire’s central legalist tradition, which integrated large scale slavery as an economic necessity.

The issue of the mechanics of claiming something is far from front and centre in any anarcho-capitalist discussion or manifesto (I think Americans don’t like this word and so use the word ‘Platform’) I’ve seen. Intuitively, I suppose, many would image that most important things are already either in existence and owned,  or else will come into ownership by being created, a situation in which claiming rights would obviously fall to the person that created the thing [2]. The trouble is that capitalism allows any conceptual object to be owned, not just fields and factories. Hence we have IP rights and companies currently claiming genes as intellectual property.

[1] ‘So called’ because it’s far from clear what such an idea entails

[2] For capitalist it would be the person who owns the factory not the person that did the work

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9 comments
  1. Interesting way of looking at property… I never thought about it this way before.

  2. Take, for example, the so called non-aggression principal [1]. You could argue that in a literally free market anyone is free to be aggressive and limiting everyone’s right to aggression is a breach of base principals.

    If our liberty stems from our equality of authority, aggression (since it expresses authority over others) is an invasion of another’s liberty. Rebuffing that aggression is not an exception to liberty, but a ratification. However, I would agree that the rights are not axiomatic.

  3. It is interesting though that the word ‘Liberty’ is used at all. Why is ‘Freedom’ not enough? It reminds me of the way fundamentalist christians use the word ‘Righteous’. In common discussion they roughly allow people to assume it means ‘good’ or ‘moral’ or ‘right’. But when their argument fails to support the idea that their position is good, moral or right they resort to a special meaning of ‘Righteous’ that wins the argument by definition.

  4. Some argue that property rights are axiomatic. I would agree with you that this stance is wrongheaded. However, there are much better arguments in favor of protecting individual property rights that involve simple logic and game theory. The “right” as it is seen in the law is derived from both moral and practical considerations.

    The point you make that there was this random delegation and/or appropriation of ownership of pieces of Earth throughout history only shows that in earlier times, property could be seen as “arbitrary” from a third-person perspective. But for the 19th century midwestern farmer who tilled and labored over his land with his family, it was not so arbitrary. Yes, he staked his claim over this land following a long history, but his work in shaping it and creating something useful for others gave him claim to it. He exchanged his time and effort—his life—for the crops that he cultivated from the land with his own hands. The same phenomenon is seen elsewhere in nature from birds who fashion nests for their young. In order to deny this person’s individual right to his crops by taking them at gunpoint, his time/effort—his life—must be denied. Because we value each individual’s life (at least I hope so), this is seen as morally wrong.

    I think it would be prudent to note that there are only a few logically possible alternatives when it comes to human ownership (right to use) of a physical object: 1) A single person can own it, 2) More than one person can own it (but not everyone), and 3) all people can own it. Some say that there are cases in which no people can own it, but for all intents and purposes this functions exactly the same as (3).

    Nearly all of the controversy over property rights that you can imagine have happened and will continue to happen. If you see them where property rights are protected, they will most certainly happen (often in much more severe circumstances) in places in which they are not protected. It is important to evaluate the alternatives.

    The questions now become,1) Which real world applications are characterized by these different options?; and 2) Which of those applications are the most effective in bringing about a prosperous society?

    • “I think it would be prudent to note that there are only a few logically possible alternatives when it comes to human ownership”

      Yes, if you take ownership as axiomatic. If you don’t the logical possibilities are much wider. Take for example the person who worked on a farm all their life. The thing that should be protected is that person’s right to maintain their way of life. ‘Ownership’ is just one legal fiction that in some way does that. In pre-commercial societies that person would have that right, but they would not be thought of as owning the land in the way we think.

      • “The thing that should be protected is that person’s right to maintain their way of life. ‘Ownership’ is just one legal fiction that in some way does that.”

        First, how do you define “way of life”?

        Second, what would be an alternative that cannot be categorized into one of the options I have provided?

        The ‘ownership’ to which I was referring with the alternative options was not the “legal fiction” version as we see it now, but the “moral” consideration that has later been realized in the law (thus making it less of a fiction than you might expect). If the farmer is by himself with a small garden, we would think it morally wrong for a group of bandits to come and take the yield that he put his life into producing.

        If I were making an axiomatic claim, I wouldn’t have provided any explanation at all. Axioms, by definition, cannot be explained. Property is predicated both on the fact that people use physical objects over periods of time and on the notion that individual property is an actual representation of a person’s life.

  5. “way of life” needs a definition?

    “Second, what would be an alternative that cannot be categorized into one of the options I have provided?”

    -well, does ownership include the rights to sell? If so that came from nowhere. The person who worked there whole life should arguably have certain rights with regards to that land but it’s a whole other step to assert ‘ownership’ as we would define it. For example what right do they have to sell it? Why do they need the right to sell? How do they get that right? How does a person who didn’t work a lifetime on that landed get to be able to buy it? Why does 1 person have to work a life time to create ‘ownership’ which then exists forever? Why doesn’t the next ‘owner’ have to put time in?

    Also speculation on capital contributes nothing to the productive economy, it actually drains resources and makes everything more expensive, and contributes the intrinsic instability of capitalism. Which is why people who aren’t indoctrinated by centralised authorities don’t agree with it. And why speculators were hung until not long ago.

    What I am describing is essentially socialism. Which is the principal that those who put the time into working with a piece of capital are the ones who have control over it. If someone else want control over it they have to work it. If the person no longer wants the land they would not be thought of as having the right to sell it because it’s not theirs. They would have got a lifetime of food from it. This is the default perception held in pre-commercial societies.

    And it’s worth noting that property rights didn’t come from some moralist ideal. They came from Roman common law regarding slave ownership, created to protect slave owners.

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