An Essay on Property (Part Two)

In part one of this essay, I discussed the idea of property as a “right,” similar in some respects to the rights to life and liberty, but more controversial.  I also suggested that the idea of property is not well understood and needs to be fleshed out.  Finally, I offered a few ideas about what property is and is not.  In part two I am going to attempt a more precise definition and see where that leads us.

The first feature of property is related to the first principle of economics, that of scarcity.  Economics is the study of how we allocate scarce resources and, I propose, nothing can be property unless it is a scarce resource.  I modify that slightly by using the term “relatively scarce” to point out that some resources can be either scarce or not, depending on the context.  Let me give a couple of examples. Drinking water in any major American city can hardly be defined as scarce when there are water fountains in most every public and private facility and there is no price attached to using one.  Also, at various times in human history, land beyond the frontier of civilization has been available to any person willing to settle on it and develop it in some way.  As there is more undeveloped land available than there are people who wish to settle on it, that land is not scarce and, therefore, not property.

Another feature of property is that it must exist in the physical realm and be limited by it.  Let’s give a simple example.  I own a particular object, say a bicycle.  As a physical object, it occupies a single space in the material world.  If I am riding the bicycle, no one else can do so.  This is true of most any object, whether it be a car, a piano, a blender or whatever.  It is not true of what is often called intellectual property.  If I hold an idea in my head, it does not prevent you from doing the same.  Whether it be an idea, a song, a play, a novel or a computer program, it is different from the kind of thing a bicycle is.  A particular sequence of symbols may be a truly inspired human creation but, once shared with others, it cannot be described as limited in the way my bicycle can.  While the physical medium that communicates the creation, such as a book, a DVD or a cassette tape is limited, the creation is not.  And, in the digital world, most any idea or creative work can be described as simply a series of ones and zeros, requiring little more than an Internet connection and a computer to display.  And we can make an unlimited number of copies of these works without degrading its quality or limiting anyone else’s access to the same.  It simply cannot be described as property.  Trying to pretend that it is, in an attempt to be sure artists and creative individuals are justly compensated, will ultimately fail.  There are other ways to approach that problem but this is not the place for that discussion.

I mention a third quality of property and that is what I will call divisability.  In order for something to be property, there has to be some way to meaningfully divide it into particular parts.  I can subdivide a piece of real estate in quite a precise fashion.  It is all but impossible to do that with an ocean or an atmosphere.  We have no sense of property in the air we breathe, not just because it is not normally scarce but, short of containing some quantity of it in a tank, there is no way for us to distinguish my air from yours. 

So it seems my “definition” has, so far, described what property is by describing what it is not.  That definition alone is far from a satisfactory one.  Much more needs to be said about what it is and how it is a particular person or group may be said to have a right to it.  That is the topic of part three of the essay but I will, once again, give some idea about what is ahead.  In describing how people come to acquire and exchange property, it will eventually lead us back to a discussion of real estate and the ways we might allocate real estate within a civil society.  This involves not just the idea of liberty but also notions of fairness and justice.  As I have already implied, there is no easy answer.

I also suspect that many libertarians may chafe at some of the ideas that I will introduce.  But intellectual honesty must trump  (no pun intended) any particular libertarian doctrine if it is wrong or, at least, incomplete.  To think otherwise would leave one of the most basic ideas of libertarian thought exposed as faulty.  I prefer to leave those kinds of mistakes to the statists.  So, until next time, thanks for following along and have a great weekend!

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