An Essay on Property (Part 4)

Yes, it is finally here.  In Part 3 of this essay, we discussed how people come to acquire personal property through the free exchange of goods and services.  While some will disagree with this system of free exchange, even the most highly centralized economic systems allow for some personal property and have some rules for how it is obtained.  What is far more controversial  (and rightly so) is the individual ownership of real estate and other natural resources which, in the eyes of many, rightly belongs to society as a collective.  Are they right?  If so, it would appear to discredit the moral basis of libertarian economic and political thought.  Let’s think through the ways such resources become property and see if we can reconcile it with our view of a free society.

Before I begin, let me be very clear.  There are many purely utilitarian arguments in favor of free market capitalism  (as opposed to state or crony capitalism) but I will not be resorting to those arguments in this essay.   I can provide numerous works that elaborate those arguments and many examples in the so-called “real world.”   However a system, no matter how much wealth it may produce, cannot be judged to be just or fair if it owes its success to the exploitation of the many by a few.  That is the case that socialists of all stripes have made for centuries.  Can we rebut them?

The way philosopher John Locke describes it, people come to acquire property by mixing their labor with it in some way.  I don’t think this is a very good definition though it is does describe one way in which individuals become associated with a particular plot of real estate:  what is often called homesteading.  Imagine a lone individual or family traveling across the continent, coming across a piece of land, clearing it of unwanted trees and vegetation, building a small cabin and putting in a crop or grazing livestock.  He also builds a fence, marking the division between what he (or she) sees as their property and what is not.  This individual has indeed mixed his labor with the resources that he found undeveloped and, as a result, developed them.  Those resources were not property until he did that.  Once those resources were developed by that individual, they became property and, it seems to me, they became his property.  It is not the mixing of labor with “property” that makes it his.  That would suggest that a cake baked with stolen property is rightfully your property but we have already refuted that argument.  It is only his property now because it was not property at all when he first encountered it,  because it was not (relatively) scarce.  It became property when it was developed and, thereby,  became scarce and valuable.  Its value is because of that individual or family and so the newly created property is rightly associated with them and they have a “right” to enjoy it.

Whew!  That was a mouthful but I wanted to try and tweak Locke’s ideas and incorporate them into my already existing thoughts.  So homesteading is a very real thing.  It is frequently identified with the United States, both in the way it provides opportunity for people to better their lives and with the growth and development of the nation.  But homesteading is hardly the only way in which people come to acquire property.   Even the Homesteading Act and the property acquired under it is not homesteading in the strict definition of the word.  

The problem with Locke’s ideas and my revision of them is that they describe a situation that is pretty unusual.  How often is there going to be such a glut of undeveloped land and natural resources that individuals just carve out what they want without any conflict?  In almost all societies throughout human history, these resources have been scarce and there has always been dispute and often violent conflict over who has the right to develop and exploit them.  The key word in this paragraph is scarce (or, in our terms, relatively scarce.)  Our definition of property was that it was scarce, tangible and divisible.  Most natural resources are tangible and divisible.  A great many of them are scarce.  That makes them property.  But, if that is the case, who’s property is it?  How do we resolve this conflict?

One view is that this property rightly belongs to society  (and, by extension, to all of humanity.)  It is a reasonable view but not a very satisfactory one.  Saying it belongs to everyone implies that no one has any right to use it.  In order to utilize a resource I would, in principle, require the consent of every other person.  That isn’t very practical.  What those holding this view end up advocating is that all such resources, while owned by all, are controlled by some unit of government.  In my judgement, control of property is at the heart of ownership.  So, this viewpoint is really saying that natural resources should be owned by government.  And, as government is simply a fairly small group of individuals, this view ultimately advocates ownership of these resources by a fairly small group.  Again, the idea sounds good in the abstract but ends up not making much sense.  If a small group effectively owns everything, how did that group come into possession of that right?  As a libertarian, the idea that they were selected by God or elected by a majority are not persuasive and I have to reject this idea.

The sad reality, whether in the distant past or the present, is that conflict and violence has typically been the way any particular individual or group of individuals has come to own and control natural resources.  Even when violence has ceased to be the normal method of getting what you want or need, there is still violence inherent in how the resources or the things produced with those resources were initially distributed.  There is a sad truth in the television series The Walking Dead.  In the absence of cooperation, and even when some elements of it exist, scarce resources will almost inevitably be fought over and for good reason:  survival.  Like any other animal, at its heart, the human being has to do what it takes to survive.  And we still fight bloody wars over land and resources, civilized as we like to believe we are.  Life has often been, in the words of another English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short.”

Hobbes has a solution:  an absolute ruler.  A libertarian can never accept that.  But can a libertarian come up with a solution to the war of all against all and what will it look like?  I think the answer is a qualified yes.  The solution is far from perfect but it just might work without fundamentally violating man’s basic rights to life, liberty and (yes) property.  As you might imagine, that solution will finally be revealed in the last part of this essay which, I promise, is coming up this weekend.  You won’t want to miss it!  Until then, thanks for following along and have a great day!

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