An Essay on Property (Conclusion)

In Part 4 of this essay, we discussed how people come to acquire property and, by and large, it wasn’t pretty.  The typical path is riddled with violence, whether it be the random violence of the bandit or its more organized cousin, the tribe or clan or the modern nation-state.  There appears to be no truly libertarian path to property, outside of relatively rare cases of homesteading.  But why not?  

Most critiques of libertarian theory come down to this:  a society with no government or a very minimal one will fail and only the strong and merciless will survive and prosper.  And you know what?  They’re right.  But not in the way you might think.  And not in the way they think.  Let me explain.

There is a difference between government and the State.  Proper libertarian theory, in my opinion, will rightly oppose the State but will embrace government.  Some definitions are in order.  Government is simply the process by which people govern themselves.  It is composed of all the ways we interact with each other to resolve conflict and work together on matters of concern to all.  In our day to day lives, much of that interaction is simply a respect for others and their lives and the choices they make.  But a big part of it is governed by agreements we make amongst ourselves known as contracts.  When we make a major purchase such as a home or a car, we usually sign a contract.  Marriage is a contract.  Many workplaces have some sort of contract, either explicit or implied.  These contracts help to regulate our relationships with one another to avoid conflict.  They “govern” us.

The State, on the other hand, is group of individuals who have taken upon themselves to dictate the terms on which people interact with one another.  In other words, it is a kind of government but not the only kind.  It may be very oppressive and cruel or may be relatively open and compassionate. It may permit no dissent or regime change or that may be a normal part of the process.  There is, in other words, no true moral equivalency between North Korea and Sweden.  But, at the most basic level, each of these nation-States still assigns to itself the privilege of enforcing certain rules (and not simply ones that protect individual rights) and, if necessary, using violence to do it.  Doubt that?   Simply stop paying your taxes and, when they come to enforce the warrant for your arrest, defend yourself.  See how that goes.  Actually, please don’t!

So can we create a thought experiment in which property is created and/or distributed that involves the use of voluntary contract or must be resort to a State?  I believe we can.  In fact, I believe there are numerous past situations that used that method of  “social contract” to allocate undeveloped land and resources.  And I believe there are analogous examples of self governance being used today.

Many of our previous examples imagined the settling of new lands and the use of undeveloped natural resources as being done by lone individuals and families who struck out alone into the hinterlands.  In fact, most settlements were made up of numerous families traveling and working together.  Upon arrival at their destination, they developed rules of behavior for that community and, among them were rules about the use of scarce resources and property.  If any individual or group didn’t agree to accept the rules, they were free to move on or return home.  The social contract was, in other words, voluntary.  The group could have decided to hold all resources in common and many did.  Others may have chosen very few rules outside of respect for persons and their property and many did.  Those dissatisfied with one settlement were always free to move to another that more nearly suited them.

As you can see, these communities had governments, even ones that had quite sweeping powers.  Some religious based ones regulated almost every element of their citizen’s lives.  There may be public parks or schools.  There may be formal mechanisms for helping the old, the poor and the sick.  And, so long as people are free to leave, there is no violation of libertarian principles.  

Even today, we see this type of self government in Homeowners Associations.   Developers will typically sell homes in a particular neighborhood with the caveat that those who buy in are required to follow  (often rather onerous) rules as to how they behave and how their homes are decorated and maintained.  No compulsion is involved.  No one is required to buy into one of those neighborhoods but many people feel that trading some personal choices for security is worthwhile.  If not, they would not be so popular.

So how does this social contract save a libertarian idea of property?  Well, at the most basic level it doesn’t.  I don’t think the idea of a right to property makes sense.  There is no simple way to define how scarce resources should be allocated when they are discovered.  History tells us that violence was as likely to be involved as cooperation.  The land that was simply seized from native people was out and out theft and is indefensible.  Land grants from Washington DC, whether to railroads or to individual settlers simply enforced the State’s belief about who should be allowed to settle what areas and who should most benefit.  

And even our libertarian model of development has problems.  While it gets around the idea of a right to property by replacing it with a right to contract, it still has a couple of problems, ones we may address at a later time.  One issue is that the community model of settlement doesn’t entirely get around the problem of conflicting claims to natural resources.  It simply makes those conflicts less likely.  After all, most wars are at least partly about territorial disputes.  When communities come into conflict, how can it be resolved outside of violence?

The second concern is that the social contract model allows for too expansive a level of control by community leaders.  So much for the idea of freedom if your only choices are an oppressive local government or an uncertain future exiled from it.  Along those same lines, what happens if communities choose to work together and enforce common rules across larger territories?  Are we not on a slippery slope to the Nation-State?  When there is no reasonable way to “exit” a community, there is no freedom.

So our solution is not perfect but it is an improvement on the simplistic ideas we often hear from libertarian and non-libertarians alike.   Property is a messy idea, particularly as it pertains to real estate and scarce natural resources.  It will do the cause of liberty and justice no favor if we fail to acknowledge that fact.  I do think the idea of replacing “life, liberty and property” with “life, liberty and contract” is a fertile ground for further development.  In time I will likely revisit this discussion but, for now, I think I have said enough.

I want to thank those of you who have taken the time to read and ponder this essay.  I do hope it has been worthwhile.  We will likely be moving on to some shorter pieces on current affairs and my take on them over the next few weeks.  I hope you’ll join us, but, until then, have a great week!

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!

Looking Back

Yes, friends, it is another bonus blog post!  This time we are celebrating the 6 month anniversary of the blog.  I have probably created a half a dozen or more blogs in my life and, while they all started with great hope and enthusiasm, that didn’t last long.  I suppose the two biggest differences this time were narrowing the focus and realizing that I was doing this for myself, not in the belief that I would become some famous writer.

That being said, I have invested a fair amount of time and money to try and make this blog a success, whatever that might mean.  At times I have struggled to make the time to write and to find the right topic.  I never wanted this to just be commentary on the issues of the day, although that is a part of it.  I wanted to talk about political philosophy and get my thoughts down on (virtual) paper.  It has mostly served that purpose and I think will continue to do so.  I hope to build an audience, even if it is a fairly small one, who will be challenged by the ideas and will challenge them in return.  Ultimately politics should be about a civil dialogue that can help build consensus, and this blog continues to hope to play a small role in that.

Looking back, I would critique several elements of what I have done so far.  First, I am far from a good writer.  Oh, I can turn a good phrase now and then but my writing style is awkward.  I am a much better speaker and I always find my posts more enjoyable when I read them aloud.  I can hope that practice will lead to improvement.  Then, of course, there is the tremendous contrast between the cold, analytic posts on political philosophy and the occasional “fire-breathing” posts on the events of the day.  My challenge is make the posts on the former more engaging and concrete and to bring down the volume on the latter to a more reasoned level.

Even so, I won’t sacrifice my passion in order to sound “reasonable” because, otherwise, why bother?  I believe, in the deepest depths of my heart and soul, in the cause of human freedom, and that a world organized through cooperation and consent,  is the one which has the potential to bring the “greatest happiness to the greatest number.”   Perhaps that makes me overly suspicious of concentrations of power in any form and too willing to embrace the latest conspiracy theory.  Still, better to cast aspersions on those who claim the right to rule than to blame the average person who is just doing their best to survive and make a good life for themselves and their families.

So, this anniversary is neither a celebration nor a postmortem.  It is an acknowledgement of our successes and failures and a promise to go forward, trying to improve on the finished product while remaining committed to the stated goal of building a consensus for liberty.  I appreciate all of you who have taken even a few moments to read even one or two posts and look forward to having you as a continuing part of this dialogue.  And, as always, have a great week!

War and Peace

In lieu of composing part four of my Essay on Property, I am going to offer a few thoughts on America’s latest (ill-advised) military adventure.  Not all of the thoughts are my own.  I will turn first to one of America’s greatest Generals and her first President:

“The Constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore, no offensive expedition of any importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure.”       

                                                               George Washington 

And some additional wise words from another great American General and President:

“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”

                                                               Dwight Eisenhower

And, finally, this more succinct summing up from a lesser known officer, Major General Smedley Butler, who wrote a book entitled “War is a Racket.”                                   

Yes, General, it most certainly is.  It most certainly is.  And, if a libertarian is anything, first and foremost, it is an opponent of war.  One of its greatest thinkers, Dr. Murray Rothbury, often berated his fellow activists for their obsession with little things, like the privatization of roads or fire departments, over issues of war and peace. He believed that war was the greatest enemy of the people, their lives and their freedoms.  

Moreover, war is the biggest “government program” out there, and the one laced with the most corruption and outright fraud.  It benefits large corporations and banks and causes the greatest pain and suffering to the poor and minority populations, whether they be the soldiers who fight or the civilians who get in the way.  It is used as an excuse to crackdown on freedom of speech and the press and to jail those who dissent.  War is the “health of the state,” a phrase coined by writer Randolph Bourne nearly 100 years ago.  Beware of any politician who claims to want “small government” but an aggressive foreign policy.

Yes, armies and (and civilians) do unspeakably evil things in war.  But the greatest criminals are the kings, prime ministers, dictators and Presidents who order these things to be done.  The only truly just war would be one fought hand to hand between those leaders alone.  They want a fight.  I will give them Thunderdome.  Now that would be entertainment!

Just to be clear, I condemn not only the strike last night on Syria but the drone strikes that escalated under the previous administration and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Not one of these actions has made the American people safer or the world a better place.  Every death leaves a mother or father or sister or brother or village or clan more determined that the United States and all it represents is evil.  It is time to stop the madness and leave these shattered nations, in war or peace, to sort out their lives.  We can’t fix this.  All we can do is make it more broken.  So, Mr. President, if you truly want to “drain the swamp,” then end this madness.  You do have that power. If you have the courage.


An Essay on Property (Part Three)

In Part Two of this essay, we defined property as a physical object, capable of division and possessing some element of scarcity.  But, more than that, property is not simply experienced as the control of some physical object but as a very personal relationship to that object.  Having a piece of property taken from us, whether by force, fraud,or stealth, is felt as a kind of violation of our own person.  But how does something become ours?  

Most of acquire property in one of two ways.  Either we purchase it from the previous owner or it is given to us, perhaps as an outright gift or as an inheritance.  But, you say, what of the things I make, such as a cake, a quilt or a painting?  Of course, your action has transformed the raw materials into a new kind of object but it is only your property because you previously owned those raw materials.  If you were to make a cake using ingredients that you did not own, it would not rightfully be your cake.  

This definition does have one big problem.  In acquiring the object from someone else, we are implicitly assuming that that individual was the rightful owner.  Just as the law prohibits you from receiving stolen property, so does libertarian theory.  If it is discovered that something you acquired was not acquired from the rightful owner, you have no right to it and it must be returned to the person who is the rightful owner.  The law may (perhaps rightly) place some time limit on such matters but, in principle, unjustly acquired property is never acceptable and must always be returned to the proper owner or their estate.  

Even if we assume a legal chain of ownership, we end up with a problem.  Let’s discuss it in terms of just one of the items we used to bake our cake, flour.  We acquired the flour from a grocer who acquired it from a distributor who acquired it from the mill that processed the wheat.  And, of course, the mill acquired the wheat from a farmer who grew it.  (Surprisingly, I likely left out several steps between you and the farmer, unless you purchased it directly from the farmer who ground it for you.)  You will notice that, at most every stop on the journey of the flour from the field to the frosting, some physical plant was required.  Whether it was the grocery store lot, the warehouse, the factory or the farm, they all occupy a particular kind of property which is going to cause us all kinds of trouble:  real estate or land.  Unless we can say that the farmer, the miller, the distributor and the grocer were all the rightful owners of the real estate required for their operation, the product each produces is no more theirs than the cake would be ours if we stole the ingredients.

That means that we must find a theory that allows us to explain how an individual can come to own a piece of real estate.  And, no, we only push the problem back one more step if we simply say they acquired it through purchase or gift.  We just have to ask the same question again?  How did they come to be its rightful owners?  And, even more troubling to ourselves and our social structure, what does it mean if we discover that the rightful owners at some point were unjustly deprived of that land?  We can chose to ignore that problem but we cannot pretend that isn’t a problem.  The whole underpinning of much libertarian theory involves the idea of private property, including land.  Can that theory be salvaged and, if so, how?

As you may have guessed, that will be the topic of part four of this essay.  Honestly, I have thought about this issue for my entire adult life and the best I am likely to be able to achieve is to provide some plausible alternatives from which we can choose.  And how we choose has dramatic consequences for the kind of libertarian society we can reasonably advocate.

As always, thanks for following along and taking the time to read this.  I hope you will join us again later this week as we continue this journey of intellectual exploration.  Until then, have a great week!

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!

An Essay on Property (Part One)

One key issue which has divided the traditional conservative/classical liberal position from that of the socialist/left liberal position is the matter of property.  In its extreme, it sets the anarcho-capitalist, who tends to see property as one of the defining features of a just society, against the traditional anarchist who, in Proudhoun’s words, exclaim that “Property is Theft.”  In any event, property is one of the most important and, I would argue, least understood, ideas in political thought.  Neither those who defend the idea of private property nor those who support wide scale socialization have thought through what it means.  This essay is an effort to do just that.

Starting from the most traditional sources of libertarian thought sends us back to two of the most important names in modern philosophy, John Locke and Rene Descartes.  From Locke we take the phrase “life, liberty and property,” one which supposedly defines the “natural,” “self-evident” and “God given” rights of man.  If Locke’s phrasing sounds familiar, it is probably because the terms are lifted (almost) verbatim in the Declaration of Independence.   Less acknowledged is the general influence of Descartes, whose philosophy is both rationalist in arguing from first principles and individualist in its metaphysics, essentially placing the individual consciousness at the center of Western thought.  This is not a universal notion but one which mostly holds sway in the United States and is particularly important to libertarianism with its focus on individual rights and responsibilities.

Another key feature of this approach, and one frequently misunderstood, is that “rights” in this context are best understood as “negative rights,” essentially the right to be left alone.  The rights to life, liberty and property do not entitle the individual to any positive good nor does it provide any obligation to supply those goods to others.   It would be just as easy (and accurate) to define these rights as responsibilities.  As both individuals or as groups of individuals  (governments,) it is our responsibility to respect other individuals, which is to say, respect their rights.

Again, there is fairly general agreement within Western society in respecting the rights to Life and Liberty.  In the simplest terms, that means we believe it is wrong to kill and wrong to restrain or control others.  There are points on which we disagree of course.  While most all may agree on a right to Life, on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war, there is much dispute.  And while most all may agree on a right to Liberty, on issues like contract law, minimum wage, self harm and addiction, and criminal justice, there is also much dispute.  These are worthwhile topics for discussion but I regard them as tangential to the general acceptance of the underlying principles.  

That brings us to the third of Locke’s triumvirate of rights and the one which is the topic of this essay: property.  In its simplest form it might be characterized as to right to obtain and keep our “stuff,” whatever that might mean,  and it imposes the responsibility of respecting the “stuff” of others.  In other words it says that it is wrong to steal or to take what does not belong to you.  And, while putting it in those terms makes it sound entirely uncontroversial, in practice it is a very different story.

As an example we might return to Locke and his relationship to the Declaration of Independence.  We note that, although an early draft of that document used the words “life, liberty and property,” the final draft omits property in favor of “the pursuit of happiness.”  It is  interesting that the Founding Fathers made that choice and I think suggests that they were aware that the right to property might not be as universally accepted.  

I am going to conclude part one of this essay with a short (and unsatisfactory) definition of property.  In part two I will try and flesh it out in more detail. So here we go.  Property has a few key chacteristics.  First and foremost, in order for something to be defined as property, it must be a  (relatively) scarce resource.  Second,  it must be divisible in a meaningful way.  Third, it must be a tangible good.  Again, these are intentionally vague, but still somewhat controversial.  I urge you to think through this definition and see if you can improve on it in some way.  In a few days I will do the same.

As always, thanks for reading.  Like, subscribe, follow, share and feel free to join the discussion.  Until next time, have a great week!