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Ownership and the universe

This essay, written by the philosopher Edward Feser in 2005, contains much food for thought. I like these couple of paragraphs:

“The claim that we all own everything is more in need of justification than the claim that no one initially owns anything. Surely such a claim is not merely unjustified, but counterintuitive, even mysterious. Consider the following: a pebble resting uneasily on the surface of the asteroid Eros as it orbits the sun, a cubic foot of molten lava
churning a mile below the surface of the earth, one of the polar icecaps on Mars, an ant floating on a leaf somewhere in the mid-Pacific, or the Andromeda galaxy. It would seem odd in the extreme to claim that any
particular individual owns any of these things: In what sense could Smith, for example, who like most of the rest of us has never left the surface of the earth or even sent a robotic spacecraft to Eros, be said to own the
pebble resting on its surface? But is it any less odd to claim we all own the pebble or these other things? Yet the entire universe of external resources is like these things, or at least (in the case of resources that are now
owned) started out like them—started out, that is to say, as just a bunch of stuff that no human being had ever had any impact on. So what transforms it into stuff we all commonly own? Our mere existence? How so?”

“Are we to suppose that it was all initially unowned, but only until a group of Homo sapiens finally evolved on our planet, at which point the entire universe suddenly became our collective property? (How exactly did that process work?) Or was it just the earth that became our collective property? Why only that? Does something become collective property only when we are capable of directly affecting it? But why does everyone share in ownership in that case—why not only those specific individuals who are capable of affecting it: for example, explorers, astronauts, or entrepreneurs? It is, after all, never literally “we” collectively who discover Antarctica, strike oil, or go to the moon, but only particular individuals, together perhaps with technical assistance and financial backing provided by other particular individuals. Smith’s being the first to reach some distant island and build a hut on it at least makes it comprehensible how he might claim—plausibly or implausibly—to own it. This fact about Smith gives some meaning to the claim that he has come to own it. But it is not at all clear how this fact would give meaning to the claim that Jones, whom Smith has never met or even heard of, who has had no involvement in or influence on Smith’s journey and homesteading, and who lives thousands of miles away (or even years in the future), has also now come to own it.”

He also beautifully undermines the claim, sometimes made even by pro-market people, that no-one has been able to prove that property rights can ever arise justly ex-nihilo, that they are all, in the end, derived from a sort of act of initial theft. He takes that point apart.

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53 comments to Ownership and the universe

  • Richard Garner

    Link doesn’t seem to work, but I think I know the article you mean.

    Feser penned an excellent introduction to Robert Nozick‘s libertarianism that I would recommend to anybody also as an excellent introduction to rights based libertarianism as a whole, (though I would also suggest problems with Nozick’s defense of as much as a minimal state, probably referring them to which discusses Nozick’s views on this, as well as those of others).

    I would also recommend this article by Feser on taxation, James Rolph Edwards’ response, and Feser’s rebuttal.

  • “The claim that we all own everything is more in need of justification than the claim that no one initially owns anything.”

    What is equally in need of justification is the claim that no one initially owns anything, but then somehow items miraculously come to be owned.

    All those claims rely on a belief in some form of natural property rights, which can never be anything more than pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo.

  • That’s why I don’t like all this philosophising. In practice, whoever has the bigger army on his side owns something. Did the surface of North America used to ‘belong’ to the Red Indians? Did the surface of England used to ‘belong’ to the Anglo-Saxons? Well clearly it didn’t, as there was somebody with a bigger army prepared to take it from them.

    Within most societies, there are mutually beneficial rules that each leaves the others’ property in peace (without which it would not be a society, it would be civil war) so really, property rights are only of interest at a sub-national level.

  • Well put Mark, except for limiting possible enforcement of mutual agreements to subnational levels, especially in this day and technological age.

  • Reading the essay (and by the way the link seems not to work, but I presume it is this essay(Link)?) and having recently read Rothbard’s critique of Henry George, (I think) I am yet to see an argument that takes into account the difference between “collective ownership” and “common rights”.

    Personally, I have no problem with the idea that someone, happening for the first time on a previously unused piece of the natural world and “mixing their labour with it” (I would add a rider “in a meaningful sense” – I don’t think simply fencing something off and holding it out of everyone else’s use even though you may not have any productive use for it) confers original ownership.

    However, this has to be balanced against the natural right of everyone to exist, which necessarily implies having somewhere on which to exist, even if that is merely the space one occupies at any particular moment in time. Without this most basic of rights, it is impossible to exercise even self-ownership.

    If we regard taxation as morally impermissible, does it only apply to taxation carried out by some kind of coercive collective? What about when a private individual is able to exact some kind of an impost on someone merely for existing? Is that not also a morally impermissible tax? In fact I’d say it was possibly worse, since it seems to create some kind of master-slave relationship, without even the pretence of appeal to even the most voluntary collective body for remedy.

    I find everyone’s attempts to find a resolution to this quite unsatisfactory. On the one hand, it does not seem right that, for example, someone may have to put themselves into exile in order simply to exercise their rights to self-ownership. There again, with a growing world population, there is an ever more quickly approaching time where, in theory at least, some group of people will own the whole of the planet, relegating any other group of people to rent-slaves. And on the other hand, I hear lots of guff spoken about the “subjective” or “utility” value of real estate, dismissing any notion of Ricardian rent values that can be observed to arise wherever there is a shortage of land within any particular margin of production.

    I also often hear Austrians in particular talk, in respect of rights to remedy for damage done to one’s property by a neighbour (through blight for example), that people only have a right to the property itself, not to the value of the property. This would suggest to me that where, as in the case of real property, that value is derived from the common utility of a particular piece of real property, then the possessor of that real property does not have the right to that value, and that it is therefore legitemate to attempt to redistribute that to which all potential users of a particular plot have contributed.

    Anyway – I’m rambling as usual. I just don’t find any of these theories terribly satisfactory, in terms of natural rights, and most of the nay-sayers who attack the likes of Nozick (and by extension previous libertarian thought such as that of Nock, and the individualist anarchists right back to Proudhon) for trying to find a slightly different theory of acquisition and property rights over things which are finite and which we all require merely to survive, create a straw man by talking about their critics’ claims to “collective ownership of everything”.

  • I also often hear Austrians in particular talk, in respect of rights to remedy for damage done to one’s property by a neighbour (through blight for example), that people only have a right to the property itself, not to the value of the property.

    I have always had a problem with that notion. If your land next to mine has a swimming pool which is now a malarial swamp, and you refuse to either drain it or spray it… or your power plant keep dumping radioactive particulates on my land, I would say *my* right to stop that from happening and thereby preserving the value (or utility) of my property in any meaningful way gives me the right to insist (i.e. make a force backed demand) on some sort of reasonable remedy.

    Of course like all things this is also fraught with the potential for all sorts of “mission creep”… until we arrive at modern absurdities like not being able to paint your house fluorescent pink as unconventional aesthetics it might devalue the price of the house next door.

    But just because a slope is slippery, we cannot pretend it ain’t there.

    Any ‘system’ which purports to deal with the real world needs to be able to deal with that sort of thing.

  • “What is equally in need of justification is the claim that no one initially owns anything, but then somehow items miraculously come to be owned.”

    OK I’ll bite: what is so miraculous about owning stuff? I apply my labour to an unowned patch of land so that it grows vegetables – now it’s mine and no-one else’s unless I decide to trade. What’s the problem? Even if Mark Wadsworth comes along with an army and steals my little veggie patch, it’s still mine and his claim to ownership of it is false until I agree to a trade. If I die, it certainly doesn’t belong to me anymore, but his claim to ownership is still false.

    “In practice, whoever has the bigger army on his side owns something.”

    I don’t have an army, but I own stuff.

    “Did the surface of England used to ‘belong’ to the Anglo-Saxons? Well clearly it didn’t, as there was somebody with a bigger army prepared to take it from them.”

    You utter berk. If I go to your house and take your stuff due to a capacity for superior force, does that then mean it was never your stuff in the first place?

    “Within most societies, there are mutually beneficial rules that each leaves the others’ property in peace (without which it would not be a society, it would be civil war) so really, property rights are only of interest at a sub-national level.”

    The implication being that government is necessary for property to exist. It is the State which is a parasitical derivative of property, not the other way around. If people didn’t produce stuff to survive, there would be nothing for the State to tax because everyone (including the Statists) would be dead.

    For god’s sake already.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Folks, I apologise about the link. I thought it worked, checked it, but for some reason it has gone wonky. You can Google it, though.

    Mark, you may not like such philosophising, but that is because you probably don’t like the argument presented here, as it reinforces the case for property rights and against the various assaults on it (such as from your dreaded Pet Scheme).

    Paul Lockett:

    All those claims rely on a belief in some form of natural property rights, which can never be anything more than pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo.

    Nope. It is entirely possible to look at human nature and the external world in a scientific, non-religious way and come to certain conclusions, of which the notion of certain natural rights might be such a conclusion. I haven’t the time to defend the idea of natural rights on this blog right now, but dismissing it as “pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo”, as you do, is not good enough.

  • By losing a war, or by surrendering, are you not giving up (as a king for example) your claim to the property? You fight, you lose, you hand over your kingdom.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Oh, and what Mike said. I must say I am somewhat taken aback by Mark W’s approach dismissing property rights as being derived ultimately from military force. In practice, of course, folk have seized stuff belonging to others at some stage back in the mists of time and one could spend hours trying to unpick the legal titles to stuff going down the centuries.

    But if one can at least show how property rights can arise, justly from an unowned state, then we have the basis for defending property from assault, at least in principle. I think principles actually matter. If we are going to adopt a sort of “might is right” nihilism, then I have no interest in such a discussion. Sorry.

  • Hugoberon

    Ownership is entirely a social phenomenon, it’s only about people – one person asserts power over what some other person can do with things in the universe.

    Nothing mysterious there at all. Any person exists in a society and that society has conventions of ownership that every person participates in or contests.

    The question of the ownership of a pebble on Mars is therefore a question about relations between people on earth, and has got nothing to do with the pebble itself. Don’t confuse yourself.

  • Surely the concept of property and ownership extends back well beyond the start of human existence.

    Animals show all of these ownership and property rights:

    (i) territory;
    (ii) the spoils of hunting;
    (iii) mating rights.

    With humans, and IMHO some of the higher animals, it has just ‘evolved’ somewhat beyond ownership resolution only according to physical strength.

    Best regards

  • What Hugoberon said.

    Mike:

    “In practice, whoever has the bigger army on his side owns something.” I don’t have an army, but I own stuff.

    The only reason you practically (as opposed to philosophically or morally or whatever) own stuff is because there is an army/police to enforce that. That, or you own weapons yourself or hire someone who does. Now go ahead and call me a berk, and break the toys too.

    There is nothing nihilistic about this Jonathan, on the contrary: it goes to demonstrate and to stress that in order to survive humans need to both peacefully cooperate with each other and to remain vigilant and willing to use violence when their attempts at peaceful cooperation are not met with reciprocity.

  • By the way, I wrote a blog piece a couple of weeks ago tryng to reconcile “first appropriation” theory with my objections(Link).

  • Nigel: animals have no concept of property rights, only an instinct to control stuff (food and territory on which said food may be roaming) in order to survive. In fact animals routinely kill each other over food/territory/female companionship, and the stronger animal always wins. What is interesting is that some animals seem to be intelligent enough to peacefully cooperate with other animals (both within their species and outside it) to mutual advantage.

  • So, does anyone have a practical, philosophical or moral right either to exclude someone else from a market by making it impossible for them to locate themselves somewhere within travelling distance of that market or to exact a punitive (because that’s what “economic rent” is in the sense that it swallows up everything over the margin of production) private tax on them being able to access that market. Remember I may also be bringing to that market something that would benefit many other market participants, but perhaps the land-owning contingent don’t really care about that skill or product so don’t perceive a benefit in letting me have some of their space.

    Does the answer depend on whether the person seeking to access that market was somehow “born into” that market’s agglomeration area or is an immigrant? If not, and I am born in Britain, do I have a right to exist sans rent anywhere on the planet if I can’t find somewhere in Britain that is unowned?

  • Alisa writes:

    Nigel: animals have no concept of property rights, …

    Well, IMHO, Alisa speaks of that which she cannot know.

    However, if one defines “concept of property rights” as something known only to humans, then doubtless only humans know of it.

    For myself, in judgement of humans (especially politicians and other salesmen – animals all), I find actions speak louder than words.

    Best regards

  • Well, IMHO, Alisa speaks of that which she cannot know.

    No more or less than Nigel or anyone else can. For myself, in judgment of animals (including humans), I find actions are all we have to go by:-)

  • Johnathan Pearce

    There is nothing nihilistic about this Jonathan, on the contrary: it goes to demonstrate and to stress that in order to survive humans need to both peacefully cooperate with each other and to remain vigilant and willing to use violence when their attempts at peaceful cooperation are not met with reciprocity

    The reason I used that term was because when someone states that property rights are in fact tainted by things like previous acts of force, etc, such folk then tend to go onto to justify other acts of state-backed force to bring about a system they favour, such as through mass redistributions, etc. For them, it is all about the might of group A winning the day over group B.

    If you doubt my words, the other day I was chatting to a colleague who spends a lot of time in Russia, and we got chatting about some of the outrages of the Russian state and its theft of private property assets. And his attitude was: well, the assets were stolen fromm someone else, and then from someone else, so the Russian state was entitled to do what it did, and others were entitled to rob the Russian state….

    See what I mean?

  • Alisa writes:

    For myself, in judgment of animals (including humans), I find actions are all we have to go by:-)

    So why has she just argued above earlier (sorry, I think that was merely stated) that the actions by animals to ‘retain ownership’ (in many circumstances similar actions to those of humans) exclude the concept of property rights?

    I don’t think smilies do much for the quality of argument, but they’re cheap to type.

    😉

  • Jonathan, I see exactly what you mean, but you are making the wrong utilitarian argument. There are two ways you could go about this with people such, say, the Russian government. You could tell them that it is wrong to forcefully take others’ property because it violates their natural property rights. Or you could tell them that everyone, including them, would ultimately benefit from respecting property rights as traditionally established by western societies (i.e. by social conventions/agreements, as opposed to ‘natural rights’). If you are faced with an opponent who holds no belief in natural rights (as you in fact are per your example), you have nothing to appeal to, whereas the second argument at least appeals to the opponent’s self-interest. Of course it is often the case that the opponent is too stupid/desperate to think or care about long-term benefits, in which case that’s what guns are for.

  • “The only reason you practically (as opposed to philosophically or morally or whatever) own stuff is because there is an army/police to enforce that. That, or you own weapons yourself or hire someone who does.”

    Bullshit. It is one of two reasons for why I am able to own stuff. You yourself even admit this in a later comment.

  • Mike:

    It is one of two reasons for why I am able to own stuff. You yourself even admit this in a later comment.

    Where?

  • Nigel, it may be the case that you and I use the word ‘rights’ differently. I use it to signify what is referred to by Mike and Jonathan (and many others) as ‘natural rights’.

    Smileys are no more or less cheap than a polite smile and friendly body language, and in fact serve to emulate those in an online conversation. To this end they may indeed contribute somewhat to the quality of an argument, just like signing one’s comment with something like ‘best regards’.

  • mike:

    I apply my labour to an unowned patch of land so that it grows vegetables – now it’s mine and no-one else’s unless I decide to trade.

    But that’s just your opinion. You believe that growing some vegetables on a patch of land makes that land your absolute property in perpetuity. You believe that any other claim over that property is false. That’s fine as an opinion, but it’s no more an absolute truth than the beliefs of those who believe that everything is owned collectively by everyone.

    Of course, you could use force to coerce others into accepting your personal view that your conception of property rights is universally correct, but that wouldn’t make your opinion any more valid.

  • Johnathan Pearce:

    If we are going to adopt a sort of “might is right” nihilism, then I have no interest in such a discussion.

    I don’t believe that anybody has tried to say that might makes right, just that might creates control, which is self-evident. At root, that’s what almost all property rights systems rely on, be they natural rights based or otherwise – it tends to be the group which has the greatest ability to use force which gets to impose its preferred approach on everybody else.

    What Mark hinted at and what I would whole-heartedly agree with, is that agreement makes right. The crucial factor for any property rights system to be acceptable is that it is mutually beneficial – everybody agrees to be bound by its restrictions because everybody is better off because others are similarly restricted.

    That contractarian approach, which has been promoted by people like David Gauthier, Jan Narveson and to some extent Benjamin Tucker, is the only view of property rights I’ve come across which seems to have fundamental value, because it’s the only approach I’ve seen which creates a logically coherent case without falling back on natural rights dogma.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    At root, that’s what almost all property rights systems rely on, be they natural rights based or otherwise – it tends to be the group which has the greatest ability to use force which gets to impose its preferred approach on everybody else.

    Well of course. That is merely stating the bleedin’ obvious. The point of my original posting is to make the point that while superior force has often explained why X owns Y and so on (like those pesky Normans), it is possible to show that property rights can and do come into existence in a just way, or at least in a way that is not provably unjust, requiring some sort of recompense or adjustment. That is the point that I am trying to make here.

  • “That’s why I don’t like all this philosophising. In practice, whoever has the bigger army on his side owns something.”

    I think you’re right in practice. The point of all the philosophising is to persuade the people with the army to apply their force in a way that suits the philosopher.

    It happens to suit *me* that people with armies recognise something as mine if buy it in free exchange or mix my labour with it. The problem is that other people have other ideas. I can also argue that this makes me the good guy and those other people the bad guys. I’m not sure where that gets me in practice, though.

  • The point of all the philosophising is to persuade the people with the army to apply their force in a way that suits the philosopher.

    Heh:-)

  • “That’s fine as an opinion, but it’s no more an absolute truth than the beliefs of those who believe that everything is owned collectively by everyone.”

    Bollocks. Beliefs about this sort of thing are not arbitrary. One is right and one is wrong. Of course the property right itself belongs in the domain of politics – but the ethical basis of the concept of property right ought to be clear enough to just about anyone once explained.

    Alisa – here:

    “…to stress that in order to survive humans need to both peacefully cooperate with each other and to remain vigilant and willing to use violence when their attempts at peaceful cooperation are not met with reciprocity”

    (Your choice of words toward the end of that paragraph is miscued: I do not resort to violence just because somebody may refuse a particular trade with me – and I’m pretty sure you don’t either.)

    The point is I am able to own property because doing so not only affords me the opportunity to achieve my ends in peaceful and rational cooperation with others, but it allows others to do likewise. Freedom to apply one’s reason to the problem of surviving is the direct implication of the concept of a property right. That is the first and most important reason why I am able to own property – because it allows me, and everyone else to stay alive. A property right is a tool. And, like any other tool, if kept in working order it works, and if it isn’t then it doesn’t work anymore – and the cost of that is to be measured in the number of lives destroyed.

    One’s capacity to enforce that property right is of no minor importance, but its’ importance is secondary to the survival advantages that property confers upon an individual in the first place.

  • Mike:

    (Your choice of words toward the end of that paragraph is miscued: I do not resort to violence just because somebody may refuse a particular trade with me – and I’m pretty sure you don’t either.)

    I use the term ‘cooperation’ in its broader sense, which includes non-active cooperation, not just things like trade. You don’t rob me, I don’t rob you. We cooperate in not robbing each other.

    I entirely agree with the rest of your comment, but it misses the point in that it discusses the purposes and benefits of property rights, while what I and some others wer addressing (and what you and I argued over in the past) is those right’s origin.

  • mike:

    Bollocks. Beliefs about this sort of thing are not arbitrary. One is right and one is wrong. Of course the property right itself belongs in the domain of politics – but the ethical basis of the concept of property right ought to be clear enough to just about anyone once explained.

    You’ve highlighted what I was saying by using the word belief. That is what it is – a belief, or a preference. It’s a personal opinion, nothing more.

    We have a system which recognises exclusive rights over locations on dry land, but doesn’t recognise them when it comes to locations at sea. Is one right and one wrong? If so, which and why?

  • Richard Garner

    Mark Wadswroth writes,

    Did the surface of England used to ‘belong’ to the Anglo-Saxons? Well clearly it didn’t, as there was somebody with a bigger army prepared to take it from them

    Could you tell me how the conclusion is supposed to follow, or are you really saying that if somebody successfully takes something from somebody else and gets away with it, that thing was never owned by the person it was taken from?

    Such a position would, of course, imply that theft never occurs. After all, theft is normally viewed as permanently depriving somebody of their property without their consent. If I go off with your car without your permission and neither you nor anybody else manages to take it back, on your view that would imply that you do not own your car, which would imply that I am not permanently depriving you of your property without your consent, and so not stealing your car. Since such a conclusion is absurd, then, we have to conclude that your position is false.

  • Nuke Gray

    Lockett,
    the trouble is over the many meanings of the word ‘belief’. For instance, I believe in the Law of Gravity. Is this just an opinion? Do you have a different belief?
    Perhaps people should be more precise in their choice of words. We will still argue, but we’ll have a better idea of what we’re arguing about.

  • “…the purposes and benefits of property rights, while what I and some others wer addressing (and what you and I argued over in the past) is those right’s origin.”

    Alisa, you exasperate me. The fact that property rights are established politically (i.e. by “social conventions / agreements”) is not controversial – the intellectual basis on which this establishment of property rights is worked out upon is, and it is to this that the question of “origin” pertains. The origin of property rights lies precisely with the recognition of their advantages vis-a-vis the problem of survival.

    “You’ve highlighted what I was saying by using the word belief. That is what it is – a belief, or a preference. It’s a personal opinion, nothing more.”

    Paul Lockett – belief, preference and personal opinion are not identical and interchangeable concepts to be slapped around willy nilly with a prittstick. Let me help you with that:

    Belief – used in reference to whether a given proposition is regarded as true or false, or warranting a particular probability value.

    Preference – used in reference to a particular choice from among several actions, or the values to which such actions pertain.

    Opinion – a more general concept used to denote judgements of various kinds, whether of questions of fact (belief) or value (preference).

    You conflated the term “belief” with the term “preference” and thus rendered any question of a true basis for the establishment of initial property rights as arbitrary and meaningless. You might believe my answer is wrong, but it isn’t arbitrary – it is grounded in the fact that a system of property rights is essential for the survival of the individual in society.

    “We have a system which recognises exclusive rights over locations on dry land, but doesn’t recognise them when it comes to locations at sea. Is one right and one wrong? If so, which and why?”

    Irrelevant. I was talking about the nature of belief – i.e. judgements about what is true and what is false. Two contradictory propositions (individual vs collective ownership) cannot both be true – elementary logic.

    On the matter of ownership of locations at sea, there are territorial claims by States, but leaving those aside I don’t see why one would have to conclude just because particular individuals don’t claim property rights over particular coordinates at sea that therefore the sea must be collectively owned by everyone. I would think the more obvious conclusion is that the oceans are simply unowned.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jock raises some interesting points in his posts. My brief take: if it could be shown that the right to pursue life – the key word is “pursue” – was at odds with a particular system of property rights in any fundamental way, then we would have a problem.

    We could, for instance, posit the case of a man who is totally surrounded by private property owners and as a result, he has to pay an extortionate amount of money to leave his property and go elsewhere. Such a person, if he had been living in an area which was subsequently enclosed by others, leaving him surrounded and against his will, might be the kind of rare example of where some kind of intervention might be needed (hence eminent domain laws to build roads, etc).

    In the real world, however, that sort of example is likely to be very rare. Even if only 5 per cent of the population of a given territory own all the land – let’s just assume they came into it justly rather than by violence – that does not mean that the other 95 per cent are their slaves. There will be competition between landlords; some of the latter will sell up, owner-occupiers will spring up, the pattern will change into much of the sort of varied, competive pattern that exists in many countries around the world.

    In other words, Jock, your conundrum is largely resolved when one realises that the right to pursue the ownership of property and the right to pursue life are only ever likely to clash in the case of monopolies. And with monopolies, while some may occur in nature, most are caused, and sustained, by the state.

    BTW, if anyone wonders why I keep raising the issue of property rights, it is that in my view, no serious defence of liberty, and assault on the bad ideas of our age, can be done without understanding the need to give property strong foundations. Utilitarian defences are inadequate.

  • Robert Speirs

    The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital lays out the consequences of not having a clear, workable system of property allocation, especially for real property. It’s the difference between the third world and the first. Poverty versus prosperity built on verifiable credit. Enforceable property “rights” of course rest on military force, but the use of force to enforce such rights is controlled by agreement on a scheme of values within a group of people with much in common who trust each other to work for the best interests of the group. See Oswald Spengler’s essay “Prussianism and Socialism”.

  • “That’s why I don’t like all this philosophising. In practice, whoever has the bigger army on his side owns something.”

    Oh, really? Have you taught your children to resign themselves to that principle on the schoolyard?

    Bullshit.

  • “That’s why I don’t like all this philosophising. In practice, whoever has the bigger army on his side owns something.”

    I take the view that using violence (via the political system or otherwise) and deception is perfectly acceptable against anyone who holds the view that ownership of anything is only ‘justified’ on the basis of having the force to take and hold it. It makes no sense to try and reason with anyone who rejects the very notion of moral theories. Just kill or intimidate them and save the reasoned arguments for reasonable people.

  • “It makes no sense to try and reason with anyone who rejects the very notion of moral theories.”

    Normally I’d say something like “you can say that again!” – but in this case…

  • Jock raises some interesting points in his posts. My brief take: if it could be shown that the right to pursue life – the key word is “pursue” – was at odds with a particular system of property rights in any fundamental way, then we would have a problem.

    We could, for instance, posit the case of a man who is totally surrounded by private property owners and as a result, he has to pay an extortionate amount of money to leave his property and go elsewhere. Such a person, if he had been living in an area which was subsequently enclosed by others, leaving him surrounded and against his will, might be the kind of rare example of where some kind of intervention might be needed (hence eminent domain laws to build roads, etc).

    Funnily enough I’m not entirely sure I do agree with eminent domain – that assuming you do not recognize “ad coelum” rights there are other ways around (or rather over or under) a “hold out” owner. There was a good lecture by Walter Block on the Mises University 2004 series that persuaded me against it. In this he also talks about his theory of “child abandonment” and remarks that the child abandoned or misused by its parents is like the land in the centre of a doughnut shaped homestead – and that that is simply incompatible with natural rights – you must be able to get to something that is not homesteaded in order to homestead it so someone preventing that by homesteading all around it would lose in a claim. Now, in that case he’s talking about one household “surrounding” the abandoned child, so whether it would apply to several who happen to have formed a doughtnut together I think rests on the definition of “monopoly” – see below.

    In the real world, however, that sort of example is likely to be very rare. Even if only 5 per cent of the population of a given territory own all the land – let’s just assume they came into it justly rather than by violence – that does not mean that the other 95 per cent are their slaves. There will be competition between landlords; some of the latter will sell up, owner-occupiers will spring up, the pattern will change into much of the sort of varied, competive pattern that exists in many countries around the world.

    See this is where we differ. I think it’s happening all the time. As libertarians we might, for example, agree that the “money system” is a monopoly, even though there are many providers of the stuff in the sense of banks we can patronize, yet because they are operating in a single commodity and control that market they are de facto a monopoly. I say, and I think I am right in saying that most libertarians and anarchists prior to the early part of the twentieth century would have regarded the “land monopoly” in a similar way.

    Here’s what a friend of mine wrote to me the other day:

    When supplies are restricted, those doing the restricting are controlling the market. Land is a natural monopoly, though an economic monopoly is another poorly defined economic term relating to a single seller. Yet, there can be a single seller in a market and it will not be a monopoly, whereas there can be 70 suppliers and it can be a monopoly.

    The crux is whether or not market supply is restricted. If one seller offers such good quality at the lowest price that others cannot compete, that’s not a monopoly. On the other hand, if 70 suppliers have colluded to restrict supply – that is a monopoly.

    At least, if the term monopoly is to mean anything.

    I guess we may quibble over the word “collude” – certainly it is unlikely that three sellers in adjacent houses have colluded to prevent people buying their property! But I actually go back to the other angle of my issues with this – and this is where I find I cannot agree with the Austrians and other utilitarian/subjectivist understandings of “value” of a commodity in (more or less) fixed supply in any particular location. I do not see how they can ignore Ricardian rent. It happens, it is visible in the decisions investors in particular make about location prices and investments. And it is created, not by the owners themselves, but by all the “non-owners” who have to manage to avoid that location. I guess what I am saying is that there is *always* something of a quasi-monopoly underlying land.

    In other words, Jock, your conundrum is largely resolved when one realises that the right to pursue the ownership of property and the right to pursue life are only ever likely to clash in the case of monopolies. And with monopolies, while some may occur in nature, most are caused, and sustained, by the state.

    As I wrote in my own article linked to in a previous comment, I do *tend* to agree that so long as a. prior claims have to be re-evaluated post the anarchist revolution (!) such that those that were obtained by force and those which have been effectively abandoned (or only “let” as land itself with no improvements) have to stand up against other potential claims and b. that “zoning” is no longer allowed to interfere with the market and such like then these problems will be *minimized*, but I don’t think, simply because of Ricardian rent and the apparent need to agglomerate to get the optimal benefits of the division of labour, they will ever go away completely.

    If we are so against, for example, Henry George’s single tax (simply because it is called a “tax” and therefore implies some sort of coercive state to impose it), then I do think that the market would provide ways – such as through it costing more to insure and protect more valuable property that would tend to attract more “claims” against it. But I don’t think it can be ignored in any theory of property rights. Land – or rather location – has got monopoly characteristics that will always have to be factored in.

    BTW, if anyone wonders why I keep raising the issue of property rights, it is that in my view, no serious defence of liberty, and assault on the bad ideas of our age, can be done without understanding the need to give property strong foundations. Utilitarian defences are inadequate.

    I agree, up to a point. What do you think of Proudhon’s distinction between property/proprietorship and possession? Surely it cannot be said that all those early libertarians were not mounting a “serious defense of liberty” even though they regarded land and one of two other things as special cases?

  • mike:

    belief, preference and personal opinion are not identical and interchangeable concepts to be slapped around willy nilly

    I’ll try to explain it a little more explicitly. You believe that a particular system of property rights will best enable you to survive and thrive, therefore, you have a preference for that system. Your belief is an opinion which may either be right or wrong.

    Two contradictory propositions (individual vs collective ownership) cannot both be true – elementary logic.

    Yes they can. Are you familiar with the concept of a market? It’s a system by which people are presented with a range of options for satisfying their preferences and they choose from amongst them. It allows people to choose differing approaches, rather than unnecessarily forcing everybody to accept the same approach.

    I don’t see why one would have to conclude just because particular individuals don’t claim property rights over particular coordinates at sea that therefore the sea must be collectively owned by everyone. I would think the more obvious conclusion is that the oceans are simply unowned.

    Firstly, where has anybody previously suggested that the sea is collectively owned by everyone?

    Secondly, if the sea is unowned, then, as per the initial paragraph, can I go and take ownership of it?

    I think you are being disingenuous to suggest that nobody claims ownership of the sea. I’m sure there are people who feel they do have those claims, but the simple fact is that others wouldn’t respect or enforce them, so it renders the claim irrelevant unless they can muster a huge amount of firepower to exert it.

  • Mike, I actually have no disagreement with your last comment to me (although I do suspect we still have a fundamental disagreement regarding the concept of natural rights). In any case, I find your tone (to others, not necessarily to me) extremely unpleasant. I’m just mentioning it in case you might wonder in future about my lack of response to your comments. Not complaining or anything, just personal preference.

    Billy:

    Oh, really? Have you taught your children to resign themselves to that principle on the schoolyard?

    Yes, I taught my son precisely that.

    Jonathan: your case of a surrounded man is only one example showing precisely why what we all refer to as ‘rights’ are either actual rights granted to us by someone (either human or not), or mutual agreements between equals. I think I prefer the latter, but I realize that others’ preferences may be different.

    As to Mark’s original comment: there is nothing wrong with philosophizing and it can even be very helpful, as long as it is connected to reality, at least as most of us perceive it. In my mind, saying that we are born with some kind of natural rights is not consistent with reality, and thus not helpful, but to each their own.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jock, thanks for the reply. As a quick observation, I would say that all property claims, not just on land, but any other form, such as a car, computer or loaf of bread, is a form of “monopoly” to the extent that property involves, as one of its characteristics, the right to exclusive use of said. For instance, I am typing these words on my ageing Dell laptop, and I have a sort of “monopoly” over it.

    The supply of land is relatively static, but then the supply of human labour, for instance, is not limitless either. Consider this: there are only so many humans in the world who have the skills, not all of which can be learned, to be a great hospital surgeon. Does this mean that their high earnings, like the high rents a landlord can charge for a very desirable plot of land, are in some way “unjust”?

    Anyway, thanks for your considerate response. Here is an excerpt from a dictionary of political thought by Jan Lester, on the ideas of Henry George. It is worth quoting in full:

    Georgism Henry George (1839-1897) propounded a *land *tax, to which ‘Georgism’ now refers. The idea is that the value of land as such, as a *natural resource, is due not to the owner’s efforts but to general social development. Thus it does not *proactively impose on the landowner to tax the socially created aspect for *welfare-enhancing redistribution. However, this seems erroneous for various reasons.
    1) Not merely land but absolutely every product and even ourselves have a considerable part of their, *market and non-market, *value because of the *demand of other people. It is not *labor that creates value.

    2) Insofar as there is mere luck involved in this, and there will probably always be some, we are still not thereby proactively imposing on other people by enjoying the fruits of this luck (unless we are *monopolizing a naturally occurring vital resource, such as the sole natural water supply in some area).

    3) If the *state taxes us for whatever reason, then that ipso facto proactively imposes on us. So such taxes cannot be *libertarian.

    4) Moreover, there seems no realistic case that these taxes can improve *welfare any more than any other kinds of taxes. All the usual *moral hazard, *corruption, *waste and absence of *economic calculation associated with taxation appear to apply equally to a land tax.

    5) Land is not the inherently finite natural resource that it is supposed to be. For instance, when *politics allows, superior *agricultural techniques (producing vastly more food per acre), land reclamation, and building techniques (producing vastly more living space simply by building skywards) mean that the real *price of land, and so its relative *scarcity, is declining. It is not declining at the same rate everywhere and would be declining faster with less political intervention. But the differences in price are themselves a market signal that taxes would, as ever, also disrupt and so slow growth. Admittedly, such things as developed *agricultural and habitational land will command relatively higher prices and ever greater *populations will ensue. But the greater *division of labor will ensure that, paradoxically for *common sense, the relative scarcity of land will continue to decline.

  • Alisa: “Yes, I taught my son precisely that.”

    I will not thank you for bringing another incipient sociopath into the world.

    Goddamned fool.

  • Was nice exchanging opinions with you too, Billy.

  • Thanks for that, Jonathan. I would just say in my defense that I think that almost without exception, political economists from both the cost value tradition and the subjectivist/utilitarian tradition (so at least, Ricardo and his followers and Boehm-Bawerk and his) have recognized that there is a difference between reproduceable and unreproduceable goods and all have included “land” in the latter.

    As I say, I am happy that many of the sort of measures many schools of libertarian thought would advocate, such as no restrictive zoning and a once and for all re-evaluation of claims, would ease these problems significantly. Equally, with thngs such as redevelopment at higher densities in response to market demand signals these tend to happen more slowly than for properly reproduceable goods and such a delay can mean the difference between pursuing the right to life and utter destitution for those caught without reasonable access to sustainable locations, and development of, for example, transport infrastructre, which could extend the boundary of marginal locations is also not a quick engineering task.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jock, you’re most welcome. I look forward to your comments in the future!

  • Paul Marks

    There is an important theological dispute behind this (people start to fall asleep – NO WAIT much political philosophy is linked into it right to this day).

    In the Book of Genesis it is explained that God created the world/universe for man (meaning all intelligent self aware free will beings – man is “in the image of God” in that God is an intelligent free will being, not in the sense that God has two arms and two legs or anything like that).

    But does this mean that the universe is owned in common by all these beings (on Earth by all humans in common) – or does it mean that the world (and universe) is “out there” each different bit waiting to be claimed by beings, i.e. that things start off as UNOWNED till claimed.

    The view that things are unowned till claimed was held by such thinkers as the Dutch theologian and legal philosopher Hugo Grontius (and many others), however (tragically in my view) John Locke followed the German theologian and philosopher Samual Pufendorf – who held that the world was owned in common. Therefore Locke (like Pufendorf) felt he had to “justify” individual ownership – and on the unmerry way we go.

    Right through Herbert Spencer’s youthful agony on the point – right to the followers of Henry George today.

    Yes many athiests are trapped in a way of looking at the world has its origins in a certain interpretation of the Book of Genesis (and, I hold, not even a correct interpretation).

  • But does this mean that the universe is owned in common by all these beings (on Earth by all humans in common) – or does it mean that the world (and universe) is “out there” each different bit waiting to be claimed by beings, i.e. that things start off as UNOWNED till claimed.

    I don’t particular buy into either approach, or the implication is that there is one correct way to be discovered. As far as I can see, there are people with their individual wills and there is the rest of the material universe and it is up to the former to arrange the use of the latter in a way that satisfies their individual desires.

    I don’t think either approach works in isolation in any case. If the entire universe were unowned and available to be claimed exclusively, one person could claim exclusive use of the air and the right to breathe, which doesn’t sound reasonable to me. On the other hand, if everybody had an absolute right to use the whole universe in perpetuity, we’d never be able to have any privacy, which doesn’t sound particularly reasonable either.

  • Nuke Gray

    Paul, Genesis also has tribes and people going out and claiming land, and owning it, and God approved of that- why else would God encourage the tribes to own the land of Israel, and to possess it? God promised to Abraham that his seed would own the land on which Abraham was but a sojourner. Nothing wrong with property ownership, therefore.
    In the New Testament, a parable has a rich landowner who Jesus casts as correct when he says, “Can I not do with my money what I want?” Money and property, therefore are not evil. An overwhelming love of money, above all else, would be evil, but not money.

  • Nuke, not being religious, we’re in the realm of something I don’t particularly believe in. If you look at my comment, you’ll see that I never see said there is anything wrong with property ownership, if that’s what the people involved want. My point was that I don’t believe that there is one specific system of property rights which is inherently correct. The system of property rights which exist between a given group of people, if any, should be a matter for agreement between them.

  • Nuke Gray

    Paul, my words were responding to Paul Monks, above, where he mentions Genesis.