We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

The concept of property is fundamental to our society, probably to any workable society. Operationally, it is understood by every child above the age of three. Intellectually, it is understood by almost no one.

Consider the slogan “property rights vs. human rights.” Its rhetorical force comes from the implication that property rights are the rights of property and human rights the rights of humans; humans are more important than property (chairs, tables, and the like); consequently, human rights take precedence over property rights.

But property rights are not the rights of property; they are the rights of humans with regard to property.

– from The Machinery of Freedom (1973) by David Friedman, Part 1, “In defense of property”.

21 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Tedd

    But property rights are not the rights of property; they are the rights of humans with regard to property.

    Surely, that’s a straw man. I don’t dispute that the importance of property rights isn’t as widely understood as it should be, but I don’t recall any interactions I’ve ever had with anyone that suggested they were making that particular semantic error.

  • Aetius

    I am sure I’ve come across that “argument” before more than once. The Marxist left in all its variations understands that property and property rights are at the base of our civilization; That’s why they have put so much effort in to undermining them.

    David Friedman has hit the nail on the head. Perhaps it’s time for me to look out my copy of his Machinery of Freedom and read it again.

  • Julie near Chicago

    That’s an interesting observation. I’m so used to the term “property rights” (and “human rights”) that I automatically interpreted “property rights vs. human rights” as referring to “the right to property” vs. “human rights.” But of course if that’s what the phrase really means, one must ask just what ARE “human rights”? Not “the right to humans,” surely. :>)

    So now I have the opportunity to ride one of my hobby-horses, which is that the right to property flows directly from a human’s right to–HIMSELF.

    It is his LIFE which is the sine qua non for each individual person’s SELF. It is because one has an absolute right to one’s self that one has an absolute right to one’s life. But property is what one has made oneself*; one has expended a portion of one’s life to make it. The expense consists of one’s effort and one’s time; effort may be a semi-renewable personal resource, but when time is gone it is gone for good.

    One’s property is untouchable by others because it is the product of a portion of one’s life. (And psychologically, we feel an attachment to our property according to the degree we sense it to be an expression of the self. With other things in the mix, of course, such as a possessiveness that we share with various other species.)

    It is true that human life takes priority over property, mostly. That’s because if one’s life is gone, one has no more time; but if one’s property is gone, one has lost only the product (already at one remove from life itself) of a portion, but not the whole, of one’s time.

    There is, at bottom, just one “human right”: the right to self. Any attack on one’s person or property is an attack on one’s SELF.

    *One’s property may have come to one as a gift or the result of a trade; but the property’s creator had the right to do with it whatever he chose, which is to say no one has the right to interfere with or nullify his choice. (Usual caveats.) So in respecting it as property of the present owner we only continue to respect the original owner’s right to do with his property as he saw fit.

    Land, well…not at issue in this discussion, thank the Great Frog.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Julie, you seem to be in the grand tradition of John Locke who, of course, wrote about the idea of property in things flowing from the notion of self-ownership.

    Glad to see this quote from David Friedman. I read that book many years ago; I may have to get it down from the shelf and read it again.

    Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty is also excellent on this.

  • Ready for 2012


    Well said. Not to be trite, but it really is almost as simple as understanding the concepts these words: I, We, You, and Us.
    Property rights, indeed all our rights are derived from the I, primarily. As noted, property rights are not the things themselves, but the belief that what results from our acts of production belong to each of us, the I.
    We, involves others rights, the same as our own.
    You have the same rights as I, no more, no less.
    Together, as Us, we have the basis to form a civil society, that being our rights to our property, which after all is the I.
    It really then becomes an issue between those who want to control, and thus obtain at your expense unwarranted power over you, and those who want only, basically , to be left alone in a civil society.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Property rights are just (humans + time).

  • Richard Thomas

    The more I think about property rights, the more I think that it’s a nuanced subject. There are a lot of greyish areas and a several things that rely on convention. I think it’s problematic to think of it as a solid thing. It leads you to not consider the reasons others have a different view of property than you do, flawed as they may be, because you are willfully ignoring the flaws in your own.

    That said, I’m definitely in favor of strong property rights and I think our strongest tack is when they are based on the principle of non-violence. A principle which many people would, in principle, be behind but fail to make the logical connection about how that fails to reconcile with a strong and large state.

  • Richard, the concept of rights in general is born out of convention – for example, it is meaningless on a desert island.

    I haven’t read Locke, but Julie put it as well as anyone possibly could.

  • RRS

    Let’s first think about the segments of the entire term: Property Rights.

    The term “Property” standing alone conveys both a connotation and denotation of a concept of a relationship that satisfies the concerns of most commenting here.

    No one seems to doubt that there is such a reality for humans as the concept of Property. Some semblance of it has also been observed in animal packs (principally related to biological needs).

    Rights (so far as we observe) seem to exist only amongst humans; and then, only in a social context.
    In that social context (and depending on how the society has come to be organized) each Right exists to the extent that the members of the society recognize, accept and adhere to those obligations by each and all which allow any or all of its members to have specific claims and undertake specific conduct.

    Thus, Rights in and to Property can be (and usually are indicative) of the nature of any particular social organization; and changes or trends in the force of those obligations indicate the direction being taken by that society (though not the reasons for such choices).

    A book to read: Property and Freedom (Borzoi Books-Knopf, 1999) By Richard Pipes (The same great historian of Russian History).

    Consider next (and periodically) the trends in “our” societies with respect to Private Property. What is changing, how is it changing, why is it changing, what do the trends indicate – where are we headed?

  • RRS

    Ah smited again for slow typing.

    Mama told me tolearn touch typing, never did.


  • PersonFromPorlock

    Territory: I like your house, so I throw you out of it and move in.

    Property: you call the cops and they throw me out and you move back in.

    ‘Property’ is therefore a consequence of ‘territoriality’ but not an expression of it. In fact, it’s pretty much its opposite. I bring this up because the Right seems to think ‘a right to property’ is a natural right, not an evolved counter to a natural tendency that would lead to chaos if indulged in. And the Left thinks it’s an entirely artificial concept that can be done away with with no bad consequences, whereupon we have historically discovered that everyone strives mightily to defend his own territory and society fragments.

    The basic function of property is to give everyone a practical reason for supporting society: it’s neither a natural right nor a moral wrong, but it’s damned important.

  • Nail on the head there, PFP.

  • Laird

    Not to take anything away from her expression of the concept, but Julie’s description of property is straight out of Ayn Rand (the principle of “self-ownership”).

  • Stevesimpson

    Ah yes, The Machinery of Freedom! The brand new book I purchased on its release that fell apart as I turned each page.
    Pre planned Capitailist obsolescence at its finest 🙁

  • MajikMonkee

    I love the Lenny Bruce quote at the start of that book, It pretty much sums up the capitalism/socialism debate thing. Definitely a libertarian hero and true intellectual, unlike George Carlin who just tries to sound radical.

  • Bruce may have been profound, but was never funny. Carlin was neither.

  • Laird

    Sorry to disagree, but I was a fan of Carlin, and found him usually very funny and often profound.

    However, I’m not sufficiently familiar with Bruce’s oeuvre to comment on his profundity. I never cared for his style so haven’t listened to him much.

  • Both were very angry. Nothing wrong with anger, but it’s not funny.

  • Paul Marks

    The rise of new American publishing houses that reject the practice of just sticking pages to the sping and leaving it at that – is a reaction to the public dislike of pages falling out of books.

    So YES – this is an example of capitalism at work.

    Under socialism – the pages would still be falling out of books (the experiment with “perfect binding” what a name!, would have continued).

    And, of course, a pro capitalist book would never have been published in the first place.

    “What about Britain, Paul”.

    I made the mistake of yesterday visiting the book shops in the town I live in .

    So do not mention the word “Britain” to me at the moment.

  • I think there’s a real contrast being expressed in “human rights versus property rights” which makes it such an effective and abusable slogan – and which will continue to make most people resistant to attempts to debunk it. On further thought, the best way I can rationalize this intuition works something like this:

    ‘Human rights’ most naturally refer to the rights proper to anybody considered purely in their capacity as a human. That’s not quite synonymous with self-ownership, which is all about agency. A highly collectivist society might reject self-ownership utterly, and still believe that anybody by simple virtue of being a human had thereby proved their right to – whatever rights that society holds universal.

    One thing that follows from declaring something – such as self-ownership – a human right, is that one thereby asserts it to be inalienable. You can’t trade it, as such, because you have no way to renounce it without actually dying.

    When people talk about ‘property rights’ as distinct from ‘human rights’, I think it becomes much more intelligible if this is assumed to mean alienable property rights, which can therefore be traded (or, to an authoritarian, reallocated by authority). This makes their proper ownership in any given case subject to dispute by politicians, lawyers, or peers with rival claims. True, alienability allows positive-sum exchange, and thereby prosperity – but it also enables the powerful to grab stuff on their own terms, a distinctly negative-sum and impoverishing game, with less chance of social sanction.

    To me, if the cry of “human rights not property rights” is finding a lot of resonance somewhere, that suggests its audience aren’t confident that disputes about transferable rights will be arbitrated equitably, or else that that they simply believe that too many public ‘human’ rights have been turned into private ‘property’ ones.

    Now, the statist will try to profit by cashing in the term ‘public’ to mean ‘automatically belonging to the public authority’ – effectively, private to himself in his official capacity – instead of ‘automatically the right of each and every member of the public, simply as a private person’. But there’s no reason to grant such a self-serving claim – and current turbulence suggests that the public are in a receptive mood for a challenge to it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Hi, Laird,

    It’s true that Ayn Rand, among others, propounded what is often, and rather unfortunately, called the “principle of self-ownership.”

    Perhaps I was unclear, if what I said came across as mere parroting of Miss Rand. I was attempting to make two points, the first of which is that it is the existence of the “self” that logically entails and validates the very concept of property. This is important because there seems to be a subgroup of “libertarians” or “Objectivists” or sometime fellow-travellers who claim that men have a property right in themselves BECAUSE men have a right to their property, and they or their lives or their selves, take your pick, are their property.

    But that’s bass-ackwards.

    “Self-ownership” is usually a shorthand term for the fundamental moral right of self-determination: What you do, and in a certain sense what you are, is not for anyone but you yourself to decide. In my view this is distinct from a property right. The self is not property; it’s of a different order of things. And property rights are derived from the right of self-determination, rather than the reverse.

    There is a second point. Many among both her admirers and her detractors have run aground trying to make sense of Miss Rand’s repeated statement that the ultimate purpose, or “goal,” of a human being’s life is survival. One of the common examples is that of a person who knowingly risks his life or even commits suicide. This constitutes evidence that there is something more important to the person than his life. Miss Rand attempted to get around the difficulty by saying that such a person is acting in accordance with his highest values, and that he can’t bear to live at the cost of those values. That’s true, but I don’t think it constitutes the final answer to the difficulty, because ultimately it’s the Self that picks its values (not always consciously; and not always as the result of reason, still less of ratiocination).

    Without the Self, values cannot arise. Self generates values; values are among the expressions of the Self.

    So there is something more important to each of us than life itself, and I believe that the fundamental truth is that a person commits suicide when the only other choice he sees is to give up his self, usually as expressed by or, perhaps better, embodied in one or more of his core values.

    Without my Self, I am nothing. Without my SELF, I am NOT.