The Paradox of Property

Nonlibertarians are often puzzled as to why libertarians accept such strong property rights claims (sometimes called “absolute” property rights, though I’ve never figured out what “absolute” is supposed to mean in this context). The answer I’m going to give here is one I’ve already offered elsewhere (see here and here), but I want to try out a new way of putting it. (I oversimplify a bit here by not discussing the way in which consequentialist considerations play a role in defining the contours of deontological rights-claims, but sufficit diei.)

IS THERE LIFE AFTER DEATH?  TRESPASS HERE AND FIND OUT

The reason libertarians accept such strong property rights claims is that, ironically, a) it’s much harder to justify rights to external property (i.e., property beyond self-ownership) in libertarianism than in almost any other moral or political theory, and b) because of this, property rights claims have to be extremely strong in order to get justified in libertarianism at all.

Both halves of this claim will seem paradoxical. How can I say that libertarianism makes it harder to justify property rights than other theories do, when everyone knows that libertarianism is the most property-friendly theory on the planet? And how can I say that libertarianism makes stronger property claims easier to justify than weaker ones, when everyone knows that the stronger a claim is (in the sense of being more demanding), the harder (not easier) it is to justify?

The answer to the first question is that property rights claims, like all rights claims (at least in the sense of “rights” that prevails in political theory), are claims to the legitimate use of force. If I say that Wilhelmina has a property right to her shovel, I am saying not just that it would be morally wrong to deprive her of it, but also that it would be morally permissible for her (or for someone acting on her behalf) to use force to prevent anyone from taking her shovel.

To justify a property rights claim, then, is to justify a claim to the legitimate use of force. And this is generally much harder in libertarian theories than in nonlibertarian ones. After all, nonlibertarians typically endorse the use of force in order to promote all sorts of good causes, so if property rights turn out to be conducive to such causes (as in fact they usually are), then they’ll be fairly easy for a nonlibertarian to embrace. But for libertarians, a basic respect for other people’s moral agency implies that no use of force is justified unless in response to someone’s initiation of force. Hence in order for a scheme of property rights to be justified in a libertarian framework, it must be shown not just that violating such rights has bad results but that violating such rights counts as initiatory force against some person – a much higher bar.

MY PLACE - MY CHOICE - SMOKING ALLOWED

And this in turn means that under libertarianism, rights to external property can be justified, if at all, only as an extension of the right of self-ownership. Only if imposing your will on my stuff counts as (indirectly) imposing your will on me will I, or my agent, be justified in using force to stop you. But by the same token, if external property rights are an extension of self-ownership, then they will have to be much harder to override (assuming self-ownership is hard to override) than if they derived from some less sacred source. Hence libertarianism has to endorse either very strong property rights claims or no property rights claims at all.

(Why not the latter option? Because if there were no property rights of any kind – private or otherwise, strong or otherwise– then it would never be permissible to use force to prevent someone from appropriating any physical objects, which in turn would mean that I and my gang could with rightful impunity starve you to death by seizing all your food as quickly as you found or produced it, so long as we didn’t actually touch your body while doing it. But this seems an unreasonable position for anyone, and particularly a libertarian, to accept. So if the no-property-rights option is closed off, only the strong-property-rights option is left.)

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37 Responses to The Paradox of Property

  1. K.V. May 5, 2011 at 10:52 am #

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    What if non-libertarians in a libertarian society object to the use of force to establish property rights on the grounds that the libertarian conception of property is one they reasonably reject, especially when they are in extreme need? If force is hard to justify, then how can the libertarian maintain that force is justified when one’s free and equal compatriots see it as initiating force against them (and imposing duties on them!) they have little reason to recognize? The libertarian must claim that despite their protestations, property rights are extensions of self-ownership. But while I think all reasonable people at the right level of idealization will acknowledge strong rights over self and that their agency must extend to parts of the external world, I can see little reason to think they must acknowledge that the agency of others extends so far and so specifically as to endorse the property rights scheme defended by Rothbardians (left or right).

    You might respond that Rothbardian property rights can’t justify force against others in cases of extreme need, since its obvious that Bill Gates losing $100 to feed a starving man doesn’t really violate his self-ownership in any non-trivial sense. But this reply seems to open the door to non-Rothbardian (if still libertarian or even classical liberal) property rights.

    Just to be clear: I think the libertarian move from self-ownership to rights to external property is sound. I’m only protesting the Rothbardian specification of those rights as objectionable.

    • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 11:53 am #

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      What if non-libertarians in a libertarian society object to the use of force to establish property rights on the grounds that the libertarian conception of property is one they reasonably reject

      Well, you already know my answer to that: people who (non-ideally) reasonably reject the correct theory of rights are innocent threats, and we can legitimately use force against innocent threats. There’s a reason to care about what people actually accept (because it’s linked with consent), and a reason to care about what they would ideally-reasonably accept (because it’s linked with truth), but what they would non-ideally-reasonably consent to seems to me to have no interesting force and not to be linked with anything important. It’s a desideratum, sure, but not a constraint.

      You might respond that Rothbardian property rights can’t justify force against others in cases of extreme need, since its obvious that Bill Gates losing $100 to feed a starving man doesn’t really violate his self-ownership in any non-trivial sense. But this reply seems to open the door to non-Rothbardian (if still libertarian or even classical liberal) property rights.

      I agree (as did Rothbard, though not in quite the same way) that property can be taken in emergency situations, but a) the reasons for this have nothing to do with reasonable pluralism, and b) such permissible takings, on my view, generate an enforceable duty of restitution, and this limitation makes it pretty hard to generate, say, welfare rights.

      • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

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        Incidentally, I’m now beginning to suspect (allay this, if you can!) that part of what lends plausibility to the public-reason view is a confusion between the — for most values of X — eminently true and defensible claim that “having the correct view of X [i.e. fill in the blank] doesn’t justify imposing it on others” and the (I claim) self-contradictory claim that “having the correct view of rights doesn’t justify imposing it on others.” The latter case is different because a correct view of rights just is (inter alia) a correct view of which claims can legitimately be enforced. So if I correctly hold that I can legitimately enforce Y on you, then the legitimacy of my enforcing Y on you straightforwardly follows; there’s no further question. (And I would add that it’s because of the correct view of rights that “having the correct view of X doesn’t justify imposing it on others” is true for most values of X.)

        • K.V. May 5, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

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          “the (I claim) self-contradictory claim that ‘having the correct view of rights doesn’t justify imposing it on others.’”

          You can construe a public reason view as an “only one natural right” view, like Rothbardian libertarianism. In fact, Jerry Gaus actually characterizes public reason views similarly in Value and Justification when he discusses a “right to natural liberty.” But when it comes to specifying abstract rights of agency, you have to appeal to the diversity of citizens’ reasons. This dispute gets into the order of justification, that is, which norms are justified first and which in light of those. These issues are as of yet largely unexplored, but The Order of Public Reason takes a (long) whack at it.

      • K.V. May 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

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        I’ll do my best to respond, but I’ll do so in parts. First, I want to examine your view on innocent threats. It strikes me that you’re imagining a situation that appears defensive, where someone enters my property who rejects my conception of property and I coerce them anyway. But the innocent threat relation goes both ways. In “defending” yourself, you’re also an innocent threat to him.

        Now on your view, it seems that a world of innocent threateners can be just. But it was this world that all the social contract theorists called the state of nature; their entire project was to show what was defective about such a world by appealing to internally recognizable principles. But rejecting this ideal of internal recognition, it looks as if you’re accepting that a world of innocent threateners can be just.

        The nice thing about public reason views is that they explain what is objectionable about such a world. If there is a presumption against coercion, then those who initiate coercion bear the burden of justification. In this way, the coercion involved in possession can be justified. In fact, I take it that this is what is distinctive about Kant’s defense of private property vs., say, Rothbard. Locke himself has something like an internal recognition condition that I think Rothbardians lack.

        Now, of course, you’re going to reject my construal of what it means for someone to have a reason. You prefer an (i) actual (or “populist”) conception of having a reason and/or (ii) a radical conception. I prefer a moderate standard because it is in line with ought-implies-can. (i) Doesn’t work because we think that the man crossing the bridge who doesn’t see the chasm has a reason not to cross it, since it is one he could reasonably easily recognize. (ii) Doesn’t work because the deliberative route is simply too long. Our social practices of holding responsible push away from both actualism and radicalism.

        You may also say that you have an alternative explanation of the injustice of that society, namely that they’re not complying with Rothbardian property rights. But this seems to me in a formal sense indistinguishable for explaining the injustice of a society with any principle of private evaluation, which I think would rub your Wittgensteinian heart in the wrong way. Normativity essentially has a public element, and therefore so does justice. These considerations, it seems to me, push towards public reason and against Rothbardianism (as a foundation for justice, that is)

      • K.V. May 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

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        I know that you have a principle of restitution that makes welfare rights hard to justify. But as a public reason guy, I’m going to ask you why such an arduous principle of restitution is justified. My guess is that you think it’s an implication of Rothbardian property rights! But of course, this would put the car before the horse. To even explain what counts as restitution is to already assume that most conflicts about what counts as a property right have been resolved.

        • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

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          But the innocent threat relation goes both ways. In “defending” yourself, you’re also an innocent threat to him.

          I was using “innocent threat” to mean “innocent threat of a rights-violation.” So on the assumption that one of us is right and one of us is wrong, we can’t both be threats.

          Now on your view, it seems that a world of innocent threateners can be just.

          I’m not quite sure what it means to talk about a “world” being just or unjust.

          But it was this world that all the social contract theorists called the state of nature

          That’s not how I interpret classical social contract theory. In particular that’s not how I interpret Locke. But in any case, I don’t see how the public reason approach solves the problem. On the contrary, it seems to me that people who accept the public reason approach might well be innocent threats against those of us who don’t.

          Now, of course, you’re going to reject my construal of what it means for someone to have a reason. You prefer an (i) actual (or “populist”) conception of having a reason and/or (ii) a radical conception.

          No, I’m not arguing about what counts as a reason. I think all three kinds of reasons exist. I’m arguing about which kinds of reasons do or don’t block a claim to legitimate use of force.

          I prefer a moderate standard because it is in line with ought-implies-can.

          But ought-implies-can is a principle about which acts people can be blamed for, not which acts they can legitimately be stopped from doing.

          (i) Doesn’t work because we think that the man crossing the bridge who doesn’t see the chasm has a reason not to cross it, since it is one he could reasonably easily recognize.

          But I’m not denying that he has a reason.

          (ii) Doesn’t work because the deliberative route is simply too long. Our social practices of holding responsible push away from both actualism and radicalism.

          I don’t think it’s all that long. As I’ve said before, I think few threats are completely innocent. Statism is a moral vice, like racism or sexism. But since we’re talking about cases where there are innocent threats, how is this talk about “holding responsible” relevant? Force against innocent threats isn’t a matter of holding them responsible.

          You may also say that you have an alternative explanation of the injustice of that society, namely that they’re not complying with Rothbardian property rights. But this seems to me in a formal sense indistinguishable for explaining the injustice of a society with any principle of private evaluation, which I think would rub your Wittgensteinian heart in the wrong way. Normativity essentially has a public element, and therefore so does justice.

          Sure, but the kind of publicness required by Wittgensteinian considerations strikes me as a lot weaker than what you’re talking about. Does the fact that higher mathematics isn’t accessible to the average person make it nonpublic in a way that should make Wittgensteinians worry?

          I know that you have a principle of restitution that makes welfare rights hard to justify. But as a public reason guy, I’m going to ask you why such an arduous principle of restitution is justified.

          But the prior question, as I see it, is why you’re a public reason guy. It seems to me the burden of proof lies with the person who thinks that having a correct theory of rights isn’t sufficient justification for acting on it.

          My guess is that you think it’s an implication of Rothbardian property rights! But of course, this would put the car before the horse.

          Again, for the reason I gave just above, I think it’s your position that puts the car(t?) before the horse. You’re insisting that I accept an approach that I reasonably reject, namely the public reason approach. Why doesn’t that make the public reason approach self-destruct?

        • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

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          K.V.,

          Since other people are coming into this debate in midstream, and since I’m starting to repeat here points I’ve already made to you privately, let me copy here my earlier email to you, and you can in turn copy any portions of your original reply you care to:

          ———————————————-

          Since our conversation I’ve been thinking about public reason, and here’s what I’ve thunk so far:

          The central idea of public reason seems to be that in the political realm (at least), proposals should be defended — or at any rate defensible — in terms of reasons that everybody could accept. So I’ll start by distinguishing three ways of cashing that out:

          1) No-idealisation: proposals should be ones that people will in fact accept, given their current understanding of their commitments.

          2) Extreme-idealisation: proposals should be ones to which there exists a deliberative route from people’s current commitments, however complex and difficult that route may be.

          3) Moderate-idealisation: proposals should be ones to which there exists a relatively easy or realistically accessible deliberative route from people’s current commitments. (or y’know, something like that.)

          Now I think I accept all three of these theses in some form or other — but each for different reasons, and with different potential defeaters, and I don’t think the result for any of them is going to be what the public-reason folks want.

          I know that for you #3 is where the action is, but let me start with the first two.

          I accept #1, or an approximation to it, because it’s in effect an actual-consent standard. But my reasons for accepting it come from libertarianism; and the defeaters I accept for it (self-defense and so on) also come from libertarianism. Now the public-reason folks are presumably going to want to know whether libertarianism is (by their lights; I’m not endorsing the distinction) a comprehensive doctrine or a political doctrine. If it’s a political doctrine, then it’s supposed to be the output, not the input, of public reason, so my reasons for accepting #1 aren’t properly public-reasony. And if it’s a comprehensive doctrine, then a fortiori my reasons for accepting #1 aren’t properly public-reasony. (I take it that the argument for accepting a public-reason approach in the first place isn’t supposed to be grounded in a comprehensive doctrine. Maybe I’m wrong about that; maybe an overlapping consensus is good enough, not just to establish further proposals once we’ve signed on to public reason, but to get to public reason itself. But that looks a bit bootstrappy, and I worry about infinite regress and infinite regrets.)

          I accept #2 because I take it to be the upshot of the Wittgenstein move I made about public standards for value-talk in my Mises seminar. And maybe there aren’t even defeaters in this case. Since my support for #2 doesn’t derive from an independent moral theory, maybe that counts as a genuine public-reason view. But it’s not going to make the public-reason approach as different from ordinary moral philosophising as the public-reason folks seem to want; in particular, the distinction between political and comprehensive doctrines is probably going to dissolve.

          So what about #3? Well, #3 seems right to me too, in the sense that it’s a desideratum. But it doesn’t seem anything like a side-constraint. Now what the public-reason folks want, I take it, is that when we find people from whose commitments no terribly easy deliberative route to our proposal exists, the ordinary (albeit perhaps defeasible, depending on the version of the theory) response on our part should be to reconsider our proposal. But if it’s only a desideratum, that response doesn’t seem obvious. After all, accessibility is generally, in all fields, a desideratum, all else equal. But if in, say, calculus or particle physics we come to some very complicated conclusion that most people can’t reason their way to, we don’t decide to switch to a different conclusion; instead we just conclude, sadly, that we’re not going to be able to explain this to most people. (Given my unimpressive proficiency in mathematics, I really have no right to my use of the word “we” in that sentence, but never mind.) And my aforementioned Wittgensteinian argument doesn’t seem to generate anything stronger for ethics than for science and math; it just gets us #2 for both.

          So what’s the argument for treating #3 as something stronger than a desideratum?

          Once could argue that as a pragmatic matter, we’ll have trouble convincing others if we don’t follow #3. But the public-reason approach is supposed to be a moral rather than just a pragmatic one. (Moreover, a pragmatic approach wouldn’t generate #3; instead it would generate an approach that weighed more strongly the reasons of members of more powerful factions, which seems morally unpromising.)

          One could go the epistemic humility route, as in Rawls’ “burdens of judgment” stuff. But I don’t see any way of quarantining epistemic humility so that it constrains only our appeals to comprehensive doctrines and not, say, our appeal to the public-reason approach itself. When every judgment is somebodee, than no judgment is anybodee.

          Now you suggested that the ought-implies-can principle might play a role here — that we can’t hold people responsible for following rules that they can’t realistically see the point of. But what they can or can’t do places constraints on their obligations, not on ours. If they can’t understand the reasons for saying that they, say, shouldn’t enslave us, then maybe they’re not unreasonable and not to blame in their attempts to enslave us — but then that makes them into innocent threats, and it seems we should be able to defend ourselves against innocent threats. So exempting them from responsibility doesn’t seem to tell against imposing our (ex hypothesi correct) view of justice on them.

          So my main question is this: when we find people whose resistance to (what we take to be) the correct view of rights is reasonable (albeit mistaken), what’s the case (apart from the pragmatic and epistemic arguments that I’ve objected to above) for taking the proper default response to be the public-reasony “let’s rethink our view” rather than the less public-reasony “they’re innocent threats”?

          It might be objected that from a Wittgensteinian point of view it makes no sense to think that most people are so hopelessly wrong about ethics as to be innocent threats, in the same way that it makes no sense to think that most chess players have the rules of chess wrong; the rules for the moral language-game can’t be external to the practice. Well, I agree that it makes no sense to assume that most people are confused about the core of ethics. But I think most people have, and have traditionally had, the paradigmatic rules for interpersonal conduct (i.e. among equals) more or less right; it’s in the extension of these rules to particular institutions involving power imbalances — slavery, patriarchy, the state, etc. — that they’ve gone wrong. And pretty much everyone now agrees that for the past several thousand years most people got it wrong about slavery at least (the slaves included — Spartacus and his followers, for example, were rebelling against their own enslavement, not against the slave system; the fuckers wanted to be slaveowners). So we know it’s possible for most people to be morally confused enough to be systematic threats to the rights of others even if their core grasp of ethical principles is fine as far as it goes; I’m not sure why it should be more of an offense against Wittgensteinianism for their confusion to be nonculpable than for it to be culpable.

          Note: I’m not saying that most slaveowners were — or, today, that most statists are — innocent. In fact I think the general level of unreflectiveness that prevails in most societies, and that I take to be responsible for the survival of both slavery and statism, is culpable. [Maybe that's my Randian past talking. Or maybe it's just my commitment to a Socratic view about the examined life combined with a non-Socratic view of free will. Assuming that's something different from my Randian past talking!] I’m just saying that there doesn’t seem to be any special Wittgensteinian argument against regarding most people as innocent threats that wouldn’t apply (absurdly, given the historical facts about slavery etc.) against regarding most people as threats simpliciter, and so no help to #3 from that quarter.

        • K.V. May 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

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          Two main points:

          (1) The connection between ought-implies-can, coercion and blameworthiness works (in my mind) as follows. OIC is required for blameworthiness and holding morally responsible. But public reason liberalism typically conjoins the principle of public justification with a liberty principle, i.e. that there is a presumption against coercion. The public justification principle specifies how the presumption is met by showing that those coerced are rationally committed to the coercion, that is, that they can see via some deliberative route (however specified) that they are committed to permitting (or complying with) the coercion in question. If the subjects of justification endorse the coercive proposal, then when coerced in line with it then self-legislate because they impose the law on themselves. Respect for them is only preserved when they are treated in ways that they themselves regard as right or wrong and so to coerce them appropriately they must regard their actions as morally suspect and thus as blameworthy. OIC sets the standard of blameworthiness which in turn specifies how members of the public self-legislate. How members of the public self-legislate specifies what it means for them to endorse a coercive principle. So OIC is not the ground of the public justification principle but is a vital part of its defense.

          (2) The public justification principle does not self-destruct (in my mind) for the following reason. Recall Tarski’s distinction between a meta-language and an object-language. Truth in the object-language is defined in the meta-language. Similarly, I think many public reason liberals implicitly think that the principle of public justification operates at the level of the meta-language or the perspective of theory. It specifies that coercion can only be justified in terms of the reasons and reasoning of the coerced. So people are only being coerced on the basis of their reasons, not on the basis of the public justification principle. The PJP merely specifies how public justification proceeds among reasoning agents; it is not itself a subject of justification by a description about how justification must proceed.

          Now you might argue that the self-ownership principle operates in the meta-language and specifies how coercion is justified in the object-language. But I can’t see how to map the self-ownership principle onto the distinction since it contains no principle of internal recognition at the meta-language that connects the description of the internal recognition condition with the objects of recognition in the object-language.

          Perhaps an innocent threatener may want to employ the PJP at the level of the object-language. If so, it too must be justified, but in order for it to be a legitimate basis for coercion, not to be the correct description of legitimate coercion.

          Ok, so the conclusion of (2) is that the PJP is not self-refuting because it need not itself be publicly justified to be the correct theory of justified/legitimate coercion. I take it that is why it does not self-destruct.

          (3) It strikes me that the innocent threat point can be addressed via (1) and (2) but I’ve gone on too long to draw out the connection.

        • K.V. May 5, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

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          Oh dear, we’re getting to the level of sophistication that our discussion should be a set of conference comments or journal articles! I’m not sure I can rehash our private correspondence! For now, I’ll leave the conversation where it stands (you’re free to reply anyway, of course) unless someone else is interested in how I might answer one of your concerns.

          Alternatively, we could find a forum for a Rawls v. Rothbard dispute.

        • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

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          the principle of public justification operates at the level of the meta-language

          I don’t see how that’s going to help, so long as the reasons (whatever they are) for applying it at the object level are just as good (or bad) at the meta-level. See below.

          people are only being coerced on the basis of their reasons, not on the basis of the public justification principle. The PJP merely specifies how public justification proceeds among reasoning agents; it is not itself a subject of justification by a description about how justification must proceed.

          Suppose I want to kick a trespasser off my yak farm. You come along and tell me that I can’t do that unless I can justify doing so on the basis of the trespasser’s reasons. But then it seems that you’re appealing to the PJP to tell me what to do. But (let’s say) I reasonably reject PJP. So why aren’t you in the same fix, in applying PJP to me, that you say I’m in, in applying my theory of property rights to the trespasser? What’s the difference?

        • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

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          Also, going back to what you said up top:

          If force is hard to justify, then how can the libertarian maintain that force is justified when one’s free and equal compatriots see it as initiating force against them (and imposing duties on them!) they have little reason to recognize?

          But the difficulty of justifying force is a consequence of libertarianism. It’s not something that confronts it from without.

        • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

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          Another point:

          You say that respect for persons makes it wrong to coerce them except for reasons they could reasonably assent to. I say that respect for persons makes it wrong to coerce them except in response to their initiatory force. This looks to me like a confrontation between two views on the same level — two different accounts of what respect requires. I don’t see how one makes it to the meta-level while the other one stays at the object-level.

  2. Marja Erwin May 5, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    Safari MacIntosh

    But does the existence of rights imply the any legitimate role for violent force? One can reject violent force while asserting rights. Or one could accept violent force for some rights, and any means short of violence for other rights. In the example of the thieves, if the victims can take twice as much from the thieves as the thieves took from the victims, and if the thieves face social ostracism and the victims do not, then the thieves are in worse shape than their victims. This assumes that somebody is willing to cooperate with the victims, but unfortunately, no rights-system works without that cooperation.

    If the community doesn’t respect someone’s rights, unfortunately, then some people in that community can harass someone until they break.

    • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm #

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      But does the existence of rights imply the any legitimate role for violent force? One can reject violent force while asserting rights.

      If by “violent force” you mean force solely against the person and not external property, then I suppose you could have rights without force. It strikes me as a bit exploitative though.

  3. Anon73 May 5, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

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    You’re saying that the right to external property can be derived from the right to our bodies, and that the difficulty of overriding rights to the body thus carries over to the difficulty of overriding rights in external property. But isn’t it the case that our right to our body is much stronger than our right to external property? For example, if I rip out your teeth that is a violation of the person that everybody understands, but robbing you of your clothes is not as bad as robbing you of your teeth, and in turn robbing you of say your TV seems less objectionable than the clothes from your back, and so on. In other words, the “sphere” that forms your boundary gets fuzzier and fuzzier until you get to the periphery where it seems you have no more rights at all. Or another example, it seems intuitively hard to make the leap from a property right in your body to say a right to not have a grape shop-lifted from your store.

    • crossofcrimson May 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

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      “For example, if I rip out your teeth that is a violation of the person that everybody understands, but robbing you of your clothes is not as bad as robbing you of your teeth, and in turn robbing you of say your TV seems less objectionable than the clothes from your back, and so on.”

      How about robbing you of your false teeth? Maybe a prosthetic limb? I seem to remember some greyed philosopher who, partial to some Austrian and Greek philosophers, expounded on this in a similar way, publicly, a few times. He had a great blog too. Damned if I can’t remember his name….

      ;-)

    • Roderick May 5, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

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      But isn’t it the case that our right to our body is much stronger than our right to external property?

      If by “stronger” you mean “worse to violate,” then sure. But it’s equally true that our rights to some parts of our bodies are stronger, in that sense, than others (e.g. it’s worse to cut off a lock of my hair than to cut off my finger). In any case, that’s not the sense of strength that I’m talking about.

      I do think that strength, in your sense, can affect when it’s okay to take my property (with a duty to compensate) . But that doesn’t mean that there are cases where you can just take my hair without a duty to compensate. And thus, in my sense of strength, the two rights are equally strong — I have just as wide scope of control over my hair as over my finger.

    • David May 11, 2011 at 12:35 am #

      Firefox 4.0.1 Windows 7

      But, you aren’t just robbing someone of “a TV” or in the case of the state, “their children’s college fund” – you are firstly literlaly robbing them of the actual fruit of the labor of their bodies, and secondly, more importantly, if you allow this, you are in fact depriving them of the very ability to peaceably use their own bodies to generate fruits of their labor at all, or to peaceably enjoy the fruits of their labor. You are in essence laying a pre-existing claim on the fruits of their labor, which is indistinguishable from slavery.

  4. Shawn P. Wilbur May 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Firefox 3.6.17 MacIntosh

    Honestly, I’m more baffled than ever. I suspect most “nonlibertarians” (meaning actual nonlibertarians and those of us libertarians and anarchists who don’t subscribe to this particular approach to the questions of “property” and “rights”) see the questions in terms that are sufficiently different that no amount of elaboration on these terms is likely to clarify the issues that are unclear. The objection to “strong property rights,” understood in (these) “libertarian” terms, is not, after all, generally an objection to someone defending “their stuff” against invasive force. It’s an objection to the criteria by which ownership is established and maintained. For most of “the left,” for example, I imagine that “the right to use force to prevent someone from taking bread from you, if by chance you happen to ‘own’ some bread” doesn’t really get at the things that they are most concerned with. If “property rights” are most appropriately approached in these terms, then that discourse still seems to require some other discourse (that thorny question of just appropriation) before we can make use of our “rights.”

    There’s nothing about this that undermines my sense that, while claiming to base property rights in self-ownership, this sort of approach begins by shoe-horning that ownership of the self into a form already established by existing conventions about owning other, more clearly separate things. As long as the owned “self” appears to be conceived as just a special variety of chattel, I think even the crudest objections to self-ownership tend to hit home.

    • Roderick May 8, 2011 at 8:27 pm #

      Safari MacIntosh

      I suspect most “nonlibertarians” (meaning actual nonlibertarians and those of us libertarians and anarchists who don’t subscribe to this particular approach to the questions of “property” and “rights”)

      Apologies for using language that suggested that those who disagree with the approach I’m discussing libertarians. I use the term “libertarian” in a lot of different ways depending on context, ranging from the broadest (“a radical redistribution of power from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals”) to the narrowest (the One Correct View, i.e. mine); but I should be more careful to specify which point along that spectrum I have in mind at any given moment. But —

      The objection to “strong property rights,” understood in (these) “libertarian” terms, is not, after all, generally an objection to someone defending “their stuff” against invasive force. It’s an objection to the criteria by which ownership is established and maintained.

      I really think that’s a different issue; and although it’s an important issue to address, in my experience it’s not the issue most objectors initially raise. Maybe once they see my reply to their objection they’ll want to move on to your objection, but that’s fine; I didn’t intend this post to be a reply to every objection.

      Take Kevin’s reply at the end of Gary’s review of Organization Theory for example. Kevin’s views about the “criteria by which ownership is established and maintained” are famously different from, say, Rothbard’s. But the argument he gives there for resisting welfare rights is structurally just like Rothbard’s, and that’s why I think the issue I’m talking about and the issue you’re raising are two different things.

      this sort of approach begins by shoe-horning that ownership of the self into a form already established by existing conventions about owning other, more clearly separate things. As long as the owned “self” appears to be conceived as just a special variety of chattel, I think even the crudest objections to self-ownership tend to hit home.

      That’s what I don’t see. If you were talking about someone who believed in slavery contracts, like Robert Nozick or Walter Block, I could see it. But their position is atypical; most libertarians of a broadly neo-Lockean sort regard the self as inalienable. So in what sense is their conception of the self modeled on alienable chattels?

      • Shawn P. Wilbur May 9, 2011 at 1:38 am #

        Firefox 3.6.17 MacIntosh

        I apparently don’t have access to the link you gave, but my sense is that Kevin is, in fact, arguing in a way that is structurally very much like you, or Rothbard, and shares that particular approach to “rights” — and perhaps this is ultimately just a debate between “libertarian” and “nonlibertarian” factions within a particular sort of “political philosophy,” at which point I can only apologize and bow out — but it is also my sense that Kevin is, in this sense, more the exception than the rule. I don’t find the particular understanding of “rights” that you’re working with here in any of the traditions that I draw on. I think I understand the rules of the game, but they don’t seem to me to be adequate to the task of deriving property rules from those senses in which we can actually be called “self-owners.”

        While I’m sure that most neo-lockeans do not necessarily think of the self as alienable, it does seem to me that “self-ownership” does generally seem to mean something like “I am permitted to use force in order to prevent my self/my life/etc. from being taken from me,” much as if “the self” was indeed alienable, rather than deriving a broader notion of ownership — including the ownership of chattels — from the characteristics of an inalienable owned-self.

  5. luft May 7, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    Chromium 11.0.696.57 Linux

    What about people who unknowingly trespass? Are they guilty of aggression?

    • Ein Kunsthausmann May 8, 2011 at 8:52 am #

      MSIE 8.0 Windows Vista

      Well, what about them, Luft? Do you suspect or believe that they can be tagged correctly as aggressors? I doubt it given the brevity of your hit-and-run comment.

      Perhaps instead you suspect or believe that the position of Long or some other person commits him to your conclusion. Why not explain your thinking in detail so that others can take a look at it?

    • Roderick May 8, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

      Safari MacIntosh

      What about people who unknowingly trespass? Are they guilty of aggression?

      Well, if they trespass unknowingly then by definition they’re not guilty of anything. But my approach to rights treats innocent trespassers and guilty trespassers mostly alike; more precisely, it forbids treating guilty trespassers worse than innocent trespassers, on the grounds that we have no jurisdiction over a trespasser’s inward motives. (That’s part of why I’m against punishment.) See here.

  6. Matt May 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    Chromium 10.0.648.205 Linux

    Yeah, per the commenter above me: does a property-rights violation require an *intentional* use of the other person’s property?

  7. Neverfox May 8, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Firefox 3.6.17 Windows 7

    But can this do everything most absolute property libertarians want it to do? Generally, absolute property systems don’t make a distinction between bread and yachts. While it may seem unreasonable to deny property rights in things like food, it still seems like an open question whether it would be unreasonable to deny absolute property rights in something less obviously a threat to my “self” if challenged, e.g. my interest in a factory on the other side of the world. My plans may be thwarted if I can’t maintain my connection to it through other means but it’s not going to kill me. Do you think that all “ongoing projects” are created equal? I can see how this argument might work to show that we have at least some absolute property rights, but why do you think it shows that we have nothing but absolute property rights?

    • Roderick May 8, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

      Safari MacIntosh

      Well, once again, I’m not sure what “absolute” means in this context, and so I don’t use it to describe my own position. But in any case, as I say here, I think rights vary in strength in some senses but not others.

      But my larger point is that any right not grounded in self-ownership is incompatible with self-ownership (because force that isn’t being used in defense of self-ownership is initiatory and so impermissible). So that’s why I think we don’t have any rights with a weaker basis than self-ownership.

      • James May 10, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

        MSIE 8.0 Windows 7

        I think you’re probably correct that we can’t have any property rights with a weaker basis than self-ownership however, if, say, taking someone’s yacht was considered less of an intrusion on their self-ownership than taking their last loaf of bread then it wouldn’t warrant the same level of force in response. It’s conceivable that something could play such a minor role in your on-going projects that there was virtually no proportional response available when it was stolen.

        Alternatively, the proportional response may not be proportional to the economic value of the good stolen. This is the general intuition behind not treating $10 owned by Bill Gates the same as $10 owned by a homeless person. It seems right that the homeless person would be entitled to use more force (if necessary) to defend their property.

        Are these viable ideas?

        • James May 10, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

          MSIE 8.0 Windows 7

          “the homeless person would be entitled to use more force (if necessary) to defend their property.”

          Which would obviously not include many things…

      • Neverfox May 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

        Firefox 3.6.16.NETCLR3.5.30729.NET4.0E Windows XP 64-bit/Server 2003

        Sorry, by “absolute,” I should have said “strong,” in keeping with your terminology. I also had not read the whole comment discussion so my apologies for not seeing that you had touched on this some.

        So to rephrase my question, while it may be that “we don’t have any rights with a weaker basis than self-ownership,” what makes neo-Lockean rules grounded in self-ownership more so than other conceptions? I follow the thought experiment of the hair/finger but it still seems that one could explain that intuition as much by appeal to, say, occupancy and use as by homesteading/first-come ideas, could you not? If that’s true, what becomes the deciding factor? It could be that you’re not here trying to argue for one conception of property (the one I know you happen to hold) but only for property per se. If so, I’m still interested in your answer.

        • Roderick May 12, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

          Safari MacIntosh

          Nothing I’ve said here was supposed to favour Rothbardian over occupancy-and-use approaches; I was defending a genus of which those are species. (Hence my reference to Kevin Carson above.)

  8. tomkow May 8, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    Chrome 11.0.696.65 Windows 7

    You will find a theory answering to your requirements here:

    http://tomkow.typepad.com/tomkowcom/2010/08/the-retributive-theory-of-propety.html

    • martin May 9, 2011 at 4:41 am #

      Opera 11.10 Windows 7

      What is magical about first possession?

      That it comes before all other possessions.

  9. Ken May 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    Firefox 3.6.14 Windows 7

    You might respond that Rothbardian property rights can’t justify force against others in cases of extreme need, since its obvious that Bill Gates losing $100 to feed a starving man doesn’t really violate his self-ownership in any non-trivial sense.

    One thing that comes to mind here is that Bill Gates can’t know for certain that he’s not merely losing $100 rather than life and/or limb, and I can’t think of a reason (particularly under self-ownership) to require him to roll those particular dice.

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    [...] this issue in the past here.  But be sure to take a look at Roderick Long’s post on “The Paradox of Property” at Austro-Athenian Empire.  And pay special attention to the comments thread, which [...]

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