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As you surely know, I believe that a strong system of property rights protections is the foundation of a prosperous and free society. Property rights emerge from human custom when there is an economic incentive for them to be defined and defended. Harold Demsetz has a great article discussing this process, but it is not freely available online. It is well worth getting a copy.

Demsetz, Harold “Toward a Theory of Property Rights,” American Economic Review 57, 2, p. 347-359, 1967. Available at JSTOR.

In any event, here is the problem. I see property rights as the foundation of freedom and prosperity and among the most important institutions on earth. As you are also well aware, I view the institution of government as inherently ineffective because of the incentive/feedback problems that prevent it from responding to competitive pressures like most private enterprises face. There is, too, the problem of public choice which can contaminate the effectiveness of political processes.

Nonetheless, if “put on the stand” I would argue for a limited government whose primary reason for existence is the protection and defense of private property rights. Indeed, as Locke wrote in his Second Treatise, “The great and chief end therefore of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of property.”* But do we not see here my internal contradiction? If I argue that government power is to be treated very carefully and that if we ought not expect excellent outcomes to occur with regularity when government is involved, then how do I happily entrust it to take care of the most precious institution for the preservation of a free society? Is this not the mother of all contradictions? Are we limited government types a ball of hypocrisy? I don’t think so, and I’ll leave it for you guys to think about over this fine holiday weekend.

*Incidentally, Locke  argued just after this that if a ruler violated the property of his subjects, the subjects could consider this an act of war and rebel against it.

19 Responses to “Philosophy Friday – Things That Keep Me Awake at Night”

  1. chuck martel says:

    Private property rights have to be delineated and defined. It’s not as simple as it might appear. I can’t find it anywhere on-line but William Cobbett’s letter to Thomas Malthus from Long Island, NY in 1819 (Cobbett’s England, The Folio Society, London, 1968, pg. 85) is an eye-opener on this subject. While his primary focus was on taxation, Henry George also had some controversial ideas on private property that were well received when he was alive to promote them . Neither of these two had anything to say about personal property, their focus was on land. Through the ages, including today, societies have successfully functioned without the type of land ownership currently used in the US. The idea that there are only two alternatives for land ownership, private property or state property, would be considered ridiculous by lots of people.

  2. Steve Jean says:

    “Property rights emerge from human custom when there is an economic incentive for them to be defined and defended.”
    Those who refer to “rights” as social constructs have an entirely different concept behind that word than I do. I would call such a thing a privilege, a legal delineation, or even a pact between individuals (though the last requires voluntary, informed agreement, the notion of the “social contract” being an absurd example of the fallacy of the collective–see Lysander Spooner).
    As an aside, I also wouldn’t use the word “right” in reference to the concept of “positive rights” (e.g., a “right” to health care), as that’s a play with words, attempting to equivocate between being left alone to do your own thing and being duty bound to sacrifice part of yourself for the sake of others.

    Rights are inherent, the product of our nature as rational beings (if you’re religious you may ascribe such as a gift from a creator, if you like, but that isn’t necessary). The rights of an individual are life, liberty, and (justly acquired) property. They do not depend upon any law or system of rule. They are based upon the underlying axiom that you own your life. (Here’s a short presentation on the Philosophy of Liberty, which has been around for some time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9y6g0PU2OIc .) If you have an argument with a collectivist and can get him to fully and honestly explicate his beliefs, you’ll eventually boil his argument down to a denial of that axiom. The logical implication of such a denial is that one believes that the individual does not own her own life, that it belongs to others. That is exactly the premise underlying feudalism and slavery.
    Also, it’s useful to rephrase an assertion of rights as a proscription or duty. The right to life is the right not to be murdered. Asserting that right is the same as asserting that it would be wrong for anyone to murder you. Murder isn’t wrong because “society” decided it was, because lawyerly, aristocratic rulers wrote it down and voted on it. It’s wrong because your life belongs to you and anyone murdering you is taking that away.
    Thus, asserting the right to justly acquired property is the same as asserting that it’s wrong for a thief who did not give of his time, effort, talent, etc. to producing some value to steal it away from one who did. (Arguments based upon the Labor Theory of Value or which disregard mutual, consensual employment contracts don’t apply.)

  3. Harry says:

    There is no contradiction there, unless I have missed your point, WC. You can put property rights at the top of your axiomatic list and still argue for a system (which may be enforced by police, which means government) to protect those rights. Anarchy is not an alternative.

    Now, it has happened, despite great efforts to the contrary, that wherever there is freedom to own property, including your land, people have flourished. Wintercow has explained this. Hayek has explained this. And the point is not just that economic freedom it yields abundance. A poor serf is worse off than a free man just as poor.

  4. Instant Karma says:


    Try as hard as I can, I still can’t understand the validity of the concept of “inherent” rights. It always comes across to me as an attempt to build up a coherent intellectual foundation for something that emerged on its own without such a justification.

    Life is a constant series of problem solving, and always has been. The issue of property conventions has always addressed the issue of WHO gets to decide. Who gets to determine what problems to address and how to address them? The convention that effective societies have come to that works best is to allow the person affected to decide. The logic for why this makes sense is pretty obvious. We each decide for ourselves.

    When people interact, that is where multiple people are effected by an action, the best convention discovered is to require both of them to consent. Mutual agreement. This optimizes positive sum, win win problem solving and minimizes destructive win lose conflict (and murder).

    Property conventions are good solutions on assigning decision making to property, ideas and various products. Here the most successful conventions have been to assign decision making authority to the first homesteader, or the creator of the thing. This encourages discovery, creation, preservation and capitalization of property, and it discourages conflict.

    Self ownership and property “rights” are good conventions. They lead to more and better problem solving than alternative conventions. In other words, they lead to the flourishing of humanity. This is why they are good.

  5. Steve Jean says:

    Try as hard as I can, I still can’t understand the validity of the concept of “inherent” rights. It always comes across to me as an attempt to build up a coherent intellectual foundation for something that emerged on its own without such a justification.

    Isn’t human thought and communication generally a way to “build up a coherent intellectual foundation” for some aspect of reality which precedes the thought or statement? Before you know the word “gravity” or “fall”, you experience the affect of the natural force on your body and objects around you. Newton didn’t make things fall. He just invented a new perceptual tag to explain what was.

    You say you can’t understand the validity, but can you understand the validity of the reverse? Specifically, I refer to the three basic individual rights of life, liberty, and property. Granted, property is more complicated, but life and liberty are not. How could anyone validly argue that sometimes it is not wrong to murder Anne Frank, or sometimes it is not wrong to snatch some tribesman from the jungle, lock him in chains, and then force him to pick cotton? If those things are not inherently wrong, please describe situations where they aren’t wrong.

  6. Michael says:

    Who said that those things are wrong? They were done, so someone must have thought it was okay.

  7. Steve Jean says:

    Who said that those things are wrong?

    Any decent, rational person.

    They were done, so someone must have thought it was okay.

    A guy jumped off a building because the thought he could fly.
    Gravity pulled him to his death. Reality disputed his delusion.

  8. Michael says:

    Slavery was the norm untill the mid 19th century. Is your position that there were few rational decent humans until then?

  9. Steve Jean says:

    Slavery was the norm untill the mid 19th century. Is your position that there were few rational decent humans until then?”

    Homo sapiens differ from (probably) all other animals in the capacity for reason, the ability to feel empathy and the free will to choose to be decent to others. That is not to say that all humans use their special minds or chose to be decent.
    “Man is the only animal that can sink below his nature.” –Ayn Rand
    “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” –Mark Twain
    Thomas Jefferson wrote like a rational man, offering arguments based upon an appeal to moral decency. But he chose his own financial status over the freedom of dozens of his slaves. He also raped Sally Hemmings (her status as a slave being the force employed). Was that a case of cognitive dissonance? Did he concoct a mental fantasy of himself as the benevolent master, a “white man’s burden” sort of rationalization? Or, did he loathe himself in the wee hours of the morning, recognizing that he perpetuated the very evil he frequently denounced? Either Thomas Jefferson engaged in irrational thinking, in some things, or he failed to maintain basic human decency towards all humans. Or both.
    There were plenty of poor Southerners who resented being drafted to fight for the CSA, to protect the privilege of rich slave owners. Many likely kept their objections to themselves, out of fear of reprisal.
    Even in the North, where slavery was not legal and abolitionists had a foothold, the timidity of their efforts to end slavery (which William Lloyd Garrison mocked and condemned) illustrates the fear of reprisal that even decent, rational Northerners felt.
    For the British, slavery was marginalized starting with the Normans, though slavery in the colonies, out of sight of those for whom “England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in”, still continued for centuries.
    The variations from region to region, century to century, does not support the notion that slavery was “the norm” (worldwide). Rather, it suggests that slavery could only be “acceptable” where rationality and decency were suppressed–by inculcating people with irrational lessons (e.g., appeals to biblical justifications of slavery), suppressing dissent by intimidation, or the like.

  10. Instant Karma says:


    Sorry if I appear argumentative. I really just don’t get it.

    I fail to see where the inherent right emerges in the thing. I agree life, liberty and property are great conventions, and might even benefit by calling them rights. This makes them seem sacred, and people are more respectful of sacred things. However it is just projection.

    The Nazis and the slavers built another, conflicting set of rational justifications of what is inherently right. They rejected your foundations.

    I will not argue for slavery or murder. The reason is that these are dysfunctional conventions. They lead to long term conflict, misery, pain, poverty, ignorance and death, for those committing them and those on the receiving end. The only way i can assure myself you wont transgress against me is to agree not to transgress on you and together we rationally support institutions yo enforce this good truce. I cannot argue a Nazi out of his beliefs by making up inherent rights arguments. He will just reject them.

    What I can do is build institutions that allow humans to protect themselves from Nazis and to thrive in positive sum ways. We can build a voluntary society which rejects slavery and murder for the gain of the altruist, the egoist and the utilitarian. Over time everyone will see that Nazi ideals lead to disaster, and they will logically tend to join our enlightened society. That is what has been happening over past few centuries. Violence and enslavement are becoming less common as institutions and mores progress.

  11. Michael says:

    If you look at your answer, you can see that the rights that people can actually excersize are shaped by human custom, the incentives for them to be defined, and the ability to defend them. It doesn’t matter that I claim the right to own my property, because the government can come in at any time and seize it (Kelo v New London shows that). Or another way, our customs give the government the right to seize my income (say, Social Security taxes) without my just compensation (the 1% interest is not sufficient, assuming I get the “expected” payout).

  12. Steve Jean says:

    If you look at your answer, you can see that the rights that people can actually excersize are shaped by human custom, the incentives for them to be defined, and the ability to defend them.

    If you’re murdered, then the murderer violated your right to life. If you’re kidnapped or enslaved, then the perpetrator has violated your right to liberty. Ability to exercise/defend inherent rights boils down to a question of whether someone can violate your rights. But a violated right isn’t a right eliminated, or a right which didn’t exist. Like I said, restate the matter from an assertion of a negative right to a statement of it being morally wrong to violate it.

    If something doesn’t exist until it is defined, then I wouldn’t call it a right. I’d use a term like privilege, power, etc.. If you insist on using the word “right” for those concepts, we’re not speaking the same language. If so, there’s no point in talking past each other.

  13. Michael says:

    I guess if you want to argue that a murdered person still maintains the right to life, that’s fine. But a theory developed along those lines doesn’t have any explanatory power.

  14. Steve Jean says:

    I guess if you want to argue that a murdered person still maintains the right to life, that’s fine.

    Strawman. A murdered person is dead.

    The right to life was violated. As a consequence, the life has ended. Holding a murderer accountable isn’t going to bring back the dead, but it is generally done out of a sense of justice, to punish, to keep the murderer from killing again, to dissuade other would-be murderers from acting likewise. Whatever the motivation, it’s based upon the premise that murder is wrong.

  15. Harry says:

    The fundamental value of the collectivist is that there are no values. The conversation often ends with a Nietzchean grunt. Go back to the water hole and proceed and everywhere there are some who provide all sorts of reasons to deny others the right not to the waterhole, but to the new waterhole the other guy dug.

    Some things cannot be answered, but that does not mean the man with the gun the argument, dictating the rules as he sees fit. We know this intuitively. If freedom (not “freedom” to demand others to do as you wish) is not the highest value, then what is? Let us talk about that, without the metaphysical bluster masking a will to power.

  16. Harry says:

    Missed a few words there, doing this on my phone, but my sentiments are with the guy who dug his own well, as opposed to killing a clan to take their waterhole.

  17. Steve Jean says:

    The fundamental value of the collectivist is that there are no values.

    I’d have to think about that for awhile, but it does seem to me to be a valid observation, a succinct warning to those who would attempt to argue with a collectivist. Most obviously, the collectivist making such an argument violates the stolen concept fallacy. I suspect that this would be logically equivalent to the collectivist rejecting the axiom that each individual owns his/her own life. As Locke put it, “Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.”

    Considering that group values are an example of the fallacy of the collective, it logically follows that values are necessarily individual. Owning yourself means having your own values, since what benefits your neighbor may not benefit you.

    If I were to tweak it, to avoid that obvious fallacy, I would change that to: “…there are no individual values.” The collectivist would assert that the only values a person should accept are the values of the collective (as decreed by the wise leaders), that to assert your own individual values is “selfish” and counter to the interests of the group (as decided by the wise leaders). But anyone familiar with history knows, the “wise leaders” in such societies don’t follow the same rules. Some pigs are more equal than others. Hence, the denial of individual values only applies to those outside the leaders and the politically connected (nomenklatura), who are a de facto aristocratic class. And yet, how often does one see appeals to group values in political discourse? The “community good”, or “the town decided”, etc..

    It is always useful, in response to such a statement, to ask: “good for whom?” Or, “Who decided?” I’m sad to say that, in most cases, such questions are either ignored or dismissed without grounds. Those expressing the group values either don’t see it, or remain willfully ignorant, taking the easy way of continuing to use the same lazy language.

  18. Harry says:

    Steve, maybe not every collectivist asserts that, but the deeper you go with your average government or sociology professor the argument lifts for a moment in defense of pragmatisim, and deteriorates to “everything is relative” After the next hit on the bong, everybody becomes a French existentialist, the core of which is that there are no values. Follow that path, and the tyrant and the serial do-gooder can pretty much do as they please. Lenin did not espouse atheism without a reason. His vision was to dominate the soul.

    Another fundamental theorem of collectivism is domination of human freedom. Everybody has to get with the program if the five-year plan is to succeed in fairly allocating resources, and in deciding what will be made or done, free of competition from pesky capitalist roaders. As they say, free trade but fair trade, and no doctors doing hip transplants without permission at high prices.

    Collectivism above all demands obedience to the master, and is fundamentally in opposition to freedom, and I do not think it begs the question by using the word “freedom” as we usually understand the word.

  19. Harry says:

    That was not intended as a rebuttal to anything above, just a further idea.

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