What Would Proudhon Say?
November 27, 2012 Property Rights

There is an element of the left which disdains property in any and all forms. I don’t mean this to characterize many people, though there are antI-property tendencies in most people. And I don’t mean this to imply that we need to or ought to live under so rigid a property rights absolutism that I must offer compensation to any passerby for whom I may bother from whistling while I do yardwork.

But Proudhon and his modern descendants argue that “property is theft.” Ignore Marx’s famous criticism of that for now, we have yet one more inconsistency to focus on. If man is not permitted to own the produce of his labor, must it be the case that any and all produce from his labor is unowned and therefore not tied to him? Think hard now. Think hard. OK, so suppose I am a cow farmer, who doesn’t really own the milk that I had a hand in producing and doesn’t really own the fertilizer that I had a hand in producing (“you didn’t build that, remember?) … what would Proudhon and his followers say about the other stuff that I produce as a cow farmer? For example, cows are responsible for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the very survival of our planet (so we are told). And we are told that we need to institute a carbon tax or a carbon permit system as one way to deal with that problem. Well, how is that even possible if I am not the rightful owner of the things I produce?

Generally, if you wish to rule out the institution of property, and I emphasize that this is certainly in fashion among the stylish progressives on college campuses, then on what grounds would you argue that someone’s “property” is violated? What possible conception of pollution could you develop without the concept of property? And if you wish to invoke that unowned methane gas is causing global warming, and that no one gave farmers permission to emit methane into “our” atmosphere, why would you argue that farmers need permission? It’s not “THEIR” methane? Remember we have no property and we have no claim to the things we produce. I’d love that world. In that world, I can let my dogs free in the neighborhood to poo wherever they want without having to pick it up because after all, I don’t own them or their poop.

Is there some sort of sophisticated pretzel that I have not been privy to eating? If so, please do send along an argument, inquiring minds want to know.

"4" Comments
  1. Finally Wintercow has provided a solution to a problem I have: what to do with the old hammer mill in the barn I thought I owned. If it is not mine, it’s not my problem, right?

  2. Haven’t read Proudhon in a while, but if I remember correctly when he said “Property is theft” he was referring to landed property–specifically absentee ownership granted by the Crown or established under a paradigm of government privilege. He distinguished between property and possessions, so your cow and the milk produced are your possessions. Not sure how Proudhon would respond re environmental issues, probably because these really weren’t issues.

    Again, I could have remembered it wrongly or misunderstood what he was saying, but I do find libertarians/classical liberals/whatever tend to write him off as some kind of idiot when he says “property is theft”–immediately appealing to the absurdity of communal ownership of everything. Context is important.

  3. I know this is off the point, but there is a Pennsylvania Dutch saying, “Why own the cow when you can milk it for free?” The question is posed after the question, “When are you going to marry [insert name of girlfriend]?” Sounds like Bill Maher from Berks County.

    Ok, not every Progressive believes in the abolition of property rights, but Progressives do get lathered up when the Fifth Amendment comes up as an item of strict scrutiny, which for them it is not.

    Nor is it a mere slip when the president says, “You didn’t build that.” The statement implies that the right to property, be it real property or not, is a right granted by the state, not a natural right.

    I have always been puzzled by the concept of nonvoting stock, where the Class A shareholders decide what the Class B shareholders get paid in dividends, and where the Class B shareholders get no vote on anything. What does owning a billion, or a trillion trillion, shares of Class B stock mean?

    I guess it means that if Uncle LeRoy owns all the class A shares, and he likes you, who owns all or a part of the class B shares, you do whatever makes Uncle LeRoy happy, like sending him a birthday card and laughing at his off-color jokes.

    Thus it can be troubling to some of us when government people start talking about reorganizing the country and declaring your ownership of anything is class B.

  4. Apart from the fact that there isn’t really any accepted practical definition of “property” that confers total ownership (I “own” my house, but I can’t make any substantial changes that aren’t to code), ownership and responsibility are two entirely different things. In a society with no property, are you arguing that murder could not be prosecuted? Someone caused someone else to die; no concept of “property” needs to be involved. In the case of greenhouse gases, someone caused the environment to (supposedly) be less good than it was before; no concept of “property” needs to be involved.

    Obviously there are numerous compelling arguments for why strong property rights are a good idea, both in theory and in practice. This is not even close to being one of them.

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