Sunday, June 03, 2007

Property rights

There were a couple of essays I've been aching to write recently, but I've decided I wanted to talk about something that's been on my mind even longer.

One of the big charges that conservatives point at liberals is that liberals are insufficiently concerned about property rights and property and property ownership in general.

This is an interesting charge, because I'm betting they're depending on people not understanding what "property" really is.

Pragmatically, what does it mean to own something? Well, let's say that someone sues you, and a judge rules that you owe this person money - maybe as a result of a debt that was owing, maybe as a result of damage you're alleged to have caused, whatever. Forget whether or not the suit was justified, forget whether the decision reached by the court was proper.

I'm not a legal scholar, so I have no idea if this is possible from a strictly legal sense... but let's imagine the judge says that, since you can't pay the amount, a car you own is being seized as payment of the debt.

It's no longer your car; if you try to drive away with it, you can be arrested and imprisoned. Pragmatically speaking, property is a right to use something, with that right being enforced by the government.

What about in reality? Pragmatically speaking, property is a government-protected right to use something, but in reality, what is property? Well, as crazy as it might sound, it's the exact same thing.

All the concept of property is, is an idea that only one person has the right to use (or allow the use of) something, and if someone else uses it, that someone else should be worried about what penalties might be imposed.

Outside of human society, you only "own" what you can protect and prevent others from taking. Within human society, you often have the rest of the society willing to assist you in the protection to some degree.

So, really, questions about property are really questions about justice in the exercise of power. Is it fair to use force or the threat of force to declare that something belongs to a particular person or entity?

It is the recognition of this question that can lead to many differences of opinions, but many conservatives are trying to change this by eliminating the question entirely, by pretending that property is some kind of natural right, rather than something that only exists within the realm of a society.

It seems pretty clear that certain kinds of property rights tend to serve the cause of justice, and tend to be sensible as well. The fruits of your own labors should be yours; you should not be able to be forced to work for someone else, nor should the things you build or make be taken from you for no reason. But even this starts to create a problem today....

Imagine a primitive tribe. It is ruled that, if anyone creates or does the work to find and collect something, it belongs first and foremost to that person. So, if you cut down a tree, and use the wood to fashion things, the wood is yours, and the items you fashion are yours. It's perfectly sensible.

But who really owns a tree?

In a primitive culture, the idea that we might run out of trees might seem laughable. In the modern day, well, if enough people want wood products badly enough, we could probably clear cut the entire earth.

Would that serve the cause of justice, if some small group of people were to decide to destroy all the trees? Wouldn't other folks have some interest in demanding that some trees remain?

If property is some absolute, natural right, no, there'd be no lawful interest in protecting the trees. If property is something created by human society, to serve the cause of justice, then yes, there would be such an interest.

This is already getting a bit long, so I'll stop here, and try to discuss ownership of the world in my next entry.

This is a great post. Property is such a key element to any form of politics, not one of the least discussed in mainstream America (perhaps because the two national parties essentially agree on everything). I'm looking forward to the next installment!
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