Friday, June 15, 2007

Property Musings, Part II

The absolutist view of property suggests that you should be able to do nearly anything you want with something you own; it's yours, after all. If you own a piece of land with a lot of trees on it, you should be able to cut down all the trees, burn them all, and build a toxic waste dump, even if you're on top of the water table. Later, if it's proven that you dumped toxic waste that seeped into people's drinking water, well, they can sue you if they can prove they were hurt.

This is a view that certainly promotes strong short term economic gains; with no one allowed to tell you what to do with your property, you can do whatever earns you the most wealth. With more people trying to build wealth (and with stupid regulations concerning bogus concerns like clean air, water, food, and other stupid environmental issues out of the way), there will be a great deal of wealth to go around.

But is it how we view what property should be? Let's expand that idea beyond all recognition. What if someone was able to own the world? The same issues would arise if a smallish number of people could own the world, so let's keep that in mind. Also, let's remember that property ownership means control over the property and what people do with that property.

Well, if one day someone owned the world, they'd be able to dictate where people lived, and under what circumstances they could obtain natural resources (like iron and oil, but also like food and water!). Such a person could have complete dictatorial powers.

But people have rights, or so we are supposed to believe in America... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are among the inalienable rights possessed by all. We institute governments to protect those rights, and if any government had the power to grant ownership of the world, clearly, that government would not be one capable of protecting our rights.

Our fundamental beliefs in freedom contradict any belief in absolute property rights, at least on the scale of world ownership. In fact, the only way that those inalienable rights could be protected is if we recognize that we all have an interest in the world, and what happens to it.

If anyone "owns" the world, it must be all of humanity.

At the same time, look at the shape of the world! While we haven't spread the wealth of the world in a just and equitable manner, we have accomplished great things. There is infrastructure in place to allow trade among all of the people of the world, to move people and goods from any location to another rapidly, we can communicate in ways our ancestors wouldn't have dreamed of, and do things that were unimaginable just a hundred years ago, and all of those things occurred, in part, because of our ideas of property. If we tried to make property some kind of collective thing, where a person couldn't buy a piece of land, build a factory on it, and produce goods from it (because the entire world owns that land and the materials to build the factory, and the raw materials the factory uses to produce goods), we'd never have accomplished these things.

So while we need to wash our 'baby' named "property", we definitely want to make sure we only throw out the bathwater.

First and foremost, the world is collectively owned by humanity, and everyone deserves a right to be able to work and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

But secondly, some level of right to parts of the world are necessary in order to encourage poeple to do things that will benefit us all, like the factory owner I just mentioned. The factory owner should be rewarded for building the factory and running the factory... but it should also be remembered that ownership of the land, and the raw materials used to build and supply the factory also belong to us all.

Which brings us to the third point: since we collectively own the world, and since property belonging to one is taking it from the rest of us, all notions of property must be viewed as to whether or not they benefit humanity, directly or not.

Here's where we run into some terrible philosophical issues. I wouldn't be surprised if Marx had made the exact same argument I've put forth here. If so, Marx would probably have said that the workers at the factory are the ones who should receive all rewards associated with the factory. Well, while Marxism is not the bogeyman it's often claimed to be, attempts to give collective control over the means of production haven't worked very well.

However, Marx did have one point: all goods in this world are the result of human labor, and the people who provide that labor deserve to be rewarded for that labor in a just manner.

Who are the big moneymakers in America right now? It's a scary answer when you think about it... they're the people whose job it is to work with money. Not to produce goods and services, but to simply do things with, or make decisions about, money.

In an ideal situation, the big moneymakers would be the middle class folks. They're the ones who provide the goods and services we need to have an economy. Oh, sure, they wouldn't each be as wealthy as the CEO, but then, that's because there's only one CEO and possibly tens of thousands of workers. But collectively, that's where the real wealth would go.

Because the CEO only gets big bucks because of the stuff that they, the workers, do, and the materials that they, the workers, are as entitled to as the CEO.

I'll be developing this idea more in the future (I hope).

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.

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