Jan 7, 2018

Property Rights Arguments, Recreated

I've been studying--not just reading, but studying--a series of blog posts by Matt Breunig. Wikipedia describes him as "an American lawyer, blogger, policy analyst, and commentator." He says "I write about politics, the economy, and political theory, primarily with a focus on the set of interlocking issues that affect poor and working people.'' Here's his blog. And here's the People's Policy Project, the think tank he's started. Funded by donations on Patreon

The topic I'm studying is property rights. A couple of years ago, I read Breunig's post on "Violence Vouchers" and found it complementary to some ideas that I'd expressed in my own post: "Violence Markets and Government Monopolies."

He says:
When a state (or state-like entity) establishes a system of private property, all it really does is hand out violence vouchers to people who we call owners. This can be done through direct grants to individuals or by establishing some set of rules, the following of which entitles the follower to a violence voucher.
I said:
Governments arise because increased production makes theft and chattel slavery profitable. Both depend on violence, so violence becomes valuable and a competitive market for violence emerges.
...the dynamics of a free and open market for violence leads market participants to strategies the reduce both wealth and theft opportunities. As a result, participants come to prefer monopoly violence and theft over free market violence and theft, and thus to accept tax theft rather than outright theft as the cost of that preference.  

But my analysis was incomplete. I neglected the fact that violence markets began before theft and chattel slavery was profitable and violence was to establish property rights.

So I'm rewriting that post. Here's the first part.

Limited government

Conservative and libertarian theory says that government should be limited. Its only legitimate jobs are national defense, enforcement of voluntary agreements, prevention of violence against persons, and protection of private property. All else is an overreach and is both immoral and counterproductive.

Let's start with the moral argument. The theory proposes that property rights are "natural rights." But what does that mean? Surely these natural rights don't proceed from nature. No tree has a right to the ground on which it stands. No squirrel has the right to nuts or a bee to nectar--or even honey. Bacteria have no right to invade your body yet they do, and white blood cells don't have the right to repel such invasion. It's just what they do. In nature, there are no rights, only powers.

But, goes the argument, property rights proceed from the following principle: because one owns oneself one has a right to possess the fruits of one's labor. Therefore if one "mixes one's labor" with some natural object, then one has a right to that object. Of course bees mix their labor with the natural world to make honey. And that means that bees have a right to their honey. And it's wrong to take honey from a hive without paying them for it. Right? No? Well, maybe the rules are different for humans. Why? Becuase we make the rules.

Or because of God. The rights of people are God-given. That's a tough argument if you don't believe in God. And it's also a tough one even if you do because none of the holy books that reveal God's rules talk about rights. Mostly they talk of obligations and prohibitions. But you won't see any granting of rights.

But rights can be inferred. For example, according to scripture God says that people should not commit murder. That's a good idea, and I agree with God on that point. But it's it's different from God saying saying that anyone has a right to life. A commandment does not grant a right. It forbids an act. God says "don't steal." Why? Because God says so. Not because stealng violates property rights.

But can't we infer rights? If so, you're on dangerous ground.  Exodus 21:20–21 says, "And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.” So if you're into imputing rights not explicitly granted, then people have the right to beat their servants--provided that they don't die in the next day or two. Beat them so that they die in three days? That's clearly within your inferred rights.

No, sorry. Rights are not natural. And they are not God given.

Still, don't we all agree that it's morally wrong to initiate violence. Once someone has some property, there are only two ways for it to change hands: by voluntary exchange or by violence. And violence is wrong. It's as wrong for a government to take--through taxation, backed by violence--what a person has come to own through their own efforts and through voluntary exchange. Taxation is theft by another name.

But let's be specific. How can a piece of property come to be owned by someone? In most cases the answer will be that it was legitimately conveyed from person to person through a series of voluntary exchanges. So long as that's been the process, then the current owner of that property is legitimate.

But how did the first owner come to own it? Initially, nothing in the world was owned. Everything was free for anyone to use. If you needed some nuts and berries you could go anywhere that nuts and berries were to be found and you could pick or gather your fill. But somehow, when someone says: "This land is mine and so are all the nuts and berries found here," they have the right to prevent anyone who attempts to eat "their" nuts or "their" berries from consuming them. They have the right to keep them from planting and growing food on "their" land. They even have the right to keep them from crossing over that land. Just by saying "It's mine!" And if someone tries to take their nuts or berries, then they have the right to repell that aggression (yes, it's aggression, because it's theirs) with force.

But that must be wrong. Walking onto land or planting and harvesting produce or gathering nuts and berries are not aggressive acts. Forcibly preventing someone else from gathering nuts and berries, from planting produce, or from crossing a bit of land is the initiation of aggression.

Alright. That argument fails. Using violence to defend something that you have claimed just by saying you have a claim, or because you've made a philosophical argument for your claim does not make your claim just or morally right. To the contrary: by claiming a piece of property you have denied that property to every person who can equally make that claim. You can argue "It's mine! I saw it first." But that's the argument of a five-year-old. You can argue: "It's mine. I made it better.." That might the argument of a seven-year-old.

But consider the utilitarian argument. We are an incredibly prosperous society, and our system of property rights is fundamental to that prosperity. Property right encourage us to invest time and effort in improving property. If someone else could walk in and take improved property, then why should someone improve it? And if no one improves any property, then we're all worse off.

Under our system of property rights, however we've come into the property the owner of the property is the chief beneficiary of the improvement, But in the aggregate, such improvements ultimately benefit everyone. Why? Because of the invisible hand. The invisible hand is not actually a hand. Nor is anything identified by natural law. It's offered as an explanation for why private improvements produce more benefit than collective improvements. But "by the invisible hand" could be replaced with "by fucking magic" with no change in explanatory power.

Now it's true that places where property rights are absent are impoverished. And places where property rights are weaker than the ones that we enjoy in the United States are also worse off than the United States. Except for places like Denmark and Sweden that are equally prosperous and which report greater degrees of freeedom and happiness and cross-generational economic mobility--not that anyone should care about these things.

 But they are the exceptions that proves the rule, right?

But wait. There's another argument. People who labor should get the results of their labor. People who don't work, should get nothing. Or maybe some charity. Isn't that a good rule for creating a just world? Our system of free markets gives us exactly that.

Except it doesn't. For several reasons. First: someone who has no talent and who does not work can make a lot of money if he's inherited wealth. The wealth is invested and the returns on the investment are the same as the returns on labor--sometimes a lot greater. And now skill or sweat are required.

Well, that's not true. A wealthy person has to be smart about where to make investments. That takes a certain amount of skill doesn't it? Well, no. A wealthy person can hire a good investment manager and get a great return on their investment. But doesn't that require that they choose a good investment manager? Yes. They have to be not completely stupid. Or if they suspect that they are completely stupid and can't tell the difference between a good investment manager and a poor one, and there is no one in their family who is smart enough to tell the difference, they can put the money in an index fund and get a market return.

Of course they do have to be smart enough to know whether or not they are completely stupid, don't they? Yes. They have to be at least that smart. And if you think that having that level of intelligence is sufficient to earn them millions of dollars a year because of the fortune that they inherited while someon who is just as smart and far more hard working has to do with less, then you have a very different idea of what it means to deserve what you get.

But wait. They didn't just happen to have the money that they have. Somewhere along the line it must have been earned by someone who then gave it to them--as is their right. Right? Once again, where did that right come from? It comes from the system of laws that we have that decide how property may be distributed. And how did that system of laws come into existence? They were written by people who already had property in order to preserve their property.

And this makes them just? I don't think so.

I like my property. And I don't want it taken away. So I'm not proposing an anarchistic free-for-all. But I think it's wrong to think that the system of property and distribution that we have is the only possible one, or that it's the best one. It might be. But there are other systems that might do was well, or even better. Just ask Denmark.