Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Where Property Rights Come From

Noah has an interesting post nitpicking a bit with some arguments presented in Timothy Sandefur's CORNERSTONE OF LIBERTY: Property Rights in 21st Century America.

Noah's complaint is that Sandefur falls victim to the naturalistic fallacy in his attempts to justify property rights. The idea is that Sandefur assumes that because private property is sought out among humans universally that it must be a desireable end. But of course, it is insufficient to say that just because something is natural it is also good. (Rape would seem to be a good counterexample - and indeed, given the line of argument here, theft as well.)

I have not read Sandefur's book (and have no immediate plans to do so), so I cannot say for certaint what is within. I will say, however, that this is a common Libertarian justification for property rights, and that I do not believe it necessarily falls victim to the naturalistic fallacy. Rather, it merely states that things which are natural should only be tampered with under justification. All other things being equal, it is best not to tamper with nature, and that is because nature is a complete and functional system, one that is complex and therefore subject to side effects/unintended consequences as a result of tampering. Tampering with things that are in our nature always brings with it a cost, whether in terms of effort or in terms of the restriction and frustration of other natural desires, or, indeed, in terms of completely unforeseen side effects. Thus, the burden of proof is rather on the person who wants to subvert nature and not on the person who wants to preserve it.

For example, cities are not (strictly-speaking, I mean - beavers build dams, yes, yes, I KNOW!) "natural." However, they bring with them enormous benefits. So we're willing to put up the effort to construct them. Since we are humans, it is at least intuitive (and probably proveable) that gains we measure will be in terms of our natural desires. There is no sense in talking about cosmic gains if these are contrary to our design specifications. And so indeed, any justification for some modification to nature will have to be given in terms of preferential weighting for things that are also natural. In the case of the city, of course, we get commerce (an aggregate increase in our ability to meet our material needs) and common defense against dangers human and animal: gains to our natural desires for material goods and security/longevity.

Now, I myself do not completely buy the naturalistic justification for property rights becuse I believe property rights are themselves a modification to nature. It may be true that everyone has a desire to retain his property, but it is equally true that theft brings personal gain. If someone goes to the trouble to plant a field and grow crops, and I'm bigger than him and equally intelligent, then of course it is in my (animal) interest to let him do the work and then steal the fruits of his labors for myself. This is a more efficient way to feed myself than doing the work myself (though of course one could argue that by doing the work myself I guarantee success to a degree that would not exist relying solely on someone else). To create property rights, however, we have to forbid this kind of behavior. The idea is that there is an aggregate gain to be had from respecting everyone else's rights. True, in the short term it works out better for me to steal the weaker man's food - but in the long term it doesn't at all (because I am myself not safe from such theft, and because theft tends to lower productivity - who works when he knows someone will just come and take what he made?). There is a general gain to be had by forming a community and respecting rights. And of course, in an idealized sense no one will agree to join a community if he is not guaranteed that his concerns (in this case, his concern that the fruits of his labor belong to him) will be met.

(I suppose in a realistic sense people could be coerced into joining by being made "offers they cannot refuse" or what have you - and indeed history proceded more or less that way, as we know. It is the idealized sense we're interested in, however, because it is that toward which the system tends as well as that which is ultimately in everyone's personal best interest.)

Now, I should say again that I haven't read Sandefur's book, and that probably Noah is right that his argument falls victim to the naturalistic fallacy. I just wanted to say that that this line of argument does not in general tend to that fallacy, seen from the perspective I've outlined here - wherein nature is taken as a default state for the violation of which justifications must, or at least should, be given. I do indeed think political opinions which rely on what is natural and really present in human experience are a priori more likely to be just than those that do not, modulo, of course, what they take to be natural as well as their level of wilingness to modify or violate nature in order to attain such gains as might be accomplished by doing so.


At 5:03 AM, Blogger noahpoah said...

I agree with this line of reasoning, and I think this is what Sandefur is getting at by discussing things like the elderly having a hard time in nursing homes, the difficulties faced by adults who grew up on private-property-free kibutzim, and Soviet nonsense. This is why even this subsection is still pretty convincing.

If I'm remembering correctly, though, he doesn't argue this line explicitly. It would be a better subsection if he had, although I wouldn't have gotten a blog post out of it...


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