Tag Archives: libertarianism

What is Property?

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

“Property is theft!”

– Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? (1840)

“Property is freedom.”

– Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? (1840)

(That’s not very helpful, PJ.)

Last week, I discussed some libertarian confusions about the idea of property and the human body. In that post, I mentioned Locke’s theory of property – the idea that we have some “natural” right in objects that we have “mixed our labor” with. Locke has been a big influence on certain brands of libertarianism, but it was the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick who pointed out the problem with this theory. He imagines pouring his tomato juice into the sea to try to acquire the ocean. Other Enlightenment philosophers, like Kant and Rousseau, held more realistic views of property. Property is not a relationship between a person and objects, but a relationship between two or more persons regarding objects. If I own a shovel, then my rights to the shovel do not describe my relationship to the shovel. My ownership of the shovel describes my relationship to others with regards to the shovel. Principally, I can use the shovel and they can’t, unless I give my permission.

We generally think of our property as objects that we have “sole and despotic dominion” over, to use Blackstone’s phrase. The concept of property is not as simple as that, not even in the time of Blackstone. Property, instead, is composed of a “bundle of rights”. The basic rights given by most economic texts will include:

  • the right to use an object;
  • the right to the income from its use;
  • the right to transfer ownership rights.

But this does not exhaust all the possible rights in property. The British jurist, Honore, identifies five additional rights:

  • the right to possess the object;
  • the right to manage the object, that is, make decisions regarding the object;
  • the right to the capital of the object, or the wealth produced by the object;
  • the right to secure the object;
  • the “absence of term”, that is, there is no point at which you stop owning the good;

Interestingly, Honore adds two duties in property: the “prohibition of harmful use” and the “liability to execution”. The latter means that the property may be taken to satisfy other obligations, such as the repayment of debts. Most of us understand that our right to property is not infinite. We have duties to society as much as society has duties to us.

The argumentative strategy of libertarians and other property-centered ideologies is, like Locke, to find a “natural” right to property. That means a right that would exist for people in some hypothetical world without society. Early modern political philosophers called this the “state of nature”. Such rights would be somehow fundamental to our thought and would not be dependent on social recognition for their reality. If we could find rights that exist without society, then every society would have to recognize them. As discussed last week, Locke’s strategy to make property a natural right failed, and similar strategies also fail.

Property is almost entirely a right created by social institutions, principally the state. Without the state, one person could not accumulate enormous quantities of wealth. There would be no property, except what one person or groups of persons could protect for themselves, or what others would be willing to accept. As such, property arrangements are also alterable by the state, as in taxation, regulation, and expropriation.

The only exception to the social dependence of property rights could be personal possessions. I’m actually in possession of several personal objects, and violence, threat, or fraud would be necessary to remove them from me. That would be unacceptable because we do recognize prohibitions against violence and deception, regardless of social arrangements. But that is because they are acts of violence against persons, not for some natural right to property. This is the kind of property for which “property is freedom”.

If we lived in a democratic state, the people could alter the social arrangements of property as they pleased. This would only violate anyone’s fundamental rights if personal possession is violated. Property is a bundle of legal rights, and we can rearrange those rights to create new forms of property. For example, the public could demand that its natural resources be returned to them after a certain period in as good a quality as their original state. Also, the rights in property to an enterprise could be held in common among a community. The right to capital and income from assets could be conditional on access and use by the public. Before the 20th century, such diverse property regimes were considered ordinary. In fact, most societies have enjoyed the common ownership of land. This is why the modern imposition of private property means that “Property is theft!”.

Of course, we do not have a democratic state, we have a plutocratic state. Until that is fixed, the American state will continue to deliver the wealth of society to the ruling class.

Libertarian Confusions

I’ve been engaged in a pleasant discussion with a libertarian in the comments section over at Matt Bruenig’s website. Bruenig himself is a practiced expert at destroying libertarian arguments. There is one common libertarian claim in particular that I find odd. Libertarians (or at least some brand of libertarian) categorize all rights as property rights. Thus, any infringement on one’s property rights is an infringement on the fundamental freedom of that individual. If laws exist to regulate my behavior, then that means if I violate those laws, the state will march in to take away my property. For example, if I violate the law against drug use (never!), then the state will come and throw me in prison. In this case, the property removed from me is… my body. My body is my most important piece of property of all!

The libertarian error is inherited, in a mutated form, from John Locke, the 17th century English philosopher. According to Locke, my first possession is my body, and anything my body “mixes with”, through its labor, becomes my property. This core concept of self-ownership is meant to explain how we have a moral right to our property. All of my original rights are property rights regarding my body. From this it follows that all property is an extension of those original self-ownership rights. Thus, any violation of my property is a violation of me.

Philosophers like Locke were looking for a way to create a “natural” right to property. His solution, almost alone among early modern political philosophers, makes property a moral right that predates a civil, organized society. Before human beings formed societies, with all the laws that follow, we recognized each others’ claim to pieces of the world because of the work performed on those pieces. Locke claimed that this was a rule that we recognized without the need for government. But this cannot be the case.

I will leave aside the empirical fact that Locke’s rule is not found among existing paleolithic peoples. Human beings closest to our natural state share in common.

Instead, we can just look at this logically. If self-ownership is the most fundamental sort of property, then every property right should be true of my self-ownership rights. Property is not a simple concept, but is actually composed of a number of rights, such as the right to use property, or the right to benefit from the property. One of these rights is the right of transmission. This is the right to transfer property from me to another. However, my body cannot be transferred. That is, my body cannot be removed from me and given to someone else. Therefore, because rights to my body cannot encompass all property rights, my body cannot be my property.

The response here is that, when I sign a contract obligating me to perform some action, I am transferring at least a share in my body to another party. I can even sell all my actions, into the future, to someone else, thus becoming a slave. But then other property rights will go unfulfilled. A person by their nature makes decisions, but property is subject to the decisions of its owner. This is the right of the owner to manage his property. But the slave-owner only manages by ‘consultation’ with ‘the previous owner’. Thus, the slave-owner never truly owns. Owning another person, in the sense of having all the rights of property in that person, is impossible.

This belief in the body-as-property is the source of many of libertarianism’s theoretical confusions. Of course, I do not “own” my body – I am my body. Violations against my body are violations of me as a person, not my property. We dislike violence and slavery, not because they are violations of property, but because they are violations of persons. Property, as philosophers after Locke recognized, is a social arrangement about objects, and as such, we can make new arrangements as we think are beneficial.

Libertarianism is False

At Democracy in Principle, we hold that the purpose of any society ought to be to secure the blessings of liberty.  That’s why the uniquely American philosophy called “libertarianism” is so distressing.  Libertarians have a lot of good positions on social issues, being opposed to the War on Drugs and paternalism, as well as political issues, like the protection of civil liberties, exposing police violence, and opposing foreign wars.  However, this all comes to nothing when it comes to the central source of oppression in most people’s lives – their jobs.  According to libertarians, the market makes everyone free, regardless of what kind of treatment employees have to submit to on the job as a result of selling their labor on the labor market.

In the past week, Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch, have written an excellent, extended critique of libertarianism.  The criticism focuses on the practical failings of libertarianism, primarily that the libertarian focus on contract and property rights do not actually maximize individual liberty, most glaringly, the liberty of workers in a labor market.  (The discussion continues on Crooked Timber, and for reference, here is the entry for libertarianism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) read more »