Sunday, November 01, 2009

Another examination of property rights

Another examination of property rights

Sandusky County Politics Examiner Michael Stahl recently wrote a column examining property rights. His premise is that any property you set down can be ethically taken by a passerby. Something always seems fundamentally wrong with this argument, but other than "We'd die without property" I can't find good reasons to disagree. But, maybe that is the only argument necessary. "Utilitarianism" doesn't set well with me, though.

He says
"This does not mean property cannot exist, but rather that it would be a very
different creature, likely more personal, and probably less defined. If you have
something in your pocket, it would require force to remove it (or the pants)
from you. However, if you set it down and walk away, it no longer requires force
for someone to pick it up. Even if it required a huge amount of work for you to
craft, or you had it for a very long time-non-aggression does not have the
qualifier: unless you really want something."

Nothing can be counted as "yours" except that which you can carry with you in this case, right? I'm wondering how you can be free if you can't count on your store of food being there when you come back to it. We would be forced to become nomads, yet even nomads have property such as a tent that they can count on as "theirs" even if it is out of sight. You couldn't ever leave your larder to collect more food, so it wouldn't be possible to prepare for winter or other times of scarcity. And unless you could claim a location as yours, such as the land where your larder exists, the same difficulty arises. It wouldn't even be right to defend your larder from thieves if you weren't sitting right on top of it. If you had wandered off to find more food, and you came "home" to discover someone else sitting in your larder stuffing their face and backpack with the food you had cached, it wouldn't be right to do anything to this person, even though in many cases this would doom you to death. We would be reduced to less than animals.

What does the natural world have to say? Many other animals have rudimentary property rights. As has been pointed out, if you don't believe that, just try to take a dog's food away. They also have territories that they scent-mark and defend. Other creatures manage it without government, why would humans be less capable? I think a big difference between humans and the other animals is our more highly developed sense of ethics. In most cases we may not want to admit when we do something wrong, but we know instinctively when we do. It takes a great deal of brainwashing to subdue that ethical sense.

Sometimes people say that the reason property rights are not real is that without government to "enforce" property rights they don't exist. That's not correct. There is no need to fall back on a government to defend your temporarily "abandoned" property for you. No one ever "needs" government. The question is, how can you envision a system that would allow for defense of your property without setting up a government and without violating the equal rights of others? I can see ways to agree to recognize the real estate property rights of another person without depending on a government to do so. There would be no government enforcing such property rights, but there would also be no government tracking down and punishing a property owner who does dare to defend his property. I need no government to force me to keep my agreements and respect my neighbors' (or a stranger's) property. It is simply a component of ethical behavior. This hits on another point I have made- The Zero Aggression Principle is necessary for ethical behavior, but it is not sufficient.

Here's a bizarre tangent to consider: picking something up off the ground actually does require an initiation of force. It is not initiated force against the body of a person, but it is an initiation of physical force to counter inertia and the force of gravity. Is it any less wrong simply because the "victim" isn't aware of the initiation of force until he returns to where he left his property? You could say a sleeping or drugged person isn't aware of force that is initiated against them at the moment it happens either. OK, so maybe I am getting way "out there". I'm just looking at all the angles here.

Now, if this interpretation of property is the reality of freedom, I am willing to accept it and deal with the consequences. Just because something leads to uncomfortable conclusions or makes life hard doesn't make it wrong. Yet it doesn't seem to hold up to scrutiny.