From the Comments: A Note on Property Rights

A couple of very thoughtful comments have been posted in regards to property rights over the past couple of weeks, and I want to single them out for their thought-provoking content.  JuanBP writes:

Libertarian socialists (no, my dear American friends, that is not an oxymoron) believe in freedom of speech, association,religion and all other liberties cherished by Libertarians. Where we differ profoundly is in our understanding of what constitutes economic liberty – for we tend to consider that property, the very foundation of capitalism, is theft.

And from Benjamin David Steele:

There is one general difference I see between the left and the right which also would refer to the general difference between left-libertarians and right-libertarians. Those on the left tend to see human rights as prior to property rights. And those on the right tend to see property rights as prior to human rights. It is a difference of emphasis, but a very big difference in terms of practical application. As a left-winger with libertarian tendencies, I see no evidence that defending property rights inevitably leads to defending human rights.

Both of these comments provide great insights into one of the many myths espoused in political discourse throughout the world: that property rights are somehow different from any other human right.

Personally, I don’t see how the two can be separated at all.  Now, it is true that land is not something that should be enclosed and prohibited for use by others unless there is a payment to the community from which the land is taken.  After all, land is something that we all share in common with each other.

But if the land is properly compensated for, it goes without saying that whatever is produced on the land should belong to the landholders, capitalists, wage-earners, etc.  Right?

Am I missing something here?

Just consider this: if somebody decides he wants to enclose an area of land for the purpose of raising sheep or smelting iron, he would have to first of all find a spot of land to undertake his project on, correct?  In order to do this, and in order to ensure that the fruits of his labor (and the labor of others whom he may or may not employ) are protected, then he is going to have to come to some sort of agreement with the community in which the land is located.

Hold up!

Why does the guy who wants to enclose an area of land for some project that he has in mind want to ensure that the fruits of his labor are protected?  And how did labor get involved with property?

It would seem to me that the answer to this question is quite simple.  For just as one has a natural, human right to speak his mind, to worship as he pleases, and to hang out with others whom he deems worthy enough to be in his company, so too does a natural, human right appear in regards to keeping the fruits of one’s labor, and to have recourse through society if one’s labor is violated by another through force or fraud.

If one pays for the use of land, which is held in common, under the assumption that his title to the land and all he does with it will be protected by the entity to which he pays taxes, then it would seem as if labor is just another form of property.

In short, I don’t see how one’s right to private property is any different from one’s right to speak freely or worship as he pleases.  Just to beat a dead horse: let’s say that a government violates a property contract or seizes one’s possessions.  Now let’s say that a government decides to throw somebody in jail for speaking his mind.  What’s the difference?

Now, the argument could be made that private property as it is understood and protected by the Western legal structure today is unjust, and I could be convinced of this argument.  But it does not follow that because some rent-seekers have captured the rent that private property itself is somehow different from other human rights, or even the antithesis of human rights.

Am I missing something?  Feel free to comment and to critique my logical procession.  The best way to learn something is through arguing and debating the issues!

I’m on Spring Break right now and all of my girlfriends are home for the next two weeks, so you’ll probably be hearing a lot from me.  I just purchased my required readings for next quarter today, and have started in on Birds Without Wings, a novel by Louis de Bernières set in the waning days of the old Ottoman Empire.  I am also reading 1492 by Felipe Fernández-Armesto and re-reading Plato’s Republic.  I just finished up a brutal course with this professor on Ethics and Politics in Ancient Greece with a specific focus on Aristotle and Plato.  I am going to re-read all of the readings, just to have a better conception of what they mean.  Having a world-class scholar explain them to me doesn’t hurt, either!

I’ll keep you guys posted on my readings, if only to keep myself honest about my pace.

4 thoughts on “From the Comments: A Note on Property Rights

  1. Never understood how “property is theft.” Theft requires establishment of ownership, which is the core of property rights. I think Ayn Rand defined this as an “anti-concept,” using the premises of a concept to destroy said concept.

  2. Great read, my friend! My comment is mainly in replay to the comment made by JuanBP, as showcased in your post. Here goes.

    Could this just be a case wherein “Libertarian Socialists”, some of whom I find myself in agreement with on vast areas of subject matter, don’t even understand what their mentor was saying?

    Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a man I much-admire, and the author of such famous and quotable quotes as “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy”, also said these words “La propriété, c’est le vol!”, “Property is theft!”

    In the context of what he was saying, his use of the word “property” was in reference to “profit”, (rather than supposedly more morally acceptable or less morally reprehensible forms of property, such as land-in-use, otherwise unclaimed land, possessions, or earnings). Profit, according to him was something a “proprietor” stole from his employees.

    This is one ramification of the Labor Theory of Value (compare and contrast the Labor Theory of Property) at its clearest, and in its original form, but even many modern-day followers of Proudhon, particularly ‘mutualists’ as opposed to ‘socialists’, have rejected or modified this theory to the degree in which profit is acceptable or even a necessary ingredient in practice of rational economics.

    Remember, in the same book where he wrote that “Property is theft”, he also maintained that “Property is freedom”. He was referring to those variants of property he deemed more preferential, of course.

    Proudhon was a socialist in terms of his proposed goals, but rarely his proposed methods.

  3. Hi Brandon, thanks for the “like” on my post about John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy – that’s why I’m here now.

    ‘Libertarian Socialists’ have been mentioned above. If you pointed a gun to my head and forced me to pick a label, that might be it, so maybe I can add something relevant? My interpretation of Proudhon’s 1840 essay What is Property? is along similar lines to @keimh3regpeh2umeg, though I would express myself a little differently. I’ll begin by quoting J. S .Mill (seeing as that’s how I got here!) :

    “The laws of property have never yet conformed to the principles on which the justification of private property rests. They have made property of things which never ought to have been property, and absolute property where only a qualified property ought to exist”.

    Proudhon thought that if something is common ‘property’ (i.e. if it requires collective labour to produce useful outputs) those outputs should be owned in common and not individually owned. Such individual ownership is illegitimate, in his view, because it hands over the product of ‘the collective force’ (people working together can accomplish what each of us might do alone only very inexpediently, if at all) to an individual and calls it ‘property’. This is why he writes “property is theft”.

    @Happy Daze writes “Theft requires establishment of ownership, which is the core of property rights.” Proudhon might have liked that – as well as “property is theft” and “property is freedom” he also wrote “property is impossible” in the same essay! Proudhon’s idea here is that claims to individual ownership of a thing should be established on the principle that the ‘owner’ produces the thing through their efforts alone. If the thing is instead made by the collective efforts of many people working cooperatively, there is no legitimate claim to individual ownership of it (in his view, and mine). If property is “that which secures a legitimate claim to individual ownership over what has been produced by individual effort” then there can be no legitimate claim to individual ownership of what is collectively produced and hence no ‘property’. Hence “property is impossible” (in such cases).

    One has to bear in mind that the word “property” refers to a huge number of different specific social arrangements, some of which one might agree with and others of which one might not agree with. Proudhon’s aim in writing apparently contradictory assertions is to make this point manifest: “property is theft” and “property is impossible” refer to forms of ‘property’ Proudhon disagrees with, while “property is freedom” refer to forms he agrees with (i.e. “possession” over what is individually produced or occupied for sole individual use). I hope that helps clarify things a little 🙂

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