Real Decision Rights Theory and Political Coalitions

Libertarians understand these two big ideas:

  1. A system of individual rights can allow widespread cooperation and human flourishing.
  2. The world is full of emergent orders, like markets, with aggregate outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts.

But commitment to the first idea often blinds us to the full implications of the second.

Complex adaptive systems involve an infinity of illegible signals involving cooperation and competition in networks so complex that it would be impossible to replicate their success in any conceivable top-down system. The market is a discovery procedure. But the “it” that is the market is a collective thing. It’s a jointly produced phenomenon and it’s impossible to split it up without fundamentally changing it.

Likewise, a system of rights (including the rights underlying a functioning market) is a jointly produced common good.

Why does it mean anything to say that I own my laptop? Because when push comes to shove (if I’m willing to shove hard enough), other members of my community are willing to act in ways (formal and informal) that enforce my property right. (Interesting aside: If I reported my laptop stolen to the local police, they wouldn’t do anything about it. Perhaps this reflects the median voter’s level of regard for other people’s property rights…)

Ownership is not as simple as “I own this piece of property, period.” Instead, to own something is to have some bundle of rights to make particular decisions. I can decide what to plant in my garden, but I can’t decide to build a nuclear reactor in my front yard. I don’t need to go through some elaborate chain of natural rights reasoning to argue that your negative right to avoid externalities supersedes my positive right to do a thing. Doing so might be a useful exercise to see how (in)consistent our ruleset is. But the real system is much simpler (and much more ad hoc). Rights are as rights are enforced.

What am I driving at here? First, that we should be dealing with property decision rights as they are more than we deal with them as they ought to be. Second, individual rights require collective support. This puts constraints on how we move towards our Utopias.

Debating/convincing our intellectual opponents is necessary, but it’s really just a negotiation tactic. Discounting idiotic opponents is reasonable in the intellectual sphere, but we can’t just overlook the fact that those opponents are part of the environment we’re trying to shape. We don’t necessarily have to throw them a bone, but when we don’t make some group part of our coalition, we have to expect someone else will.

Our normative theories will convince us that group A can’t make group B’s lives worse for the sake of A’s ego. But if A perceives the subjective value of that ego boost to be high enough, and if A has the relevant rights, then B had better look out.

Improving the world isn’t simply a matter of making the right arguments well. We have to be entrepreneurial, and keep an eye out for how others might do the same. Political entrepreneurship means looking for the under-priced voters which is exactly what Trump did in 2016. He found a group A full of low-status voters who had been discounted by the political establishment. And because their rights to shape the collective outcome went unexercised so long, it was that much more disruptive when they were finally brought to the table. Likewise, BLM protests reveal that there is a group B that is ready to throw their weight around.

That leaves a big pile of questions. What is the cost of pride? How can we ensure people have enough dignity that they won’t want to destroy what a functioning (if imperfect) society? How do we account for potential political energy (particularly when we remember that voting is only a tiny part of political participation)?

I don’t know the answers, but I know this: we can’t escape getting our hands dirty and engaging in some political exchange. I don’t like it, but I’m not the only one deciding.

Proposal: Let’s stop calling them “Property Rights”

I think an alternative that is both clearer and more general is “Decision Rights”. When I teach Coase Theorem I use both terms, and (I think) students have an easier time grasping it when they realize that property rights are really just rights to make certain decisions. I can’t see a good reason to keep using the term property rights except that by historical accident it’s become entrenched jargon.

Property sounds like “stuff” to most people. And property rights sounds like “owning stuff”. This raises two points that need clarifying:

1. There is more to the world than just the physical, and there is more to property than just stuff.

I would argue that economic rights are human rights. (I would also argue that corporations are owned and staffed by humans but are not humans themselves.) And I would say that right to self-ownership is a particular type of economic/human right.

When we talk about environmental issues, the root problem is usually over some shared resource (e.g. we can’t neatly privatize the atmosphere and let now-private conflicts be resolved in court). It’s much easier to focus in on the relevant particulars when our language directs us to what’s really at stake (e.g. whether I can decide to put more than X amount of pollution into the atmosphere without legal consequences).

2. I own a bit of land and I can make many decisions about how to use it. But I can’t set up a nuclear reactor or burn a massive pile of debris. My ownership is not carte blanche, but a bundle of different rights. I have the right to use (for normal domestic purposes), to exclude, to sell, etc. By “I own” what I really mean is “I can make a particular set of decisions.

I hope my hard core libertarian friends will agree with me that the decisions I can make are not limited by what is explicitly legislated. I suspect my interventionist friends will disagree. But I also think interventionists can agree that it’s more reasonable for me to have a set of decision rights (how ever nebulous the extent of that set is) than some more magical sounding dominion/ownership over a particular fifth of an acre.

The notion of decision rights makes it clearer what political debates are over. If we want to pass a law saying you can’t put a pool in your yard because of spotted owls, “property rights” muddies the discussion. The law would take away a particular property right–which is to say, the right to make a particular decision. But the debate is going to devolve into “you’re taking our land” vs. “no we aren’t.” It’s close to the real issue, but not close enough.

tl;dr: When we talk about “property rights” or ownership what we really mean is a set of various decisions that one has a right to make. Those decisions might be over the use of what we traditionally call property (e.g. my yard), but it might also be over shared resources (e.g. the atmosphere), decisions with collective impacts (e.g. ecosystem management–or lack thereof), or socially constructed issues (e.g. intellectual property). The term “property rights” is not clear or obvious (particularly for people who aren’t already likely to read this blog). A better term would be “decision rights.”