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.”

Old Property

Property is the basis for every right and ounce of autonomy we have. James Madison called property “that dominion which one claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” Madison went on to argue that basically every right we enjoy is reducible to a property right. We have property in our opinions, in the free use of our faculties, in the safety and liberty of our body, and so on. He believed that “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort” and a government can only be just if it “impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

But government has not remained impartial in this endeavor. It has become a massive property owner in its own right.  It has also become a gatekeeper, setting the terms for individuals’ uses of their own property. It has also become a broker and redistributor of property. And finally, it has =become a creator of property in the form of entitlements–what Charles Reich famously called “new property.” It’s this last role that I’d like to discuss here.

Government’s role as a creator of property has muddled and watered down the strength of property rights. The problem began when U.S. courts started grappling with claims that individuals had been deprived of a constitutional right when government stripped them of a government-created entitlement, such as social security.

Courts confronted with this problem basically held that while constitutional rights do attach to entitlements, the government has an increased authority to limit the rights to those entitlements. Essentially, since the government created the entitlement, the government can define the scope and terms of that entitlement.

This “new property” doctrine then became entangled with a different idea altogether. The United States Constitution protects against deprivations of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. The Constitution, however, does not define property. Courts have held instead that state law defines property , and the Constitution then protects rights to that property.

That does not mean, however, that all property can be whisked away at a whim as if it is all “new property.” Rather, even though state law may establish what property is, states do not have the power to mutate and redefine all property rights on a whim. In essence, there is “new property” and then there is “old property.”

“Old property” is a bundle of long-recognized property rights rooted in common law. But just because those rights have arisen from common law courts over the centuries does not mean that these are property rights created by government in the same sense as less-protected “new property.” There is a fundamental difference, for constitutional purposes, between government recognizing a boundary line and creating a food stamp program. In some sense, this difference strikes a deeper philosophical chord, one that distinguishes between positive law and natural law–or fundamental rights that are acknowledged and respected by government, and entitlements that are created and controlled by government.

What are these fundamental property rights? Most are intuitive and understood by babies as soon as their hands are capable of grasping. They include the right to exclude others (the first property right understood by all children everywhere), the right to quiet enjoyment, the right dispose of the property by sale or lease, the right to develop and improve the property, etc. That right extends to chattel and land–things the government does not create but simply exist and are brought under human ownership through a first-in-time rule or a transfer.

The idea that “new property” deserves lesser protection because government dictates its bounds has bled over into the “old property” rights. This stems from confusion between government recognizing the existence of a fundamental right and government creating an entitlement. Extensive permitting regimes have only exacerbated this confusion. When local governments demand a permit before a property owner can do something with their land, the government looks upon that permit as an entitlement–a privilege and not a right. Thus, “new property” ideas come to overlay and suffocate “old property.” As permitting regimes expand, the world of “old property” retracts. But that permit is not a “new property” entitlement–it’s a condition placed upon a fundamental background right–an intruder upon natural law. When a permitting authority tries to strip away or deny a permit, that denial should be subjected to the full rigor of constitutional scrutiny offered to “old property,” not the weak sauce protections for entitlements.

If a government is only just if it limits itself to protecting what is ours, as Madison believed, then we don’t have many just governments left to us. Courts could help by establishing a clearer distinction between the old and the new forms of property so that governments can’t get away with redefining or stripping away fundamental property rights.

Free Immigration is not a Classical Liberal Right

My eye caught this article, which stands in a long tradition among libertarians.

It is the kind of fairy tale theory that gives liberal thought a bad name in general, and classical liberal thought in particular, as it is often confused with libertarianism in the US.

My problem with arguments like these is that they make logical sense, but are practically non-sensical at the same time. I am more than willing to admit that in the ideal libertarian world free immigration indeed is a right. Yet I do not think arguments like these help us to get that libertarian ideal one inch closer. On the contrary, I am afraid it only fosters disdain and outright disbelief, even among potential supporters.

The main problem of course is that there is no ideal libertarian world. Yet libertarians all too often do not seem to care about that. They rather continue to argue about what fairy tales makes the most logical sense, rather than using their sometimes brilliant minds to come up with ideas and theories to actually foster a more liberal world. Let alone a classical liberal or a libertarian world.

To make a case for free immigration on the basis of rights is to deny the property rights of current populations. Roughly, that argument goes like this: in this world most immigrants will make some claim to these existing property rights once they arrive in their host country. Higher taxation to pay for the immigration system is one thing, but also think of housing, claims to health and medical systems, social welfare programs, schools, roads, et cetera. The majority of the current population has put money into (these) public goods, certainly in Europe, and thus property rights were created. These  should be protected and can only consensually be changed.

Also, there are more intangible effects, think for example of the change in culture and social cohesion, certainly before the new arrivals are fully integrated. Hayek warned against precisely these destabilizing effects of large groups of immigrants entering a relatively homogenous territory, drawing on his own Viennese experience in the interwar years. He openly supported Margaret Thatcher to this end in a letter to The Times on February 11, 1978, which were followed by further explanations in the same newspaper in the weeks thereafter.

This is not to say we should all build (or rather attempt to build) walls, or close off borders completely. Some form of immigration is indeed called for, if only out of humanitarian perspective. That is something completely different than free immigration though.

Mending Wall

Robert Frost’s lovely poem, “Mending Wall,” says something profound about the importance of the institution of property. The poem is about Frost and his neighbor meeting together to piece together a crumbling wall between their two properties. Frost pokes fun at the tradition; without a wall, will Frost’s apple trees sneak across the property line and gobble up the cones piled up beneath the neighbors’ pines? As the two walk the line, replacing a stone here and a stone there, the neighbor, in an almost ritualistic mantra, responds to Frost’s skepticism with the well-worn line, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Some can and have interpreted Frost’s poem as a gentle argument against erecting barriers that separate us. I think that’s a mistake. Of course, I admit to overlaying my own political and philosophical views atop his writing. But with that in mind, the poem tells me to that clear property lines do indeed make good neighbors. In fact, this wall is what draws Frost and his neighbor together in a valuable social ritual. Even in the absence of an obvious need for the wall, the tradition stokes good will.

In a broader and more directly political sense, property does indeed make good neighbors. Where property rules are unclear or have not been established, social strife and distrust tend to proliferate. Where they are established by law or custom, parties have a neutral arbiter whose presence alone allows them to avoid dispute and uncertainty.

This seems to hold true on small and large scales. Parents of young children have all learned that allowing kids common ownership of toys is a recipe for constant conflict. If parents establish clear ownership of childrens’ possessions, then order settles in and kids can learn important social values like sharing–a virtue that will never arise if property rules are unclear or non-existent. Truly, in a home of common ownership, children only learn to cling desperately to everything and not give an inch.

The same appears true for communities and nations. Where countries do not have established customs and laws governing property, strife, distrust, and corruption fester (Russia is, unfortunately, a prime example of this problem). A similar phenomenon seems to have played its role in the rapid demise of the various utopian communal arrangements that cropped up during the Second Great Awakening in 19th century America.

Frost’s repeated refrain throughout his poem is: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I think Frost’s neighbor had the right of it–communities survive and thrive thanks to walls. We should take time to mend them.

Nightcap

  1. The street gangs of Weimar Berlin Marilyn Macron, Los Angeles Review of Books
  2. The road to compromise (LGBT and religion) Mark David Hall, Law & Liberty
  3. Angels through the ages Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Spectator
  4. France and Africa Dave Glovsky, Africa is a Country

Nightcap

  1. Collapsing certainties: art and its social and cultural setting Partha Mitter, Cairo Review
  2. Native Americans: victims of bureaucracy Michael Adamson, the Freeman
  3. Native American reservations: “socialist archipelago” Andrei Znamenski, Mises Daily
  4. The rise of Russia’s GRU Military Intelligence Service Christian Esch, der Spiegel

A Millennial’s New Perspective on Home Ownership

The last few years I’ve loudly protested that home ownership is overrated; it’s a bad investment plus lots of responsibility. And yet, this summer my fiance and I bought a 100 year old house on the south shore of Long Island.

Yes, I have lost my mind.

I basically stand by my earlier position, but with greater nuance. Owning a home is a complicated undertaking. But it’s given me a greater appreciation for the nuance involved in managing real estate.

Home ownership is a great big Gordian knot of inter-dependencies. It’s massive set of knowledge problems wrapped in externality problems.There’s a massive role for local knowledge which means policy makers’ attention should be less focused on things like home ownership rates, and more on guiding the right people into the right places to take advantage of that local knowledge.

With local knowledge comes local politics. I don’t know anything about local politics, but expect more posts about what’s going on in my town hall over the next few decades.

So what have I learned in this first month of home ownership?

  • There’s something to be said about pride in ownership

It’s still a real trip to turn on my lights in my kitchen so I can do my laundry in my laundry machines. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it this much. The endowment effect is real. One effect has been to increase my interest in contributing to local public goods via civic engagement and other routes.

I haven’t been to a town hall meeting yet, but I plan on going to one tomorrow. I suspect it will be awful. But I’m walking distance, so I’ll be a little bit drunk.

  • The real estate market has some serious frictions

This might be obvious, but it’s interesting. There are artificial and natural obstacles to the efficient use of real estate. Transaction costs are significant and property rights issues are hairy.

Buying a house is a complicated transaction and going through the process has really made clear to me how difficult it is to commodify land. Each piece of land has a unique location and history. Information asymmetries are substantial. The neighborhood you’re buying into is utterly out of your control. Put simply: Amazon won’t be selling real estate any time soon.

Part of the reason I’m happy with buying a house is that our rent had been increasing about $100/month/year. Land lords absolutely take advantage of real estate frictions to charge as much as they can. The alternative (which I chose) is to lock-in to a specific property.

  • The required knowledge to operate a home is significant and difficult to evaluate.

It takes a lot of knowledge to manage a house. If I were to take a wild guess (at this non-quantifiable variable), I’d say that between 5% and 50% of a homeowner’s brain is necessary to operate a house. Even if you bring in experts to do everything, evaluating those experts is a lot of work.

There are repairs and upgrades to make, and my formal education prepared me for exactly none of those projects. On the other hand, I’ve got the Internet. Without YouTube and Reddit I’d be a half dozen unlucky mistakes away from homelessness.

On the other other hand, I’ve learned a ton of stuff I’ve got no use for. Like how to grow asparagus (which it turns out it isn’t worth doing except out of boredom).

You can’t evaluate knowledge until it’s too late. And there’s more to learn than you ever will, so you have to make mistakes. It’s true of home ownership and it’s true of life more generally.

  • Gardening is a real trip.

In History of Economic Thought professor Gonzalez shared a story about two economists meeting in Switzerland during WWII. On showing his vegetable garden to the visiting economist, the visitor said “that’s not a very efficient way to grow food,” to which the gardener said, “yes, but it’s a very efficient way to grow utility.”

I’ve wanted to garden for some time, but the market for gardens is thin. So now I’m starting with almost no useful experience. My public stance has been that lawns are boring and dumb. But figuring out how to manage a little ecosystem ain’t easy. I now get why someone would just put in a lawn and be done with it.

At my old apartment complex the entire ecosystem was made of: humans, trees, lawns, cockroaches. I suspect the cockroaches did so well because all their competition was poisoned away. As an emergent order guy, I’m not really into that. But I get it now. In the same way the king wants everyone living in neat little taxable rows my life would be easier if I could just slash and burn all the complexity out of my yard.

Tl;dr: My biggest surprise as a new home owner is just how big a cognitive load owning a house is. You hear homeowners talk about how much work it can be, but I think it’s rare to hear someone talk about how much know-how is required.

Given the capacity to generate externalities, I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more public policy devoted to issues of home ownership* (beyond subsidizing finance and increasing barriers to entry). I supposed I’ll learn a lot more about these issues as I learn about local politics.

*That isn’t to say I think it’s a good idea to get the government involved in trying to tell people how to go about the business of daily life. I think homeowners are (basically) doing fine left to their own devices.