Via. Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling I came across a series of interlinked posts discussing property rights and their justifications or lack thereof (which I think were sparked by Chris’ posts about copyright).
Now I won’t rehearse everything I’ve argued on this subject, but I will offer a few observations.
“Animals (indluding humans) tend towards asserting property rights. My cat believes she owns the garden, and forcibly ejects other cats from it. It’s just something animals do…You’re free to choose which sort of society you want but, like my cat, I will personally prefer the property rights one.”
What’s interesting about this is it’s actually pretty much my view – and in sharp conflict with the way that both right-libertarians and many socialists talk.
For the latter, the key issue for understanding property is work, creation of goods. There are then different arguments about whether entrepreneurs or inheritors or capitalists ‘have the right’ to their wealth, or whether in fact the workers who collectively produce that wealth ‘have the right’ to it.
But what both myself and Ian suggest is that while these reflections may be true or false, they have nothing to do with the reality of property rights. That reality is instead a descendent of the territorial instinct – that is, of animals competing for power.
Cats, after all, don’t claim a territory because they have created it. They claim it because they are driven to seek power (including the forms of power that give security and freedom) and they assert this in a way that conflicts with the same drive in others.
But this immediately links big property-owning capitalists, not (as right-libertarians would have it) with everyone who struggles against coercive political power, but with that political power itself. They are exhibiting the same drive as warlords, monarchs, presidents, and generals, but in a slightly different form.
In animal terms, they are like that enormous lazy alpha male who devotes all their energy, not to the ‘productive’ activity of hunting, but to fighting other enormous males for territorial control and then getting everyone else to give them food. And despite their impressive demeanour, such individuals are, aside from their reproductive function, essentially parasitic on their ‘society’.
(Perhaps that reproductive function is the analogue of ‘capital allocation’ – the big parasite is doing something somewhat useful, but it could be done much more easily and efficiently by others and without so much bullying)
This of course leads from the abstract ‘rights’ question into the ‘practical usefulness’ question. And we see very familiar lines being trotted out. From ‘Freeborn John’:
“Private property works. It has delivered extraordinary gains in well-being for every human alive. Only where property rights are abrogated, in countries with arbitrary and corrupt governments, do people languish in genuine, as opposed to relative, poverty.
But most importantly of all, every time there has been an attempt to radically impose the imaginary agency of reward for effort, there has been genuine horror: totalitarianism, oppression, secret police, prison camps.”
Now this argument is open to several hundred objections. Chris points out the many forms of limited property rights that seem to have worked as well as ‘full’ ones, sometimes radically different, and several examples where productivity seems to be independent of property rights and their strength. We also need to factor in the secret police and prison camps that have been necessary to defend property rights, and the existence of libertarian socialist experiments. And the effects of imperialism on both making some countries rich and making others poor. And question the striking claim that all absolute poverty exists in countries which in some sense ‘abrogate property rights’ (in a stronger way than others).
But more importantly than anything, we have to ask how we can dis-entangle the effects of a cluster of things:
- scientific inquiry with sufficient resources to make progress
- scientific inquiry free from political interference
- formal equality of opportunity, as against feudal privileges
- tolerance of diversity
- property rights that are strong against the government
- property rights that are strong against the poor
- property rights that are strong against the hereditary nobility
- governments that reflect the interests of business
- governments that don’t reflect the interests of brain-dead aristocrats
- governments that aren’t purely concerned with personal enrichment
- a market economy
- an economy that can rapidly implement technological advances
What does look quite clear, from where I’m standing, is that this general cluster has been shockingly successful at raising standards of living in some ways (and comparison quite poor in other ways).
But which of the components are responsible for that? Perhaps it’s the market economy and the strong property rights. But conversely, perhaps it’s simply having a culture and an institutional structure that enables rapid scientific and technological progress. Perhaps it is also necessary to have an economy that can rapidly implement those advances – but how many forms of such economy are there? And how are these different conditions related to one another?
It seems more reasonable to me to suppose that the operative issue is about getting rid of feudalism and replacing it with a rationalistic and scientific culture, and that these could be shared by a communist society. But it clearly seems more reasonable to others that the operative issue is the fairly specific economic features of capitalism.
And I’m not sure how that disagreement could get an empirical settlement, without some more history being produced (fortunately, history is an abundantly available by-product of the present). How would we find the historical data to ‘test’ the competing hypotheses – especially given that all of the relevant concepts (‘capitalism’, ‘rationalism’, ‘progress’) would need to be made quantifiable?