Why Do We Have Property Rights? Why Has Capitalism Been So Successful?

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.

Ian B., a commenter at Tim Worstall’s blog, claims the following:

“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?

8 Responses to “Why Do We Have Property Rights? Why Has Capitalism Been So Successful?”

  1. Tim Worstall Says:

    There was a lecturer who once said something like “even dogs in fields recognise property, why can’t you”? which I always thought illuminating.

  2. Db0 Says:

    I am surprised that you were taken in by the “animals recognise property” argument which does not really hold much water.

    First of all, the example used, Cats, is very particular and chosen mostly because of the assumed behaviour of it and the reasons it does it. But cats do not claim private property in the sense that Capitalist do. They claim possession of an area which is generally enough to sustain their diet. Not only that but the territorial control of cats differs among them, so while European wild-cats are far more wild and territorial, the Indian one, which humans have domesticated were more social (and thus willing to accept “friends”). The larger types of cat otoh are far more social as can be seen by packs of lions for example which never live alone.

    And that does not even bring into question that there are other animals which do NOT, in fact, recognise property at all or rather, recognise it only in the communal sense. From Ants, to rabbits, to monkeys, animals exhibit the exact opposite of what pro-capitalists think is living nature. The social and communal aspect. And in truth, the close we get to humans genetic cousins, the more we see this nature expressed.

    As such, the argument that animals prefer property rights is horribly wrong.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well yes, but also; even insofar as animals do fight for territory, it’s not really what we would recognise as legitimate property anyway. Which was what I mainly wanted to say – if I’d wanted to point to non-territorial animals, I could of course have done that.

  4. Db0 Says:

    Well, legitimate property is a socially constructed concept anyway. And those types of ownership that socialists recognise are generally close to the animal concepts of territorial control (ie either possession or communal ownership)

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I guess what I had in mind was species where competition for territory is very tied up with sexual competition and dominance competition – the big males who can get the best territory are then socially dominant etc. In other cases, of course, it is more like a group or individual defending their feeding grounds – although again, it’s 1) nothing to do with labour or creation, and 2) a product of who can fight who for it – when animals ‘recognise’ each other’s territory they’re not recognising each other’s right but each other’s might.

  6. Db0 Says:

    OK fair enough but I can’t avoid pointing out that the species who’s familiar structures are of this kind (ie Gorillas) are the exception rather than the rule in nature and in fact this type of social construction makes them ineffective within natural selection as we can see from their dwindling numbers.

    And even the point of animals respecting the area of others is also contentious. Most animals do not need to compete for territory but generally prefer migrations or cooperation during difficult times. Obviously there is still conflict on occasion, but once again, those species that do have this personality, are few and dwindling as cooperative animals are simply more competitive.

    Sorry for pressing the subject but as I’m reading Mutual Aid at the moment, all that stuff is still fresh in my mind 🙂

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Hmm I haven’t got round to looking at mutual aid, but from what little I know of animal behaviour I wasn’t picturing in my head of gorillas but of deer and seals (the noise in my head, of course, was the voice of David Attenborourgh). But even if you look at something like lions, often the dominant male can be forced out and replaced by an outside without the rest of the pride getting too involved – so it’s a mix of ‘communal territory’ and ‘the big male’s territory’ – rather analogous in some ways to tension between how, say, the land of Britain is supposedly the ‘public property’ of ‘the British people’, but in practice is often more like the ‘fiefdom’ of the British government (setting aside private land).

    I’d also been under the impression that individuals fighting to keep other individuals out of their territory was quite widespread – squirrels, mongooses, fish on a coral reef, sparrows, hummingbirds, etc.

  8. Db0 Says:

    Not so much really. Especially with birds, mutual aid runs rampart even cross-species, even amongst some of the birds of prey and instead of fighting for territory, they share its use (there is usually no actual need for competition). As for groups with Alpha males and the like, this is still something that occurs within a few particular species while the rest tend to use more communal living (monkeys, horses, buffalos etc).


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