The Just-So Story of “Property Rights” and Anarcho-Capitalism

Now, I’m no philosopher, or political scientist, or student of history, or social activist, or self-editer, but I know how to type, and I have some free time, and Wikipedia is available, and I have some things on my mind that I need to express, and no one but my thirty daily readers (two regular!) to listen to my 1200-word glurge against Certain Political Theories put forth by Certain People in general, and triggered tonight by a report on what a Certain AM Talk Show Host said in particular, most of which I have already forgotten.

We get into these heated conversations, these Certain People and I, because They have chosen Anarcho-Capitalism as the Morally Correct Way to Live, and it creeps into conversations that are unrelated to politics, and then I get mad. I have many, many beefs with anarcho-capitalism, and I am not at all convinced it is a morally correct way to live, and it might even be silly, and it’s certainly never going to be a system that ever gets implemented in a society of any considerable size, and to get all hot and bothered about it not existing is a waste of time, but I’m unprincipled like that. Also, it’s boring and unimaginative, and that’s really beside the point. And I started to type out a paraphrased transcript of the dinner conversation, but that was also boring, and it ended up being mostly about “Property Rights.”

Ah, Property Rights! Property rights are defined in a very certain way to make all of anarcho-capitalism possible. Let’s start at a definition from Wikipedia’s page on the topic, which starts with an excerpt from a Murray Rothbard text:

The basic axiom of libertarian political theory holds that every man is a self owner, having absolute jurisdiction over his own body. In effect, this means that no one else may justly invade, or aggress against, another’s person. It follows then that each person justly owns whatever previously unowned resources he appropriates or “mixes his labor with”.

(For some reason, intellectual labor is exempt from this definition, but I digress.)

Then the collective author that is Wikipedia expounds on Rothbard’s points and makes this claim:

Rothbard’s defense of the self-ownership principle stems from what he believed to be his falsification of all other alternatives, namely that either a group of people can own another group of people, or the other alternative, that no single person has full ownership over one’s self. Rothbard dismisses these two cases on the basis that they cannot result in a universal ethic, i.e., a just natural law that can govern all people, independent of place and time. The only alternative that remains to Rothbard is self-ownership, which he believes is both axiomatic and universal.

There is so much in here that’s completely arbitrary and not axiomatic and not universal that I don’t even know where to begin. So I’ll make a numbered list.

1. Bodily autonomy is said to be property ownership.

2. Having a body “justly” gives you access to any unclaimed “resources” you can grab.

3. This is natural. And not just natural. It’s a natural law.

4. Everyone agrees. It’s obvious.

Point 1
The basic axiom of libertarian political theory holds that every man is a self owner, having absolute jurisdiction over his own body. In effect, this means that no one else may justly invade, or aggress against, another’s person.

Bodily autonomy is vitally important, but the idea that a body is property is certainly not universal. For someone to accept that a body is property, they’d first have to accept that property exists. There are, in fact, people who deny that property exists, or that property can be held by one person if it means that person claims exclusive use of a resource that would benefit everyone.

Point 2
It follows then that each person justly owns whatever previously unowned resources he appropriates or “mixes his labor with”.

It certainly does not follow that bodily autonomy means anything is yours for the taking if no one has it yet. This relies completely again on the idea that everyone agrees private property exists, and believing in bodily autonomy but not private property is not a contradiction.

Points 3 & 4
Rothbard dismisses these two cases on the basis that they cannot result in a universal ethic, i.e., a just natural law that can govern all people, independent of place and time. The only alternative that remains to Rothbard is self-ownership, which he believes is both axiomatic and universal.

Property is a social construct. Law is a social construct. There is nothing natural about it. There is definitely nothing universal about it, either–all you have to do is look around at the world to see the many, many solutions to resource allotment that humans have devised. For each you’ll find a defender, and the defender will always explain that this particular system is just.

It is here when I usually get accused of cultural relativism, and here where I begin a simplistic rant.

What I love about the quibbles over the word “just” is that it gets caught up in what is most “efficient” (free market talk) and there are always a repeat of “natural law” and “property rights are moral” and then usually the name of some Enlightenment philosopher is invoked. And boy do I hate to say this, but those Enlightenment philosophers were writing from a pretty high position of power, and the arguments they came up with about natural law and property rights and self-ownership (backed by their enthusiasm for this newfangled fad of Scientific Method) pretty much justified the systems of power from which they personally benefited. Handy, that! Explained a lot of colonialism and continent-grabbing, too. It was only rational to believe that the vast resources of, say, the Americas were “unowned” (by people who thought about property in a different way) and thus free for the taking by any (white) person who wanted to mix his labor (his kind of labor, of course) with it. It’s what Nature wanted. They all agreed. Well, some agreed. The people with enough money to do something about it, anyway. But how could they be wrong? They had philosophy on their side.

/simplistic rant

This crap thinking (I do not mean to imply that the whole of the Enlightenment was crap thinking) is still going on today. Consider the unparaphrased conversation from tonight’s dinner. The EU is perpetrating abuse on its people because it is using the resources of one country to bail out other countries. It’s taking THEIR wealth and giving it to OTHER PEOPLE, who don’t deserve it. Well, boo-hoo. That’s what being in a union means. It’s everyone’s wealth. In fact, from their perspective, NOT sharing is an abuse.

simplistic rant rises like a zombie from the dead

These people have a different idea of what property is than you do, is all. And rather than acknowledging that it’s possible not only to come to different conclusions from the same premises based on what you value, it’s possible to start with different premises. And suddenly switching gears to play Concern Troll (Oh! But it isn’t sustainable! What will they do when their system collapses?) is just a way for you to avoid considering other people’s points of view. And so what if it isn’t sustainable? At least they are doing what they believe is the right thing now. Not everything is about money. And if they end up bankrupt, it still doesn’t mean they were abusing their citizens. It just means that maybe they didn’t have economic good sense.

Postscript
I find information in a lot of unexpected places, and it was a post on PZ Myers’s Pharyngula blog which took me to the Charlie’s Diary blog by Charles Stross that put this critique of Libertarianism (not anarcho-capitalism, but the critique still holds) in my hands:

Economic libertarianism is based on the same reductionist view of human beings as rational economic actors as 19th century classical economics — a drastic over-simplification of human behaviour.

Humans are not rational actors, except for sometimes, but maybe not when it matters. There are lots of books (such as Why Choose This Book?:  How We Make Decisions by Read Montague) and podcasts (such as Planet Money’s “Gold: The 4,000-Year-Old Bubble”) that explain the variety of ways people do not act in their own economic self-interest, and call into question (again) whether a sense of “property rights” and any kind of ownership over anything is natural at all.

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Comments

  • christofpierson  On July 14, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Nice to know I’m not the only one who’s banged heads against that wall!

  • Karen  On July 14, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Seems like there are Certain People everywhere you go. Luckily, I haven’t had the conversation in a while. It’s been a relief.

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