Private Property, The Best Option
Joseph S. Diedrich has a great post at C4SS, called “Private Property, The Least Bad Option,” arguing that libertarians tend to lionize private property rather than seeing it as an unfortunate, but necessary, reality of the world we live in.
Libertarians tend to see two worlds: one with private property that works reasonably well, and one without that farcically implodes. What they often miss, however, is that this dichotomy is conditional. Private property isn’t morally meritorious or great in itself, but only insofar as it is the best and only way to avoid conflict given the reality of scarcity in the physical world. Private property is unavoidably coercive, and should therefore be a convention only where absolutely necessary.
Private property is a coercive stricture. It is not coercive in the sense of putting a gun to someone’s head or stealing wealth in the form of taxes, but coercive in the sense that it circumscribes, dictates, and restricts our interaction with the natural, physical world. The realities of scarcity coerce us into choosing between private property and dismal alternatives.
We would be much better off if we weren’t tormented by scarcity. There would be no conflict or potential for conflict over physical goods. This hypothetical world – one of superabundance or post-scarcity or infinite supply or infinite reproducibility or whatever you want to call it – is preferable to both options presented in the libertarian dichotomy. Superabundance would also obviate and overcome other undesirable corollaries of scarcity, including opportunity cost, supply and demand, and ultimately economy itself. Unfortunately, this world doesn’t exist.
Diedrich claims that private property is “coercive,” and admittedly I never really looked at it that way. I can see where Diedrich is coming from – that private property does essentially create a sphere where individuals are free to make any rules and restrictions they want on their genuinely acquired property – but is this really coercive in nature?
My right to not be aggressed against, since my body is my private property, isn’t coercive. Is it coercive for me to create boundaries around the use of, say, my computer, since it is my private property? I don’t think so. It may upset anyone that would like to use my computer, or the thief that wants to steal it, that they are not able to turn it into their private property, but that could hardly be considered a coercive relationship.
Perhaps the issue is over semantics, because Diedrich does have a point about the supposed coercive nature of private property when it comes to the ownership and use of things like land and forests. In a private property anarchist system, every piece of land is privately owned. This does create a situation where “it circumscribes, dictates, and restricts our interaction with the natural, physical world.” If I see a mountain that I want to climb, or a piece of open land that might make a great camp spot, I may be restricted by the owner of the property who doesn’t want to allow mountain climbers or campers. Or if they do, they might make me submit to arbitrary or unfair demands in order to use their land.
But again, I wouldn’t call this coercive. I don’t have a right to do whatever I want, wherever I am; I only have a right to not be aggressed against and to contract with others in mutually-beneficial, private property exchanges. Are we really going to call “coercive” any situation where I am not free to do whatever I want without regards to others’ rights?
A private property order creates so many incentives for human beings to cooperate peacefully, and competitive markets tend to punish businesses and property owners that make arbitrary or unfair restrictions with their private property. And if I don’t like the rules that someone places on their private property, I don’t have to interact with them. Markets provide a ton of options.
Diedrich than goes on to make the point that I think was the intention of the article, namely that our idolization of private property should not lead us to create scarcity where it doesn’t belong:
A superabundant world does exist, however, in ideal resources – ideas, patterns, concepts, words, expressions, information, knowledge, etc. (in other words, products of the mind). My use of a chicken soup recipe doesn’t interfere with or exclude anyone else’s ability also use it. The same goes for the design of an internal combustion engine, the arrangement and expression of words in a novel, the colors and patterns of a painting, the notes and rhythms of a musical composition, and anything that exists beyond the constraints of physical goods.
The fact that a superabundant supply of ideal resources exists does not imply that everyone has infinite knowledge. The process of discovery converts ignorance into awareness, but it has no effect on excludability or scarcity. When Pythagoras discovered his famous theorem, he was initially the only one who knew of it. Yet just because everyone else was ignorant of it didn’t mean that it was scarce. Anyone else was free to independently discover it or learn of it from Pythagoras (if he shared it) and in turn make use of it without excluding anyone else from doing the same.
Ideal resources do, of course, interact with scarce objects. For example, thoughts are communicated as arrangements of words, which are often written on or displayed via scarce objects, such as paper or computer screens. On a more abstract level, the scarcity of neurons, time, and space also come into play.
The way that non-scarce, ideal resources interact with scarce, physical resources has changed and continues to change. The first great revolution occurred with the advent of written language. The second great revolution involved the supplanting of copyists by publishers upon the invention of the Gutenberg press. The third great revolution, which we are all witness to, has been the transformation from print to digital. The cloud effectively eliminates scarcity as it relates to the distribution of recorded information.
Think about radiation therapy for a moment. Patients afflicted with cancer can often turn to radiation as a beneficial treatment. It purges their bodies of malignant cells and overcomes the horror of disease. However, if a healthy person is exposed to radiation, or if radiation is applied to a sick person improperly, the results are ghastly. Instead of promoting healing and prolonging life, the bad radiation engenders suffering and induces mortality.
As with radiation, the imposition of unnecessary and indiscriminate private property strictures inhibits human progress. Where scarcity doesn’t exist, the necessity of making that infamous dichotomic choice isn’t coerced upon us. When we choose to apply private property strictures to non-scarce ideal resources in the form of intellectual property, for example, we leave the realm of natural coercion (uncontrollable elements of the physical world requiring us to make undesirable choices) and enter into the realm of artificial coercion (humans coercing other humans).
This is what libertarians often miss. We can become so attached to the idea of private property that we believe we have to create it or impose it or legislate it even when it is unnecessary. Scarcity doesn’t govern the non-physical world, and thus it is unnecessary, imprudent, and patently foolish to impose coercive private property strictures onto it. Remember the old adage that says you shouldn’t fix what’s not broken?
I completely agree. Private property only applies in a world of scarcity, and the last few decades of technological process has opened more and more arenas of non-scarce goods. This should be cheered by everyone, not just libertarians. The abolition of scarcity may or may not be feasible in the future, but this is what markets have doing whenever they are allowed to breathe and expand, dropping prices as close to zero as possible.
But are libertarians really missing this insight? There are some that call themselves “libertarian” that favor intellectual property restrictions backed up by the state, but how many authentic, principled libertarians think that IP is anything but a racket? One of Ayn Rand’s biggest mistakes was her idolization of “creation” and IP rights, which is perhaps why many libertarians defend IP. But in the last few decades, the libertarian movement is completely rejecting the concept of artificial scarcity; not because private property is coercive, but because private property only applies in a world of scarcity.
Diedrich concludes with a great paragraph:
The right to private property isn’t some intuitive, natural axiom, come down from the Heavens as an eternal law of all human interaction. On the contrary, private property evolved as the best and only method of peacefully allocating scarce resources. As the commons became smaller and smaller this undeniable fact became more and more evident. While private property is preferable to all available alternatives, it is not inherently desirable or good. Recognizing this clarifies and enhances libertarian theory.
Diedrich hits the nail on the head here. While I came to libertarianism by way of Rothbard and other “natural rights” theorists, my reasoning in defense of liberty has definitely evolved more in the direction of Diedrich. Private property rights are not like gravity; if that were true, any mugger, rapist, or IRS agent would be ricocheted off of their victims, perhaps bending space-time in the process.
No, libertarianism evolved from theories of ethics, experience, custom, history, and morality. Our rights don’t enforce themselves. Which is why private property IS desirable, not the “least bad” option. Just imagine, for a second, if everyone’s private property were respected and there was no possibly of any aggression or violation of people’s right. This wouldn’t be inherently desirable?
We should never create artificial scarcity out of ideas and patterns. But in a world of scarcity like the physical world, private property is absolutely essential for peace, cooperation, trade, and prosperity.