Private Property, the Least Bad Option

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.

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?

In an Edenesque superabundant world, space, time, and self would still be scarce. Even if I were able to conjure up anything that I wanted, I would still be limited by time, by my physical body and the space it occupies, and by my own mortality. These conditions, however, undermine neither self-ownership nor the argument that private property is undesirable. Immortality, unlimited space, and unlimited time would seem to be preferable to the opposite.

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.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory