Private Property, A Pretty Good Option

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses — we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s audience.

A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged. The following Mutual Exchange began as a feature by Private Property, the Least Bad Option and Diedrich have prepared a series of articles challenging and exploring the themes presented in Driedrich original article. Over the next week, every other day, C4SS will publish one of their responses. The final series can be followed under the title: Private Property: How, When and Why.

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What reasons do people have to respect property rights, if any? It’s not an easy conundrum considering political theorists and moral philosophers have been grappling with it for centuries. In an excellent and ideologically significant article, Joseph Diedrich argues,

The right to private property isn’t some intuitive, natural axiom… on the contrary, private property evolved as the best and only method of peacefully allocating scarce resources.

I agree with this conclusion. Libertarians often wrongfully treat private property as a foundational rule, which presupposes all their arguments. This is the wrong approach since we need to justify private property on some grounds. Joseph says, “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.” However, I believe there are reasons to respect property rights beyond just its socially positive consequences.

It’s vital not to forget Joseph’s wonderfully put and absolutely correct argument that private property is the only method by which people can peacefully interact and allocate scarce resources. It would be odd indeed if we ignored the volumes of work, such as Human Action or Man, Economy, and State, showing how and why property rights are important, indeed necessary, for a functioning and prosperous society. Still, it would be similarly odd if we ignored the volumes of work explaining why people have an inherent moral right to private property, such as The Ethics of Liberty or Two Treatises of Government.

Before answering if there is good reason to respect private property beyond just consequential considerations, we have to ask, is there good reason to respect individual sovereignty beyond just consequential considerations? It seems evident that there is. Arguably the entire libertarian and anarchist project is predicated on the idea of a certain moral worth that each individual is entitled to, by their very nature, which makes states and oppressive hierarchies unjust.

Certainly the only reason I don’t drive to Joseph’s house and punch him in the face isn’t just that I have figured out the consequences would be harmful to me and/or society. I ought to respect his autonomy because of his nature and mine. Resorting to coercion and abandoning reason would go against my nature as a rational creature. It would be acting subhuman. I shouldn’t treat him as a means to my ends, even if I could get good effects out of doing so. Whether we call this idea “self-ownership” or not is not of huge importance here. I simply want to establish there are moral reasons to respect personal autonomy and not cross peoples’ “boundaries” without their permission, beyond the consequential considerations.

But why does this mean people are also morally obligated to respect property? Suppose I decided I was really in the mood for some pizza. I even got the dough, the cheese, and the sauce all together and made it step by step. I toiled for hours putting the ingredients together. Now, right when I was about to take a big bite out of the pizza Joseph sneaks in and takes it. He takes all eight slices. Now it could be that he ought not to do this because that action, along with the rule associated with that action, would result in bad social consequences. But, aside from that, did, in some way, Joseph violate my personal autonomy? Did he invade my “boundary,” despite never laying a hand on me?

It seems implausible to say that he didn’t just because the pizza was external to my physical body. I spent the whole day cooking that pizza just to have it taken away from me. I altered physical matter to create something new, something delicious. While we do this all the time with external objects, we also do it with our own body. The particles that make up our bodies currently weren’t always there. We constantly gain new ones and lose old ones. We take external matter and make it part of us. We make it part of our ongoing projects.

This is exactly what I’ve done with the dough, cheese, and sauce. I utilized previously unclaimed or traded particles and made them part of my ongoing project. That project being eating pizza. External property that we mix our labor with, and make part of our ongoing uses, is an extension of our individual boundary. If you don’t respect my justly acquired property, you aren’t respecting my personal autonomy.

Joseph is right in that we have good reason to respect private property because of its social consequences. The system of private property is vital to social cooperation and the efficient allocation of resources. However, that isn’t the whole story. We have other reasons to respect private property, too. Matter that is altered and made part of one’s ongoing uses is an extension of their person. Just as we have good reason to respect peoples’ individual autonomy regardless of the consequences, we have good reason to respect peoples’ property claims regardless of the consequences.

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