Private Property, When and Why

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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In response to my recent article, “Private Property, the Least Bad Option,” Cory Massimino has penned a well-articulated rebuttal. I find myself in agreement (more or less) with everything he says, yet I don’t believe my article is in any way contradicted or undermined. In my opinion, Cory asserts that my article claims more than it actually does, and for that, I am at least partially responsible. Allow me to clarify my positions.

My central argument is as follows. Many libertarians operate under the assumption that private property alone fosters peaceful interaction. From there, many conclude that its structure and function — viz., exclusive control of resources — make private property inherently good. They assign to it the status of a universally applicable ethic (valid in all cases, regardless of given conditions).

There are two problems with that: First, private property is not sufficient to promote peaceful interaction; however, under certain circumstances, it is necessary. I say “certain circumstances” because another factor must be considered. There are two classes of resources: scarce and non-scarce. Scarce resources are excludable, and absent a system of exclusive control, conflict over their use is unavoidable. Non-scarce resources are not excludable, and therefore no conflict over their use naturally occurs. Only if we attempt to apply private property norms to them does conflict over their use become a reality.

Second, as a corollary, private property cannot be assigned the status of a universally applicable ethic. Rather, its status is contingent upon the uncontrollable dictates of nature. Its structure and function (exclusive control) dissuades conflict over scarce resources, but actually promotes conflict over non-scarce resources.

Moreover, in the realm of scarcity, private property is not only necessary for peaceful interaction. It is also logically unavoidable. There are various theories that demonstrate the logical necessity of private property, including “rights-skepticism,” Stephan Kinsella’s “estoppel” theory, and Hans-Herman Hoppe’s “argumentation ethics,” to name a few.

Hoppe begins by proposing that rational discourse (argumentation) proves self-ownership, “Justification — proof, conjecture, refutation — is argumentative justification. Anyone who denied this proposition would become involved in a performative contradiction because his denial would itself constitute an argument.” To engage in rational argumentation presupposes exclusive control over one’s own physical body:

No one could propose anything and expect the other party to convince himself of the validity of this proposition or deny it and propose something else unless his and his opponent’s right to exclusive control over their respective bodies and standing rooms were presupposed.

From there, Hoppe proceeds to deduce the logical validity of private property rights in “other scarce means.”

There are other ways to arrive at the same general conclusions; argumentation ethics is but one example. Yet all valid arguments and theories of this sort have at least one fundamental commonality—a consideration of scarcity. Hoppe mentions it explicitly. Self-ownership is a priori justified only because our bodies and standing room are scarce. In other words, private property attains validity and becomes just only because the possibility of conflict exists.

Private property in scarce resources, then, is a universally applicable human ethic. It allows each individual to assess his or her actions prior to acting. We can determine ex ante whether or not the actions we intend to take will be just or unjust.

Consider the other class of resources—those that are non-scarce. In this case, private property (exclusive control) has the opposite effect. It promotes conflict where none would otherwise arise. In addition, from an abstract theoretical viewpoint, private property is ultimately logically impossible in non-scarce resources. I argue this in an article at the MacIver Institute:

[I]f indeed property, [non-scarce] resources can be sold, rented (licensed), given away, or stolen…

To be sold, rented, given away, or stolen, however, property must obviously be owned, a requisite that makes necessary the consideration of unowned proprietary resources…

If the prognostication of universal appropriation is fulfilled, eventually a world will exist in which all [non-scarce] resources are appropriated. Every idea will be owned—every concept, every design, every plan, every thought. Indeed, even the abstract idea of an “idea” will be owned. In other words, the concept of action will be under exclusive control.

As a corollary, anyone who uses the concept of action—i.e., acts—without prior permission from its owner would be engaging in an illegitimate form of property acquisition, viz., theft. In order to seek said permission to use (or rent or buy) the concept of action, one must talk or write using words and concepts—in other words, one must act…

Via reduction ad absurdum, we expose an undeniable contradiction. Nevertheless, even though theoretically impossible in the long-run, we still have the ability to impose private property onto non-scarce resources. And we do it all the time, most notably with intellectual “property.”

My intention with “Private Property, the Least Bad Option,” was to be both descriptive and prescriptive. Hence, when I wrote, “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,” I was making not a theoretical observation but a precise recommendation. We should never impose artificial scarcity upon the non-scarce world of ideal resources and digital “space.”

Furthermore, when I said, “private property isn’t morally meritorious or great in itself,” I meant that in a very specific sense. Merit can only be interpersonally determined based on the ability of a means to lead to an end. Private property (which, even when it is our only logically coherent possibility, is still only a means) can be morally meritorious and great, but only insofar as it aligns with our ultimate ends.

If our ultimate end is increased social welfare and a higher standard of living (a desire predicated on peaceful interaction), then private property in scarce resources must be upheld. On the other hand, private property (or the attempt thereat) in non-scarce resources must be rejected. At best, private property is a neutral concept in itself; based on given natural conditions, it can be either good or bad.

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