Libertarians in Agreement?

In “Private Property, When and Why,” Joseph writes, “At best, private property is a neutral concept in itself; based on given natural conditions, it can be either good or bad.” While I disagreed with this position initially, I believe after further clarification, I am actually in full agreement with it. To determine if the concept of property is valid, we must look at the actual facts about the world first. That seems to be the point Joseph is trying to stress in order to figure out when and why property is legitimate.

It would be odd, indeed, to declare, following some rigorous ethical constructivism, that property in anything is legitimate. I fear that is what I did in my first response because I never included a key part of libertarian property theory. That is, external property is only legitimate, only an extension of self-ownership, in the case of scarce goods.

You can’t homestead or acquire a good that is superabundant, such as air. To have a fully fleshed out theory of property, you need to account for the difference between scarce and non-scarce goods. I couldn’t claim a certain “area” of air as being rightfully mine since it is, for all intents and purposes, not scarce. As Rothbard puts it in “Man, Economy, and State,” air is “In most situations in unlimited abundance. It is therefore not a means and is not employed as a means to the fulfillment of ends….Air, then, though indispensable, is not a means, but a general condition of human action and welfare.”

Air, and other things of super abundance, are not goods in the economic sense. They are simply there. Therefore, they aren’t proper subjects of homesteading. That is, they can’t be owned. Suppose that we lived on the Enterprise and had access to the replicator: a machine which creates whatever we want out of thin air, at no cost (besides the few seconds it takes to work). In the world of Star Trek, everything is in super abundance (well, technically not everything since the replicator can’t create living organisms or dark matter, but it can create any economic good we know of).

Now, once I used the replicator to create a delicious pizza for me for lunch, and I am sitting down to eat it, I think it is rightfully mine. If Worf tried to come over and take it, I believe that would be, in effect, stealing. So, in a sense that pizza is rightfully mine since I made it part of my ongoing projects. However, Worf is able to use the replicator and make his own pizza, or whatever Klingons eat. There is no conflict since the resources are not scarce (ignore for the purposes of this discussion the scarcity and/or availability of the replicator itself).

This is exactly Joseph’s point. Without scarcity in goods, conflict over resources is impossible and the notion of external property becomes meaningless. He succinctly uses this point to argue against intellectual property. Let’s go back to the original quote, “At best, private property is a neutral concept in itself; based on given natural conditions, it can be either good or bad.” The theory of property is this: People have claim rights to external, scarce goods by mixing their labor with them and making them part of their ongoing uses. This is the part concerned with normative ethics.

We must delve deeper into each specific situation to apply this theory, to do applied ethics. We must first determine what is or isn’t scarce in the real world before we can see what property applies to. Pizzas and comics are scarce goods that can be legitimate property. Air and ideas are superabundant “goods” that can’t be legitimate property. The world of Star Trek, because of the “natural (the replicator isn’t really natural) conditions,” external property doesn’t really make sense. In our world, external property is a valid concept since there are scarce goods, but there are also things it doesn’t apply to.

Ultimately I believe Joseph and I are in full agreement on this issue. It only took some clarification to realize it. The issue is not consequential vs deontological reasons for external property. The issue is looking at the real world and seeing where valid property exists. It is conceivable that a world exists where they don’t. A world of superabundance. A world where I live on the Enterprise. However, I can only dream of that world. Scarcity, so far, is a fact of our world. Joseph and I agree that property only applies to those scarce objects.

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