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Property as the Key to Self-Determination


In political philosophy, no concept is as controversial as property. It excites libertarians, repulses socialists, and leaves inconsistent statists (“liberals” and conservatives) confused. What is it about property that packs such power?

To answer that question, it is important to realize that flawed political philosophy will lead to flawed notions of property. Good-faith socialists (those not motivated simply by envy) believe that property limits freedom and creates dangerous concentrations of power. If you begin with bad premises regarding the nature of freedom, you could conclude that property is a tool of oppression. How so? In a certain sense, property does limit freedom. If I cannot cross your property, I am limited in what I can do. It is a restriction of my freedom of movement. If the means of production are privately owned, I can be barred from them, in principle, and limited in my ability to work and survive. Someone strongly committed to a fuzzy idea of freedom might object to private property as an institution that keeps people from achieving their objectives.

It is useful to understand this point, because a libertarian’s ability to persuade a socialist on the virtue of property may hinge on it. The socialist goes wrong the moment he thinks about freedom and property out of context or in an inappropriate context, cut off from more fundamental ideas. Concepts exist in a hierarchy; that is, they are building blocks, each one resting on logically prior concepts by which they are validated. Ruminations on a concept that are uninformed by the context in which that concept exists are bound to be erroneous.

For example, take Proudhon’s famous dictum, “Property is theft.” If this is meant as a general proposition, it is absurd. Theft implies the legitimacy of property. It is the illegitimate taking of someone’s property. You cannot grasp the meaning of “theft” if you don’t grasp the meaning, and legitimacy, of “property.” To use “theft” while denying the legitimacy of “property” subverts the idea of theft and sinks the whole proposition. Such misuse of a concept is what Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden called a “stolen concept.” If you deny property, you deny yourself the “right” to use the concept “theft.”

The idea of property, like that of theft, also exists in a context. If we get that context wrong or ignore it, we have problems. Socialists illustrate this when they argue that property violates freedom and rights. Yet libertarians see it as critical to freedom and rights.

How can there be such disagreement? Possibly it comes from different notions of freedom and rights. If you believe they mean freedom from want or the right to commune with nature irrespective of “arbitrary” property lines, you will disagree with someone who defines freedom and rights the way libertarians tend to. The socialist might say that property prohibits him from doing things he ought to be able to do. The libertarian would respond that the socialist ought not to be able to do those things. The argument then is over what liberty means. But liberty also exists in a context. So the intellectual process is put back to a logically prior stage.

Some years ago, David Kelley took up this issue in a fascinating article titled “Life, Liberty, and Property” (Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 1, no. 2, Spring 1984). Kelley was bothered that libertarians often try to defend property by an appeal to liberty or freedom from coercion. But he doesn’t think that works.

As noted, the opponent of property can claim that his freedom to walk wherever he wishes is violated by property rights. He can claim that when he is forced to leave someone’s property, he is unjustly coerced. How do we know he is wrong? We can’t merely assert that he doesn’t have a right to walk anywhere because it would violate property rights. That would beg the question. Why do Locke-style property rights take precedence over the right to walk anywhere? (This right to walk is not an equivalent property claim, since it is not a claim of continuing possession and control.)

Nor can we say that property rights are needed to prevent conflict, since there are other ways of doing that. (The government sets rules on the use of parks; that is a conflict-averting measure.) The libertarian slips into danger when trying to define property in terms of liberty and liberty in terms of property. The argument becomes circular. Which comes first — the egg of liberty or the chicken of property?

Kelley suggests that this question is wrongly posed and that, in fact, liberty and property are derived from something else, namely, the right to one’s own life and the value of life and production. Now we are in the ethical realm, which is appropriate because it is logically prior to political theory. Libertarians hurt themselves to the extent they think they can do political philosophy without first doing ethics. A sure sign of that approach is the common reference to the “nonaggression axiom.” An axiom is an irreducible proposition. It is self-validating. How does the nonaggression axiom validate itself? It is unclear. There is no contradiction in denying it (such as there is with the law of identity). Thus it must be derived from something else, in which case it is not an axiom at all.

The upshot is that if we merely assert the validity of property rights, or ground them insufficiently, we will not persuade our opponents. They are working from a different context and will almost be speaking another language. Instead, we must descend to a more fundamental level of discussion, spell out the competing contexts, exposing the most basic disagreements, and showing where our opponents go wrong.

I have a suggestion for how to interest a good-faith socialist in the discussion. Begin with the stark proposition that property is critical to self-determination. That will get his attention. We can easily show that without property rights, we, including nonowners, are at the mercy of the state. This is not a validation of property but rather a discussion of its function. If there is no right to use and dispose of that which we legitimately acquire, the state will have power over all use and disposal. Everyone then will be the state’s tenant and employee. The socialist might respond that under laissez faire, some people will be the tenants and employees of others. That is true, but it is also far different from being a subject of the state. Assume a free economy in which a person works for someone else and rents rather than owns his dwelling. He is not at the mercy of a particular employer or landlord. The market is open and therefore competitive. Entrepreneurs will try to bid for his services and for his business. He will have choices.

Even a low-skilled worker, if he has ambition, can find ways to acquire higher skills. It may mean taking a low wage in order to learn a particular trade, but at least no minimum wage law will stop him from making that choice. Meanwhile, an increasingly rich society will make even his meager income worth more.

Compare that person’s situation with a low-skilled worker’s condition in a state-run economy. Which one has the better chance to chart his life’s course?

If the socialist brings up the issue of monopoly, he shouldn’t get far. What is the logic in proposing a state monopoly as a cure for business monopoly? The only thing that could make that preferable is a belief that people who work in government are better than people in the marketplace. That is not credible today, if it ever was. It clashes with common sense.

Moreover, history and economic theory show that monopoly, in any coercive sense, has its roots in government favoritism. It is not a product of the marketplace. As long as there are no legal barriers to entry, no individual can lock up a market. The most he can do is be so good at pleasing consumers that no one wishes to compete. But when he stops being that good, he will have competitors. In fact, potential competition is every bit as influential on the conduct of business as actual competition.

The bottom line is that either private owners regulate the use of land and productive resources — in an environment characterized by competition and cooperation — or the state, the bloodiest institution in history, will. If self-determination is the ability to make important decisions about one’s life, it should be clear which arrangement is more conducive to it.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.