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Arguing About Private Property

Over at Catallarchy, Scott Scheule summarized five arguments intended to rebut various consequentialist reasons to support private property.

This is one of those posts where you absolutely have to follow the link or you won't understand what I'm talking about. Go, read it, and then come back. (Or stay at Catallarchy, they've got good stuff…)

It's important to understand that these five arguments are actually counterarguments against arguments in favor of private property. They interest me because although I may sound like a deontologist most of the time, as you go deeper and deeper (way, way down) into my reasoning you'll see that I'm actually a consequentialist.

Because I'm lazy, I'm not going to read the article Scott is summarizing. And because I'm super-lazy, I'm not going to quote his summaries either. I suggest you open two browser windows so you can see his post and mine side-by-side.

Security Increases Production

This counterargument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of rights. Increasing one person's security in their property doesn't curtail the liberty of others. Liberty defined as the freedom to do whatever you want is a straw man. But this is a fairly common problem with the word "liberty" and that's why I prefer to use the less-often-confused word "freedom" instead: freedom means the absence of coercion. The introduction of property rights is not a form of coercion. Protecting a person's property does not do violence upon anyone else, it only prevents (property-related) violence against the owner.

On a wider scale, property rights are the opposite of a curtailment of freedom — they are the legal framework for preventing and punishing (property-related) coercion.

Theft is Inefficient

This counterargument is one of a species of bad arguments resulting from the Coase theorem. My fundamental problem with these sorts of arguments is that they … well, they jettison common sense.

Pay the would-be thief $6 so he doesn't steal an item you value at $10? Hello, that's called extortion. That's not an "efficient" solution to anything, homages to zero transaction costs be damned! (And no, you're not "better off" having paid the thief $6 to retain the object. You're $6 poorer! With property rights you would retain the object and the $6.)

Permit me to ramble on a tangent for a moment. The idea that it doesn't matter who starts with a piece of property because people will haggle into an efficient arrangement is wrong because starting conditions are important. Not because of transaction costs; because of overall wealth. There exist poor people who would be unable to make the payments necessary to bring about the "efficient" result. What if I only have $4, leaving me unable to "persuade" the thief to leave my object alone? Such payments need to be placed in the context of the person's demand for ordinary things like food and shelter, too. Perhaps I had $7, so I could pay off the thief or eat, but not both.

I find the notion of the potential "efficiency" of theft offensive. As used in this argument, it smuggles in the utilitarian premise that society ought to be organized in whatever way maximizes "efficiency". And I don't agree with that.

I happen to agree with the outcome of this argument (that "theft is inefficient" is a poor argument in favor of private property). Not because I have my own devastating argument against it, but because I think it's a weird and ill-suited starting point for a defense of private property; it seems arbitrary without having emerged from a more fundamental system of ideas.

Private Property Reduces Uncertainty

This is supposed to be very similar to the first argument, but I'm having trouble imagining how it goes or in what way it could seem convincing. I don't get it.

Private Property Allows for Coordination

Another smuggled utilitarian premise; namely that "coordination" should be maximized.

I wonder whether the argument strikes more broadly than was intended. It seems to open the door to any arbitrary social order. Without a methodology to measure coordination, comparisons of social systems could not be made. (It's not clear whether something like "total real production" would be an appropriate metric — because it could be too property-focused — even if it could be measured.)

Private Property Allows for an Ideal Mix Between Leisure and Work

I'm not able to evaluate the fifth counterargument because Scott didn't summarize it. :) He described only the form of the argument, not its substance.

Tiny Island