Property rights are about shooting Admirals

Who has rights over property and why?

Chris, Norm, John all weigh in.

To respond only to one part of it:

Scepticism towards the moral robustness of an affirmative answer to these questions, of property rights resting on an entitlement to the \’fruits of one\’s labour\’, may suggest that the real principle at work is, rather, one of reward-for-effort. I made the sculpture and it cost me time and energy to do so – that\’s why it\’s mine. The same argument doesn\’t work in the case of my surprising the herd or altering a tiny bit of the face of that newly-found continent. However, once ownership is to be decided on the basis of desert, things become more complicated. For there are different bases of desert than merely effort, and there are other reasons for assigning things to people than merely desert – need being one of these. And should two people who have to expend different amounts of effort to achieve the same result be rewarded differently?

Sticking with the point about the rights that a creator has over a creation, it\’s nothing to do with deserts or rewards. That would be perilously close to the labour theory of value fallacy.

No, creators have rights over their creations because we want to encourage the next creator to create. Nobody gives a damn how much effort goes into creating something, the labour used or indeed any other resource used. All we actually care about is encouraging more people to create more things: and to do so we reward those who have created.

We pay the maker of a spade because we wish to encourage more spade making. We pay the inventor of a new drug because we want to encourage more drug invention. We pay the songwriter because we want to encourage more songs to be written. The same is true for carpets, loo roll, airplanes, leeks and Uncle Tom Cobbley and All.

Property rights are the same as shooting Admirals. Pour encourager les autres.

21 comments on “Property rights are about shooting Admirals

  1. “We pay the maker of a spade because we wish to encourage more spade making.”

    Surely we do this because we place the value of the spade higher than that of the money asked for it – the basis of all trade and the reason why both parties gain (the spade maker values the money higher than the spade).

    The encouragement of the spade maker to make more is a happy consequence, rather than our motivation.

    This is also connected to the important suppleness of free markets: if we start paying less for spades than the spade maker’s value he will look at what he might make instead. We’re not so much encouraging him to make spades as to make things we place a higher value on than the money he wants in return.

  2. “I made the sculpture and it cost me time and energy to do so – that’s why it’s mine.”

    Tim said “it’s nothing to do with deserts or rewards.”

    I agree; I would amend the original to say: I made the sculpture – that’s why it’s mine. Even if it cost me no time and no energy and no expense, even if what I made is of no use or interest to anyone else (so no encouragement is involved), I made it, so it’s mine.

    The labour theory (as I understand it) would imply that greater effort results in greater value, not that effort results in ownership. It’s coincidental that recognising the right of ownership can also encourage wealth creation as you describe, but even in those cases where it doesn’t – and even if it never did – that right is still fundamental.

  3. “Surely we do this because we place the value of the spade higher than that of the money asked for it”

    That’s merely a view. There are others out there who say “I shall simply take the spade because you don’t deserve so many”. Of course, this is a kleptocracy and it demonstrably keeps people poor – for no spades get made. There are plenty of examples of kleptocracies: they are self-sustaining forms of government (the elite do very nicely).

  4. “That’s merely a view. ”

    When you steal a spade you’re not paying for it. We’re discussing what happens when you enter into a transaction in a free market with property rights.

  5. I thought we were discussing the universality of property rights and why in general they are a Good Thing. Quite evidently there are those who don’t hold to that view. Redistributionists like Polly and Ritchie for example.

    Trade (a win/win transaction) is one of the earliest human activities and I would argue that capitalism is the natural expression of free human beings. But there are many who would seek to frustrate this expression by – in the end – by tackling the root cause: freedom.

  6. You really need to distinguish between Property Rights (Ownership) and Intellectual Property Rights (Patent and Copyright) otherwise discussions become utterly confused.

    (Peter Risdson is right: a spade is a spade)

  7. This kind of discussion is ultimately circular. You can’t prove property rights, you can’t prove personal rights, you can’t prove communal rights, you cannot prove anything in philosophy, because all conclusions are based on some arbitrary axioms.

    Animals (indluding humans) tend towards asserting property rights. My cat believes she owns the garden, and forcibly ejects other cats from it. It’s just something animals do. We prefer to assert control over things, because at some point you have to. If we believe food is not ownable, we have to deny that at some point by taking control of it and eating it.

    So property rights are a good way to organise ourselves because we want them. You can’t prove them right in some higher Platonic sphere, they are just a consequence of practical reality. So, having ownership of things we can either trade them willingly or steal them from one another by force. That’s all there is. You’re free to choose which sort of society you want but, like my cat, I will personally prefer the property rights one.

    Tim’s assertion though about how “we” pay for spade to encourage spade-making makes no sense whatsoever. I want a spade, and the only way I can get one is to buy one. I don’t give a tinker’s cuss about spademakers the rest of the time. We didn’t invent an economy to achieve social goods; this is the confused thinking of marxists in which capitalism is purported to be an “invented system”. It arises because in the absence of coercion otherwise, people tend to assert rights over things they have produced, and will only swap them for things they would prefer to own instead. Just the same as my cat and her fellow felines haven’t developed a territory system for the greater feline good. They just prefer controlling territory and will fight to do so. That’s all there is in cat society, and the same is true of ours. Take your damned thieving hands of that spade. It’s mine.

  8. Ian B: “Animals (indluding humans) tend towards asserting property rights. My cat believes she owns the garden, and forcibly ejects other cats from it.”

    That isn’t a property rights system, it’s just a cat that wants something. The cat can’t go to court and take action in response to trespass. Other cats don’t stay out of the garden because of respect for property rights; if they stay away, it’s because they don’t want the hassle of fighting. Property rights don’t come about just because somebody wants something; they only exist when others decide to allow that person to have what they want unhindered.

    “If we believe food is not ownable, we have to deny that at some point by taking control of it and eating it.”

    That doesn’t make sense. I don’t think the air is ownable, but it doesn’t stop me breathing. I think you have to view ownership and control as two separate concepts. I think you can say your cat controls your garden, because it has been more successful at using force to do so up until this point, but I don’t think you can realistically equate that to ownership.

    “So property rights are a good way to organise ourselves because we want them.”

    I think you’re close to it there. More precisely, property rights are a good way to organise ourselves because the cost of granting property rights to others is outweighed by the benefit of having those rights reciprocated. Fundamentally, it is a market transaction like any other – I give up a part of my freedom because I value more highly what I get in return. This is where I think Tim’s comment about paying for the spade to encouraging spade making is relevant, because, if somebody tried to exert property rights over the air and demand that I pay them to breathe, I’d be less inclined to accept that arrangement, because, in the long run, if I reject it, it won’t result in less air being available to me. It is essentially a zero sum game, whereas spade-making isn’t.

  9. Paul makes a good point about the reciprocal benefits of property rights: by recognising such rights for others, others will return the favour. The overall result is more privacy, prosperity, etc.

    In slight disagreement with IanB, I don’t think that the origin of property rights cannot be grounded in an axiom. However, it is true to say that grounding property rights in some basic principle is not necessary for most of us, most of the time, to realise how valuable private property is, and to realise how dangerous are the infractions thereof (such as the increasingly promiscuous use of eminent domain laws, etc).

  10. Ian B: “Tim’s assertion though about how “we” pay for spade to encourage spade-making makes no sense whatsoever. I want a spade, and the only way I can get one is to buy one. I don’t give a tinker’s cuss about spademakers the rest of the time.”

    So if you want a spade, you want to have encouraged spade makers to make one.

  11. Dan, the “encouragement” is just a side effect of Say’s Law- people produce in order to consume. Spademakers make spades in the hope somebody else wants to buy them. But that is a consequence of their own desires. There is no policy of “we must have a market economy to encourage spademaking”. If nobody wants to make spades, I’ll have to do without, or make my own. If nobody wants to produce goods for sale, that’s their choice. We just recognise that most people will produce goods for sale because it is in their own self interest. That’s not the same as imposing a capitalist system with the intention of promoting spade making.

    Paul Lockett and Johnathan, the point about cats’ property rights is that cats have an instinctively territorial nature, as do humans. They cannot intellectualise a property rights system because they have no intellectual capacity nor means to discuss it with other cats. But one could reasonably presume that if cats evolved human level intelligence, they would develop some form of property rights because the idea of controlling territory would be part of their natural makeup, as it is part of ours. Rather than purely using force and threat as they currently do, supercats may evolve a contractual system awarding one cat the right to my neighbour’s shed roof, another control of the flower bed, and so on as a shortcut to save the constant aggression, which is where our ideas of property rights came from-

    “This place is mine, that place is yours, the border is this stream here, agreed?”

  12. “I made the sculpture and it cost me time and energy to do so – that’s why it’s mine.”

    Of course, if the sculptor had used someone else’s materials without permission it would not be his or hers.

  13. Kay Tie – “There are plenty of examples of kleptocracies: they are self-sustaining forms of government (the elite do very nicely).”

    Are they self-sustaining? I would have thought that kleptocracies can go either one of two ways: the ruling group can remain in power and gradually change from hunters to ranchers (so protecting their “flocks”), that is to say, they become aristocrays, or they can constantly be replaced by new kleptocrats in which case the economy shrinks to nothing.

    In neither case are they particularly self sustaining from what I can see.

  14. I suggest you’re confused Ian B, you do care about the spade makers even if not always and conciously. By being able to care about having a spade, you care. The confusion is between the instant gratification you proclaim, and the ability to plan and desire for the future.

  15. I don’t think so, Ed. I’m arguing that trade is an emergent phenomenon, not a planned system, which is what Tim implied. I don’t trade for the common good, I trade for my own selfish reasons, and it just happens to be that that produces a system which is for the common good. If any time I don’t feel like trading, I don’t force myself to in order to produce a social benefit for others. Screw the spademakers.

    It’s like arguing that people attend football matches so that Posh and Becks can afford their sumptuous lifestyle. That’s not the case. People attend because they want to watch a match, and the high wages of footballers just happen to be the result.

  16. The cat can’t go to court and take action in response to trespass. Other cats don’t stay out of the garden because of respect for property rights; if they stay away, it’s because they don’t want the hassle of fighting.

    But legal systems are just forms of institutionalised violence. If you lose a court court case and refuse to abide by the ruling, you will be forcibly dispossessed or imprisoned for contempt.

  17. Stephen,

    Surely that’s part of the point of a property rights system – to replace a system of unpredictable and frequent violence with a system of more predictable and less frequent violence.

    Of course, that isn’t to say that it always works out the way it’s supposed to.

  18. Ian B: “I’m arguing that trade is an emergent phenomenon, not a planned system, which is what Tim implied. I don’t trade for the common good, I trade for my own selfish reasons”

    I don’t think that is necessarily at odds with what Tim was saying. From a position of immediate selfish gain, it might be more effective for you to take the spade from the spade maker than to pay him for it, but we don’t tend to do that and I think part of the reason is that people instinctively realise that, if others can’t control the physical product of their labour, they will be less likely to produce, division of labour will break down and we’ll all be worse off.

  19. Pingback: Why Do We Have Property Rights? Why Has Capitalism Been So Successful? « Directionless Bones

  20. Pingback: An Open Letter to Libertarians and Socialists « Left Outside

Leave a Reply

Name and email are required. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.