Property Rights

In a comment to the post “All Questions Considered” Anirudh asked:

Why should we have private property rights? Why is it considered a natural right or a fundamental human right? Are there cases where it makes sense to have shared or public land ownership?

Let’s start at the beginning. What’s property? Anything that can be owned is property. The stuff you have around you is property — someone (perhaps you) owns that stuff. Is the street lamp property? Yes but it is probably owned by the city, and not some specific person.

Private property is what is owned by an individual or an association of private individuals (such as a private corporation.) Public property is property owned by a public corporation or owned in common. Open access commons such as a pasture or a fishery (anyone can graze his cattle, or anyone can fish) is public property.

Anything that can be owned is property, as defined above. By that definition, the Sun is not property. It’s 150 million kms away and it’s rather large. Is land on Mars property? Not yet but it could be in the future when Mars is colonized.

What are “property rights”? It’s certainly not rights that property has. Rights belong to sentient beings, not to objects. Property rights are rights that humans have in regards to property. All rights are human rights. Property rights are human rights. Properties don’t have rights; humans have rights.

I repeat myself so that I leave no doubt about what I mean.

Rights are categorized into natural and legal rights. The wiki says, “Natural rights are those that are not dependent on the laws or customs of any particular culture or government, and so are universal, fundamental and inalienable (they cannot be repealed by human laws, though one can forfeit their enjoyment through one’s actions, such as by violating someone else’s rights).”

Without going too far afield let’s just note that natural rights precede any human institutions (like the government or the constitution of a nation.) Unlike legal rights, natural rights exist prior and outside of any authority.

The United States Declaration of Independence (1776) has the memorable phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Those three are natural rights. Note that it does not say “right to property.” That would be redundant because the right to life properly understood is the right to property.

This is so because of the notion of self-ownership: a person owns himself and is therefore is his own private property. This is axiomatically true. Meaning it is true without requiring any further proof. If people can be owned by other people as in a society that admits slavery, that is not the society that we are concerned with here.

Note that slavery — the concept of people as property of some other people — has been a universal across space and time. Every society in every time has admitted slavery.

X have enslaved Y at time T, where X={White, Black, Brown, Yellow, Pink, Green, Blue} and Y={White, Black, Brown, Yellow, Pink, Green, Blue}, and T={Ever since people walked the earth to just recently.}

Slavery has been the rule, and the concept of universal self-ownership is a modern idea that is the exception.

This is the bottom line. Slavery is not consistent with human flourishing. Societies that deny the fundamental, natural right of self-ownership end up badly. This is however a consequentialist argument, not a moral argument.

A consequentialist argument says something is bad (slavery, for instance) because the consequences (lack of prosperity) are bad. A moral argument holds that something is bad because it is immoral, regardless of the consequences. Even if slavery were to lead to good outcomes, it would still be wrong to enslave people.

Back to the matter of people owning private property. One can make the consequentialist argument that private property rights lead to prosperity and therefore we should support them. But I would argue that even if property rights did not lead to prosperity, it is morally imperative that people own themselves and thus have the right to private property.

So the answer to Anirudh’s first question — why should we have private property rights? — is “Yes, we should have private property rights because it is immorally impermissible to own other people.

Next he asks, “Why is [private property rights] considered a natural right or a fundamental human right?”

The support for private property rights as a natural right follows from the self-ownership axiom. Because you own yourself, you own whatever you acquire through your labor, and therefore that is your private property. If something is your private property, you can do with it whatever you please subject to the condition that you do not violate the corresponding private property rights of others.

In the next bit, I will provide a consequentialist argument supporting the right to private property. It underlies the prosperity that we all enjoy. That’s how the world works.

(I hasten to add for the record that philosophically I subscribe to deontological ethics and not consequentialist ethics. But that’s not important here.)

 

 

 

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

4 thoughts on “Property Rights”

  1. I will wait for your follow up posts, but here are a few questions from this blog –

    You first say this –

    > This is so because of the notion of self-ownership: a person owns himself and is therefore is his own private property

    and then go on to say this –

    > The support for private property rights as a natural right follows from the self-ownership axiom. Because you own yourself, you own whatever you acquire through your labor, and therefore that is your private property. If something is your private property, you can do with it whatever you please subject to the condition that you do not violate the corresponding private property rights of others.

    If a person is his own private property, then what is stopping him from selling himself into slavery or into some sort of debt bondage? Isn’t it a slippery slope to base your opposition to slavery in terms of property rights?

    Also, I understand that the fruits of a person’s labor is his own private property and that he can choose to sell it, barter it, or choose to do with it as he wills. Then how does land ownership work, because a piece of land is not exactly “fruits of his labor”; what is produced on that land can be his property, but why should the land itself be his property?

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