Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Purpose of Property Rights

So I read that "the purpose of property rights is to permit conflicts over scarce (rivalrous) resources to be avoided." This idea caught my fancy, so I called my friend, Furcifer, over to my house to have a discussion about this, as I knew he, as a libertarian, was well-versed in property rights theory.

Eugenius: Furcifer, let us stroll by the Gowanus Canal while we reason together, as I always like to take the air there at this time of year.

Furcifer: Yes, but shouldn't we first lie upon couches with some beautiful young men for a spell?

Eugenius (sotto voce): Furcifer, this is a family publication! Wait until later!

Furcifer: Right you are. So, we are together today to discuss the notion that private property exists to prevent conflict, an idea I certainly endorse.

Eugenius: The idea sounds nice. I don't like conflict, not one bit! But I note that property rights don't prevent conflict with thieves.

Furcifer: No, only with sincere people who are willing to make their own behaviour a universal law.

Eugenius: OK, fine, I will accept that some scheme of property rights is a good idea, since even a thief presupposes such in his thieving. (But for present I withhold my consent to the proposition that property exists only to prevent conflicts!) So let's adopt this scheme: Whoever has a property title gets eighty percent of the proceeds of their land. The other twenty percent goes to government taxes, to pay for public goods and so on.

Furcifer: That won't do at all, Eugenius; you have misunderstood. It is libertarian property rights that prevent conflicts. Your scheme only will engender conflict over things like the level of taxes, and how they should be spent.

Eugenius: But, given most people are in favour of some level of taxation, won't your libertarian scheme also engender conflict, in particular with those who do not want zero taxation?

Furcifer: Only until they see the logic of libertarian property rights.

Eugenius: Which is?

Furcifer: They prevent conflicts!

Eugenius: Once everyone agrees to them?

Furcifer: Yes, obviously, once everyone agrees to them!

Eugenius: And say, Furcifer, what about a Native American  who claims all of this land we are walking upon was stolen from his people? Will he agree to your property rights scheme?

Furcifer: He will once he understands that all happened a long, long time ago, and we all really need to just move along.

Eugenius: I see. So theft is OK, so long as it occurred long ago. But what about a communist, Furcifer? Won't it be impossible to get him to agree to any scheme of private property rights?

Furcifer: Not once he sees they are needed to prevent conflicts.

Eugenius: But he believes his scheme of communal property is necessary to prevent conflicts.

Furcifer: It will just engender conflicts! Think of how much argument there would be over how to employ these scarce communal resources!

Eugenius: But what if everyone was in complete agreement over how they should be used?

Furcifer: Well, of course, then his scheme would work to prevent conflict.

Eugenius: Just like yours?

Furcifer: Say what?

Eugenius: Well, his scheme, just like yours, does prevent conflicts, but only if everyone agrees to it in all its particulars.

Furcifer: Now, wait just a second, Eugenius!

Eugenius: In fact, wouldn't the first scheme I mentioned, in which owning a piece of property means being entitled to eighty percent of the proceeds from it, wouldn't that prevent conflict, if everyone agreed to it? In fact, wouldn't a scheme in which ownership means getting one percent of the proceeds while the government kept ninety-nine percent prevent conflict, if everyone agreed to it?

Furcifer: Hold on Eugenius, I am sure you are employing more of your verbal trickery to confound me!

Eugenius: Well, Furcifer, while you try to figure out if I may have led you astray somewhere, let me try to sum up what I see to be our conclusion: It turns out that any property scheme will prevent conflicts over the use of scarce resources, just so long as everyone agrees to it. So the point of the contention we originally set out to discuss seems to be this: agreement prevents disagreement!

Furcifer: Eugenius, can you swim in the Gowanus Canal?

Eugenius:I believe I could, Furcifer.

Furcifer: But could you swim in the canal wearing cement overshoes?


  1. Warning: engaging this point with Stephan_Kinsella (which usually happens when you try to talk to him about intellecutal property rights) is a sure-fire way to find yourself pulling your hair out in frustration about how someone can be so confused.

  2. Silas, man, you are like a corn on my foot that I've gotten so used to I would miss it if it ever went away for good!

  3. Um, thanks, I guess. Just to make clear, I agree with the point you're making here, at least as it pertains to this particular way of using the argument that "property rights are necessary to avoid conflict".

  4. I know you are! Sometimes that corn starts to feel durned comfortable.

  5. Your pal Furcival would probably really like Hoppe's argument along these lines in the video and paper mentioned

  6. "He argued that it represented a vast increase in government power and that this was its true purpose."

    As the drafters explicitly said at the time!

  7. I doubt many Federalists would go along with the statement that their goal was "a vast increase in government power." They certainly made it plain that they were interested in establishing a stronger federal government. But they saw this as a means to the end of preserving liberty; and part of their aim was actually to restrain state governments.

    See, e.g., Federalist No. 1 (observing that "the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty" and that "in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated").

  8. Yes, we might ask if they would have ssaid "vast" -- but they certainly thought the central government was too weak, and certainly sought to make it stronger.

  9. This only works because your example of a libertarian is a utilitarian, not a natural rights libertarian. The native would indeed deserve his land back, providing he has a claim or some objective proof, that can show his ancestors really did own the land. And your point about "most people want taxes" is mute in the context of natural rights. I agree, private property isn't just to settle property disputes, because to say that makes it seem like private property has been centrally planned.

    1. "The native would indeed deserve his land back, providing he has a claim or some objective proof, that can show his ancestors really did own the land."

      Wow, Steve, how convenient! Of course no Indians have "objective proof" since they didn't have land registries, so we can just keep living on the land we stole from them. Whoopee!

    2. "This only works because your example of a libertarian is a utilitarian, not a natural rights libertarian."

      So, you're claiming my example only works against the argument it was intended to address, not against some other argument it was not intended to address? How stunning!