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Sunday, April 01, 2012

But Let's Say We Pretend That Your Mother Wasn't a Whore

I know a guy who is kind of troubled. His mother was the town whore where he grew up. His father could have been any of hundreds of guys. He really feels uncomfortable about these facts, so I decided the other day to comfort him.

"I know the solution to your problems!" He looked hopeful. "Here's what we do: We pretend your mother was a virgin! And we pretend your were conceived when Zeus visited her in the form of a swan. There: don't you feel better now?"

"What?! Are you nuts? I know that wasn't the way it happened. So how does that fairy tale help me?"

Well, I guess it doesn't, does it?

My tale is a lot like the stories some libertarians tell themselves about property. A story where someone finds a little plot of land that is entirely unused, fences it with his own labor, and begins to farm it, is a lovely tale. But it has nothing to do with our world, where every property title is sullied by centuries of theft, murder, conquest, expropriation, fraud, extortion, and so on.

When this is noted, these absolute property rights libertarians sometimes respond, "Well, in X, Rothbard handled this: if someone can assert a clear title, the property reverts to them." That's a bit like me assuring my friend, "Well, I just have this feeling your real dad will step forward, and it will turn out he's a swell guy, and was in love with your mom all these years!"

We know that all of our real property titles are dirty as the town whore, but there is about doughnuts' chance at Chris Christie's house that the real dad will show up.

So what right do we have to this property? Well, private property plays an important role in a functioning society, and our society has at present decided that it's best, in general, to let present titles stand. In other words, we own what we own by social convention.

And thus, it is perfectly just for social convention to make alterations in property arrangements as well, and not a matter of "theft," as some people enjoy ludicrously claiming.

21 comments:

  1. Alchian (and Demsetz) are better on this than anyone, I think. Property is the socially accepted relationship between people and resources (including their own mind and body). Yet, I don't think your final point follows from the previous point: theft itself is a social convention, so you can't argue a priori that some reconfiguration of social convention is or is not theft.

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  2. "theft itself is a social convention, so you can't argue a priori that some reconfiguration of social convention is or is not theft."

    Hmm, how could social conventions change so as to say, "Property rights should now stand this way," but at the very same time also hold that, "This arrangement we recommend as good constitutes theft"?

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  3. Just to be clear on the historical data, if we were speaking of Europe, there may be a point since land came to be in premium there. Plus, the Viking invasions forced a feudal system of land ownership to ensure peasant's protection.

    But what about the New World or both the Americas? It was not necessarily always the case. There were large areas where land was not in premium. There would be equally as many cases of people having built estates without conflict or strongarming.

    I suppose this is something you may have researched, so I was wondering what you think about it.

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    1. There certainly must be *some* plots of land where Locke's idea applies. But I would think that, even in the Americas, they would be few and far between. Think of royal grants of huge estates, land captured in warfare, the use of slaves to build wealth, etc.

      And I was talking "property" in general here, Prateek, not just land.

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    2. Why do you believe this thing? Also, "the New World" IS "both the Americas."

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  4. A few points:

    1. Homesteading is a normative theory about how property is justly acquired, not a historical narrative about how property actually arose. The latter would indeed be a fantasy in many cases, but I don't think libertarians believe in that fantasy. Mises even had a passage in Socialism where he explicitly stated that large-scale land ownership was the result of violent expropriation and not market forces. While you granted that only "some" libertarians believe in the fantasy, I honestly have not come across any who have make this mistake.

    2. I think there's a subtle error involved in viewing a property title as an all-or-nothing proposition. Titles are actually relative claims; one can hold superior title as against some claimants, while simultaneously holding inferior title (with respect to the same property) against other claimants.

    To illustrate what I mean with a non-land example, suppose Tamara misplaces her watch in a public park, and I later find it and wear it as my own. Now suppose that Nate comes along and demands I give half the watch to him, insisting that, since I am not its true owner, his claim is therefore "just as good" as mine. In the absence of the true owner, I would have superior title to the watch as against third party latecomers such as Nate. However, if the true owner, Tamara, were to return, she would have a superior claim over mine, and could legally demand the watch from me.

    Thus, the historical fact that a given piece of land may not have a perfectly "clean" (bloodless) chain of title is not grounds for assuming that anyone's claim to that land is just as valid as the current possessor's. It could well be the case that, although there are other parties who have superior claims to my land relative to me, the state (or "society") is *not* one such party. By just assuming that the state does have a legitimately superior title, you are begging the question.

    3. On a related note, it seems very questionable to characterize existing property arrangements as resulting from "society" making a decision about rights. (I call this a related note because I think it is the basis for your view that "society" should be able to alter existing property arrangements at will.) This characterization might be apt if we lived in old-fashioned, small towns grounded in civic republicanism, where there was meaningful and direct decisional input by citizens via town hall meetings and the like, and we all deliberated and decided how property titles should be handled. But the realities of how the state actually produces law is so utterly alien to this, and ordinary citizens are so remote from the locus of political power, that putting it in these terms ("our society...has decided...") is about as naive as the libertarian who describes his home as having come about from a little plot of land that was entirely unused until a pioneer once fenced it with his own labor and began to farm it.

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    1. "Homesteading is a normative theory about how property is justly acquired..."

      I know that, Mike. And since essentially NO property was acquired that way, it is an IRRELEVANT theory about how property is justly required.

      "Thus, the historical fact that a given piece of land may not have a perfectly "clean" (bloodless) chain of title is not grounds for assuming that anyone's claim to that land is just as valid as the current possessor's."

      And I certainly did NOT assume that!

      "It could well be the case that, although there are other parties who have superior claims to my land relative to me, the state (or "society") is *not* one such party. By just assuming that the state does have a legitimately superior title, you are begging the question."

      And I didn't just assume that, either! I noted that once we dismiss the fantasy of homesteading, we can see that current property rights are based on social agreement. And so they can be altered by the same.

      "But the realities of how the state actually produces law is so utterly alien to this, and ordinary citizens are so remote from the locus of political power, that putting it in these terms ("our society...has decided...") is about as naive..."

      These are the political decision making arrangements our society happens to have at present. I don't think they are perfect, or reflect some "general will." They just happen to be how things like property law REALLY ARE decided in the world we live in. So there is nothing in the least naive about my view: it's entirely based on realistically looking at the world that really exists around us.

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  5. "since essentially NO property was acquired that way, it is an IRRELEVANT theory about how property is justly required."

    I disagree. If a moral principle is right, then it is right regardless of how few people have followed it in the past. And if it is wrong, it is wrong no matter how many have violated it. Homesteading theory may be right or wrong, but it's hardly irrelevant.

    "I don't think they are perfect, or reflect some "general will." They just happen to be how things like property law REALLY ARE decided in the world we live in."

    I guess what's most disturbing to me about this post is that the gist of what you're saying seems to be: anything the state happens to decide about property law (and presumably other law) is automatically okay, because that's just how the world works. Let me ask you this, then. Is there any conceivable alteration to existing property arrangements that you would regard as unjust or illegitimate, and if so, what would that be?

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    1. Mike, here is another theory about how property could be justly acquired: God appears from heaven, creates a new good out of nothing, hands it to you, and announces, "This now belongs to Mike!"

      That would certainly be a just way to acquire property. But this theory is irrelevant since that is not how any of us actually came by our property.

      Homesteading is a nice theory about how property MIGHT have come into existence. In a world perfectly described by homesteading theory, it might even make sense to say "Taxes are theft."

      What is nonsense is to move from homesteading theory, to the real world of property with 99.99% dirty titles, and then claim that the fact that homesteaded property is justly held shows that taxation is theft.

      "I guess what's most disturbing to me about this post is that the gist of what you're saying seems to be: anything the state happens to decide about property law (and presumably other law) is automatically okay..."

      Mike, if you are going to keep inventing something entirely other than what I wrote and filling it in for what I wrote, that means:

      1) Your libertarian views will remain well protected from counter-argument; and
      2) Our conversation will never get far.

      You have confused:
      1) Social re-arrangements of property titles are not inherently unjust; with
      2) ALL social re-arrangements of property titles are inherently just.

      What a colossal muddle! It's as if someone said to you, "SOME speech is polite," and you respond, "Oh, so you seem to think ALL speech ever spoken is polite, simply because someone once said it!"

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  6. Sheesh, I dunno why an honest misinterpretation of what you were trying to say elicited such a prickly reply. If all you were saying is #1 (social re-arrangements are not inherently unjust), then sorry, I misunderstood you.

    #1 is a pretty modest claim, and I agree with it. But one reason I did not originally think you were making only this claim is because Rothbardians agree with it as well, and you are explicitly arguing against their position in this thread! For example, under prevailing law, if a Cherokee Indian were to prove by clear and convincing evidence that my ancestors stole his ancestors' land 300 years ago, the law would not recognize the Cherokee's claim to the land today, due to the legal doctrine of adverse possession. My presently existing, "dirty" title would therefore prevail. Yet Rothbardian theory would upset my title and demand the opposite result, that the land be returned to the Cherokee. Thus, the Rothbardian, too, accepts the fairly weak claim that some social re-arrangements of property titles can be just.

    Also, recall that what you actually said was: "thus, it is perfectly just for social convention to make alterations in property arrangements as well." I didn't see any qualifier that this only applied to some (most?) alterations but not others. More importantly, it was far from self-evident that you would be willing to recognize limiting principles as to what society could decide in these matters given what you've written in this thread, and I'm *still* not clear on what you think those limiting principles are or how you would justify them.

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    1. '"thus, it is perfectly just for social convention to make alterations in property arrangements as well." I didn't see any qualifier that this only applied to some (most?) alterations but not others.'

      Mike...

      G: It is perfectly just to use a knife.

      M: So you think stabbing whomever you want is fine?

      G: Mike, because some uses of a knife are fine, that doesn't mean all are!

      M: You didn't spell that out!

      G: No, I was counting on a reader making a good-faith effort to understand what I was saying.

      M: Plus, you didn't lay out an exact set of rules for when knives may be used and when they may not.

      G: No, I didn't. That's because I was just showing that using knives per se is not inherently bad.

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    2. "But one reason I did not originally think you were making only this claim is because Rothbardians agree with it as well..."

      Mike, I specifically noted I was aiming at a claim like, "Taxation is theft."

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    3. For example, under prevailing law, if a Cherokee Indian were to prove by clear and convincing evidence that my ancestors stole his ancestors' land 300 years ago, the law would not recognize the Cherokee's claim to the land today, due to the legal doctrine of adverse possession. My presently existing, "dirty" title would therefore prevail. Yet Rothbardian theory would upset my title and demand the opposite result, that the land be returned to the Cherokee/

      I'm impressed by the sheer gall of this defense of Rothbardian theory. It adds a twist of cruelty to a cocktail of intellectual fraud.

      The social fact of conquest obliterates the record of prior claims. It does this through murder. It does this through chaos. It does it through the deliberate destruction of records. That is what conquest is for. But hey, Mister Cherokee, if you can produce a "clear and convincing" claim according to a legal regime you may not have assented to at the time which was bent on your dispossession: do-over! *snigger snigger* our philosophy is the pinnacle of justice.

      I can almost see Rothbardians laughing discreetly into their sleeves.

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    4. Meanwhile, we can look at your hypothetical land case from a statistical perspective:

      There is ZERO chance a white person possesses a "clean claim" in a Lockean sense to any given piece of land in huge swaths of Georgia. There is a GREATER-THAN-ZERO chance that a random person who can prove Cherokee lineage possesses such a claim. It will be a very small amount greater than zero. But that beats the dead certainty that every white person on that land holds it due to prior theft.

      Bayesian Cherokee Wins In Supreme Lockean Court!

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  7. -----
    Mike, here is another theory about how property could be justly acquired: God appears from heaven, creates a new good out of nothing, hands it to you, and announces, "This now belongs to Mike!"

    That would certainly be a just way to acquire property. But this theory is irrelevant since that is not how any of us actually came by our property.
    -----

    I've heard Israel called a lot of things, but never "irrelevant."

    As I understand the actual core of your point, it's a valid one: Many libertarians conflate what has actually happened with what they believe to be just. That's true, and it's a big problem.

    That conflation, however, does not magically make the latter-mentioned belief "irrelevant." In the 20th century, a group of people attempted to impose their theory of justice and (at least equally silly) interpretation of history on 1/3 of the world, with some success (and a few of those regimes are still around). Was Marxism/Leninism, like Israel, "irrelevant?"

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    1. Tom, by "us," I meant those currently living. And by "relevant," I meant "logically relevant."

      Of course, if someone believes Martians occupy the White House, that fact is relevant to explaining why they aimed their ray gun at the building. But someone who says, "The matter of Martians is irrelevant to Obama's policies" is making a normative claim: if one wishes to think rationally, the matter *ought* to be irrelevant.

      And really, Tom, "magically"? Is it necessary to embellish your flagrant misreadings with sneers?

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  8. Gene,

    "Is it necessary to embellish your flagrant misreadings with sneers?"

    Of course not. But I do enjoy your style and am often moved to emulate it.

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  9. > our society has at present decided that it's best, in general, to let present titles stand. In other words, we own what we own by social convention.

    I don't know... there's too much is and ought mixing in the discussion.

    If by property, I mean some "oughtish" thing: X is my property if I ought to control/allocate X. This does not change even if X is stolen from me. The thief may control/allocate it, but he ought not to do so. I ought to. It is still my property.

    If by property, I mean "control," then the thief gains the property (the control) and I lose it.

    The whole "justice of social rearrangement" does not make sense without specifying exactly what kind of property we're talking about. I believe in the Rothbardian theory, property is strictly oughtish. Further, as stated above, if someone with a better claim appears, then he becomes the just ought owner [the guy who ought to allocate the thing].

    The only just "rearrangements" (transfers of control) are the ones which line up with oughtish principles [homesteading, reparation payment, etc]. It does not matter whether it is "society" doing the rearrangement or one guy (e.g. acting as the victim's agent).

    Whether a given property title has a "clean" control history does not directly affect it's current "ought holder" (although I think you can get weird interactions between property titles if you have stuff being transferred around for reparation payment).

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  10. "Society" can't allocate or decide anything. Society can't act. Only individuals can act. The fact that several or even ALL individuals might act in the same way does not change this fact.

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    1. Blah blah blah, blah blah blah.

      As I've noted before, methodological individualism is obviously false, but it serves a purpose: it protects individualist ideology from even having to engage in arguments about social choices.

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  11. Even back when I was a much more doctrinaire libertarian than I am now, I had developed what is to my mind a novel theory of property. I would say that property by definition is composed of two parts, which I call moral ownership and dibs. Moral ownership is what I created and dibs is whatever the natural world provides us that I used in my creation. Different properties have different proportions between the two. If I make a tool or a painting using raw materials that are abundant and freely available, then the trade value of what I have dibs on is minimal, so that property is almost all moral ownership. It would be wrong for someone to take that from me because I created it. On the other hand, if I have a plot of fertile land that I fenced off and have been picking berries from, then my contribution of “creating” the plot of land is close to zero, so that is almost exclusively a case of me having dibs on something valuable. Dibs is basically a social agreement between myself and my neighbors, so the specific rules that govern it will vary depending on social norms.

    What this framework shows is that any property can be treated as a moral right/wrong issue or as a social construct, because each property contains both moral ownership and dibs. However, in the case of a property that contains very little dibs, it starts to seem absurd to pretend that it is a social construct and, likewise, in the case of a property that is almost all dibs, it is ridiculous to treat it as a moral issue. Most things are somewhere in between.

    I haven’t addressed trade here. Whether moral ownership can be transferred voluntarily is outside of the simple model I’ve described. I also haven’t addressed the “dirty title” issue that is really the point of the original post. I would say that dibs is the default; in other words, moral ownership exists only to the extent that it can be shown to exist. If I possess a ring of unknown origin, there’s a good chance that someone in the past simply found it laying around somewhere and took it, which (assuming that giving it back to its creator was not a realistic option) is basically the same transaction as picking an orange off a tree, i.e. almost pure dibs – even though I know logically that someone must have had moral ownership of this thing in the past, I have no reason to think that I do.

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