Murphy Mocks Libertarians

Showing the complete arbitrariness of libertarian property rights arguments by presenting an ad hoc, desperate attempt to avoid the obvious consequences of the position:
I wanted to push back against Steve Landsburg casually saying that libertarian property rights theory doesn’t work. I thought Rothbard probably handled this type of thing, but I was pleasantly surprised to see just how specific it was. Here’s Rothbard:
Consider the case of radio waves, which is a crossing of other people’s boundaries that is invisible and insensible in every way to the property owner. We are all bombarded by radio waves that cross our properties without our knowledge or consent. Are they invasive and should they therefore be illegal, now that we have scientific devices to detect such waves? Are we then to outlaw all radio transmission? And if not, why not?

The reason why not is that these boundary crossings do not interfere with anyone’s exclusive possession, use or enjoyment of their property. They are invisible, cannot be detected by man’s senses, and do no harm. They are therefore not really invasions of property, for we must refine our concept of invasion to mean not just boundary crossing, but boundary crossings that in some way interfere with the owner’s use or enjoyment of this property. What counts is whether the senses of the property owner are interfered with.

But suppose it is later discovered that radio waves are harmful, that they cause cancer or some other illness? Then they would be interfering with the use of the property in one’s person and should be illegal and enjoined, provided of course that this proof of harm and the causal connection between the specific invaders and specific victims are established beyond a reasonable doubt.
This argument is so bad I doubt Rothbard put it forward thinking it worked: he was merely chucking up whatever he can to rally the troops. First of all, what the hell happened to value subjectivism?! "They are therefore not really invasions of property, for we must refine our concept of invasion to mean not just boundary crossing, but boundary crossings that in some way interfere with the owner’s use or enjoyment of this property." So, I say I can't enjoy my property if it is all full of radio waves: How is Rothbard going to prove that is wrong? Thus he writes:

"What counts is whether the senses of the property owner are interfered with."

The senses?!  Since when are property rights violations about anyone's senses? Does this mean if I can keep sneaking on and off your property without you detecting I did so, everything is A-OK? What if I shoot radiation across your property that you can't sense, but that causes cancer 40 years later? Apparently, I can even steal things from you, as long as you never sense that I have done so!

And check out this gem:

"Consider the case of radio waves, which is a crossing of other people’s boundaries that is invisible and insensible in every way to the property owner."

Psst, Murray, all we have to do to sense these waves is... turn on the radio! And then we get:

"But suppose it is later discovered that radio waves are harmful, that they cause cancer or some other illness? Then they would be interfering with the use of the property in one’s person and should be illegal."

So, I can only stop things from crossing my property lines when it is proved they are harmful?

And Rothbard didn’t even attempt a harder case, like smoke from a BBQ, which absolutely is harmful and can definitely alter someone’s enjoyment of their property in a real, tangible way.

But none of that is the worst part of this argument. The worst part is that, while supposedly a defense of absolute property rights, it in fact abandons the notion: per this argument, your property rights aren't absolute (of course they aren't, but that is not what Rothbard wants to claim): your property rights are at the whim of... who? a panel of experts? the Mises Institute?... who get to decide when your property rights have and when they have not been violated, whatever you may think about it.

7 comments:

  1. The worst part is that, while supposedly a defense of absolute property rights, it in fact abandons the notion: per this argument, your property rights aren't absolute…

    I suspect the notion of "absolute" as opposed to "limited" rights doesn't make much sense. Whether or not free speech extends to libel, I think calling it "absolute" or "limited" depends on your perspective (think glass half empty or glass half full).

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  2. "What counts is whether the senses of the property owner are interfered with."

    The senses?! Since when are property rights violations about anyone's senses? Does this mean if I can keep sneaking on and off your property without you detecting I did so, everything is A-OK? What if I shoot radiation across your property that you can't sense, but that causes cancer 40 years later? Apparently, I can even steal things from you, as long as you never sense that I have done so!


    I really hate to defend Rothbard, but I think he means "in this case".

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    1. But why all of a sudden in *this* case are the senses the key question?

      Ad hoc.

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    2. Exactly right Gene. A normal human being, who sees property rights as a social convention subject to discussion can sensibly talk about senses and feelings, and what the limits of ownership should be. But Rothbard claims an apodictic, a priori certainty about property rights. Your objection is spot on.

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    3. Okay, but what is wrong with "ad hoc" reasoning?

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    4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hoc#ad_hoc_hypothesis

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  3. I'd really love to get your evaluation and analysis of "Human Rights" as Property Rights. That piece has been bugging me for a few years and I can never put my finger on why and how it is wrong.

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