Re: A Quasi-Technical Defense of Property Rights

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From: Dave Long (
Date: Wed Mar 01 2000 - 01:28:48 PST

[note: I don't follow your finite/infinite net present value thought
-- care to elucidate the argument?]

So, if a strategy is demonstrably efficient, then it's a right? I
believe it is more efficient consuming pistachios which are easy to
open than those which are difficult[0], but I'm not prepared to argue
that consumption of easy pistachios is a right.

If it's only a matter of avoiding plan interference, then there are
several alternate societal forms which manage that on an equal or
better basis. If one extends property rights to include property
rights over other humans, then by reducing the number of independent
agents the amount of potential plan interference should decrease
greatly. If one gives all property to the sovereign, and allows
them to infeudate domains to their vassals (and subinfeudation to
the planning-optimal domain size), then things should be even better:
with whom can a sovereign have plan interference? (other sovereigns,
for which see /ultima ratio regum/)

> There's a meme floating around that says that natural
> selection isn't the only driver, and that part of the reason life exists
> is to create ever-more complex and large-scale, highly-networked
> "organisms." Society itself is one of those organisms.

How very Victorian[1]. I'd taken a different approach to that meme:
natural selection isn't the only driver; entropy and diffusion
(square root of t) drive life towards ever-more complex and
large-scale, highly-networked "organisms"[2]. However, just because
those of us on FoRK are out near the complex, large-scale, and
networked end of the life distribution, we tend to see it as
"optimal" and not just "outlier".


[0] I have heard this ascribed to a David Crosby interview:
    Q. What's it like being rich?
    A. You know those pistachios that are tough to open? You don't
       bother with those anymore.

[1] What happened to that society? It turns out that another
    part of the reason life exists is to create trench warfare,
    mustard gas, and other means to rapidly destroy patiently
    accumulated capital.

[2] and natural selection mostly works to trim out branches so
    the entropic bush doesn't get too scraggly?

:: :: :: ::

> PS - those damned peasants can still stay the hell off my fallow
> pasture. ;-)

OK, so TJ was a bit of a hippy freak for a dead president, but his
thoughts on this subject are interesting:

>Whenever there is in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed
>poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended
>as to violate natural right." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785

but note also:

>To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that
>of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare to others,
>who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill,
>is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association--'the
>guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits
>acquired by it.'"
>--Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy's "Political Economy," 1816

Now, Mr. Jefferson did do a great deal of thinking about property
rights and the origin of ownership, and apparently came to the
conclusion that property rights, while a good thing, are a benefit
of states, and not a natural right to be protected from them[3]:

>It is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is
>derived from nature at all... It is agreed by those who have seriously
>considered the subject that no individual has, of natural right, a
>separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal
>law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men
>equally and in common is the property for the moment of him who occupies
>it; but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it.
>Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the
>progress of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813.

>A right of property in moveable things is admitted before the
>establishment of government. A separate property in lands,
>not till after that establishment. The right to moveables is
>acknowledged by all the hordes of Indians surrounding us. Yet
>by no one of them has a separate property in lands been yielded to
>individuals. He who plants a field keeps possession till he has
>gathered the produce, after which one has as good a right as another
>to occupy it. Government must be established and laws provided, before
>lands can be separately appropriated, and their owner protected in his
>possession. --Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812.

from the same source, the following is the key argument:

>By nature's law, every man has a right to seize and retake by force
>his own property taken from him by another by force or fraud. Nor is
>this natural right among the first which is taken into the hands of
>regular government after it is instituted. It was long retained by
>our ancestors. It was a part of their common law, laid down in their
>books, recognized by all the authorities, and regulated as to
>circumstances of practice.

Because property is that which the state will defend (on my behalf)
against all other comers (or at least those who cannot show a better
claim), property requires both:
  - a state, and
  - a certain amount of record keeping,
neither of which is very fundamental, and both of which tend to show
up only in relative complex social organizations.

So basically: property rights may be good, but are not held on
the same level as are the rights to life, liberty, or the pursuit
of happiness.

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