ownership as moral right?

Kragen Sitaker (kragen@pobox.com)
Tue, 3 Aug 1999 21:25:53 -0400 (EDT)

I see that some people are very interested in this topic, but most of
you have probably heard the argument before. I have picked a subject
which, I think, captures the essence of the disagreement in a neutral
way; if the folks I disagree with agree with me about what we're
disagreeing about, they can leave the subject unchanged, making the
discussion easy to filter.

I have numbered the paragraphs for ease of reference, and to make it
easier to keep track of which points have been responded to.

Many thanks to Marcia Pineda for waking me up. :)

Jeff Bone writes (J.1):
> [Kragen wrote:]
> > This is hard to argue with; it is a dogma, an
> > axiom, not a conclusion from logical bases.
> I'm don't agree with that --- your assessment flies in the face of
> *lots* of academic study and discussion of the notion of property. The
> initial concept of property --- call it "First Property" --- extends
> from the idea that we at least "own" --- i.e., have sovereign control
> over --- at least one thing: our bodies. Once you've introduced the
> notion of ownership and property, it is easy and natural to extend the
> concepts beyond the body.

K.1. Well, I'll wait until later [K.33] to argue with this paragraph,
but it doesn't fundamentally disagree with what I was saying.

K.2. What I was saying is that the idea that property is a natural right
is not a conclusion from premises, but a premise in itself. So I can't
show that the reasoning by which you arrived at this idea or the
premises upon which it is based are flawed, because there is no
reasoning or premises. This is not a criticism of the idea; you have
to have *some* premises. But it is important that you recognize them
as premises or axioms, not as logical conclusions.

> And I completely respect your right to disagree; you can refuse to
> recognize the concept of or to own property if you want, that's no skin
> off my back. But if you act to deny my right to property, you have
> stepped beyond your philosophy and into my reality --- not a nice thing,
> kemo sabe, I deny your right to do *that.* (And that's one of the only
> rights I will deny you.) I am sovereign in my world; I'm happy to let
> you be sovereign in yours, if you don't adversely impact mine. When you
> start screwing with my reality, though, I have a right to defend it.

K.3. It appears you have assumed that your reality and my reality are
different realities. But actually, we live in the same reality.
Whenever you claim a property right over something in this shared
reality, you affect me; you may harm me. In some cases [K.13], you may
even prevent me from living.

K.4. If we lived in different realities, we would have no need for
rights. But since we live in the same reality, we need to have some
way of living together harmoniously.

K.5. It appears that what you are suggesting is that you respect my right
to disagree, as long as I implicitly accept your beliefs about what
things belong to you and what you can do with them. Have I
misunderstood you?

> > One is that commons tend to be overgrazed.
> Yes, yes, you'd think somebody would've come up with a more modern /
> less feudal example 'lo these last two hundred years....

K.6. Heh. Minor quibble: the widely-read article entitled _The Tragedy
Of The Commons_ was published in the 1960s, although I wouldn't be
surprised if it were based in two-hundred-year-old historical fact and
had been an economics commonplace for some time. (Any economic
historians have more information?)

> > My dogma is that
> > people should be good to each other and live together harmoniously so
> > that they can develop their intellectual, artistic, and spiritual
> > capacities.
> Fine, whatever. But the basic problem is that your argument proceeds
> from the notion that "the common good" is a real thing. This is
> questionable. In my opinion, there is no such thing as the common good,
> just the good of the individual. There may be overlap in interests
> between several individuals, but that forms a basis for cooperation, not
> a thing in itself. "The common good" is one of those dangerous
> abstractions, like "God" or "nation" or "family values" or "race," that
> are slippery enough and yet compelling enough to cause a whole lot of
> grief.

K.6. I didn't mention the common good. I mentioned the good of
individuals, referred to as "people", plural not singular.

K.7. I agree with you that coming up with a consistent, non-slippery
definition of the "common good" is difficult, perhaps impossible.
Arrow's Impossibility Theorem shows that it is, at least, hard to pin

K.8. Nevertheless, I believe there is such a thing. I believe that all
human beings are equally important -- you have to have some method of
making people's preference commensurable, and while money has its
practical advantages, it is not suitable as the foundation of an
ethical system -- and that the common good is the only legitimate goal
of society and government. Of course, nearly all the time, the common
good is good for everyone.

K.9. I recognize that you disagree. I don't expect to convince you
this way :)

K.10. But I think you'll see, if you look at the way our respective
moralities play out in the paragraphs that follow, that yours is mostly
Internally consistent, but leads to lousy conclusions, while mine is
perhaps less well thought out, but leads to better conclusions. Maybe
you can show me that I am mistaken. :)

> Many people work their entire lives to provide security for their
> families, friends, and loved ones. If the creation of this sort of
> security is one's life's work, then why should anyone be able to claim
> the proceeds and benefits of it without the consent of the person that
> created that wealth? Wouldn't forfeiture of such created wealth provide
> negative incentive for hard work? It would for me. I don't
> particularly need a Lear Jet or a Porsche, but I have a strong innate
> desire to ensure the security of my progeny. If I know I forfeit
> everything I work for at death, screw it, I'm not incented to work as
> hard.

K.11. I do not believe that the purpose of human society is to incent
people to work harder. Is that what you believe?

K.12. I do believe that incenting people to work harder is sometimes
good as a means to their development, their children's development,

K.12.1. I will not bother to debate the idea that dying with a million
dollars is the result of creating a million dollars' extra wealth
during one's life, while dying with none is the result of creating no
extra wealth. Let it be noted that I disagree with it.

> But back to your argument: the "peasants" have every right to revolt if
> they don't like the way I'm using *my* quote-unquote "common lands."
> (Let's imagine that these lands are lands I purchased after selling a
> patent to a new method of increasing hay production; let's not assume
> anything silly like these are feudally-granted lands. And by the way,
> maybe I'm letting it lie fallow because it's been overgrazed in the
> past, and needs a few seasons to get back to prime fertility and
> production. Stupid peasants! ;-) And I have every right to shoot every
> one of those damn peasants dead in defense for threatening my life,
> livelihood, and property. But in that case, who is in the wrong? It is
> the peasants' reckless and immoral action that requires my reaction.

K.13. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that it is wrong
for the peasants to try to make a living from your land without your
permission, and that it is not wrong for you to kill them to stop them
from doing so, because by doing so, they are endangering your property
(by which they may have endangered your livelihood and, by extension,
your life. Is that correct?

K.13.1. Is it still correct if the land is just lying fallow because
you haven't felt like cultivating it?

K.13.2. Is it still correct if you have more than enough income from
your patent portfolio, so that the peasants are not actually
endangering your life or livelihood?

K.13.3. Is it still correct if the peasants believe they own the land?

K.13.4. Is it still correct if the guy who sold you the land took it
from the peasants' grandparents by force? (This question is not merely
an intellectual exercise; most of the land in the US was taken from
somebody's grandparents by force.)

K.13.5. Is it still correct if the "peasants"' alternatives are to try
to make a living off your land, try to make a living off of someone
else's land, or starve to death?

K.14. I expect 'yes' answers to all of the above questions, but I ask
them because I want to be sure I understand your views.

K.15. Do you think you have an obligation to warn the peasants and give
them a chance to leave first?

K.16. Do you think you have an obligation to use less violent means to
get the peasants to leave if possible, e.g. tear gas?

K.17. Do you believe the peasants have the right to shoot back if they
think they own the land? (See K.13.4 for one possible situation.)

K.18. If they were right and you were mistaken, were you wrong to try
to kill them?

K.19. Under what circumstances can someone legitimately take possession
of unowned land, e.g. on the Moon? (I note that answering yes to
K.13.1 means you have rejected the Lockean theory of land tenure.)

> The notion of "common good" and "common ownership" is a dangerous thing
> and proceeds in itself to dangerous excesses and social turmoil.

K.19. It certainly lends itself to political manipulation. But as you
can see above, the notion of "private property" proceeds in itself to
dangerous excesses and social turmoil. If the peasants' alternatives
are starving to death, accepting brutal contracts that starve most of
their children to death, or getting shot at, you can bet there's going
to be social turmoil. (cf. post-Reconstruction American South.)

> God, Greg, are you sure? How can *anyone know*? The tax code is
> thousands and thousands of pages of dense legalese. That in *itself* is
> evil, dontcha think?

K.20. I agree wholeheartedly.

> Some of you probably played some variation of a playground game called
> "King of the Hill" when you were kids. It's a kind of asinine game
> where one person stands on the top of a mound of dirt or whatever;
> everyone else attempts to push that person off and take their place,
> while the defender attempts to fend off encroachments.
> Most dangerous political memes are a variation on that theme. Socialist
> and "social democratic" ideals are a particularly icky version of this:
> they assume that the hill should be apportioned according to some
> imaginary common good. There are two fundamental problems with this
> notion: first, it requires that *someone* be the judge of how that
> resource --- i.e., the hill --- be apportioned, according to a common
> good that may in fact not be agreed to by everyone involved. Second,
> and more insidious, it assumes that resources are limited, that there is
> only one hill. In fact, Socialism is just a particularly elegant,
> intellectual exercise in justifying theft of apparently limited
> resources by claiming the existance of a universal common good. And
> it's particularly short-sighted; if even short-changes the idea of a
> long-term common good.

K.21. I was tempted to add, "like fundamentalist propertarian
"anarcho-capitalism"?" after "that theme", but that wouldn't be fair --
it would break the flow of your paragraph.

K.22. The ideals you espouse don't appear to eliminate the problem of
who gets how much of the hill; they simply say that everyone should
keep whatever part of the hill they currently have, regardless of how
it was obtained, and do with it what they please.

K.23. And yes, discussing things in these terms does assume that
resources are limited. The fact of the matter is, resources at any
given time *are* limited, and there are people everywhere who suffer
and die from lack of resources. Of course, expanding the available
wealth, such as by technical innovation, is a praiseworthy pursuit and
one that is totally ignored by many political theories, such as

K.24. But the reason people are starving to death today is not because
we don't have enough total wealth to go around. The reason people are
starving to death is that not enough wealth is allocated to the people
who need it most.

K.25. And yes, part of the problem has to do with what the starving
people themselves are doing. Drinking Sunny Delite instead of orange
juice leads to malnutrition; feeding babies formula instead of breast
milk leads to infections. This is generally due to ignorance and
economic pressures. (How many fast-food stores do you think have
lactating rooms?)

K.25.1. If you have one person doing something stupid and
self-destructive, you have a person with trouble. If you have a
million people doing the same thing, you have a social issue and you
need to seek a social solution.

K.26. Socialism is not an elegant intellectual exercise; it is a way of
structuring society that is used successfully in several countries with
lower rates of poverty, infant mortality, malnutrition (!), and people
without access to health care than the US, although these countries
generally have lower per-capita GNPs and higher unemployment. Such
countries include Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and

> People, resources aren't limited. Practically speaking, we have at our
> disposal essentially unlimited resources. Even on the Earth, there are
> far more resources than we often acknowledge. A sort of Malthusian fear
> of resource exhaustion coupled with the heritage of feudalism has been
> the source of lots of dangerous ideology over the last couple of
> centuries. In fact, as far as land goes, I read somewhere that the
> entire human population of the Earth could be closely packed into a land
> area the size of Florida --- albeit unpleasantly. As for consumable
> resources, there is a growing ecological / economic recognition that we
> are constantly gaining greater ability to use such resources more
> efficiently and sustainably, and that this trend offsets --- or will
> eventually be able to offset --- rising demand for consumable
> resources. (This of course does not excuse resource waste.)

K.27. 5.5 billion people at 3 square feet per person is 16.5 billion
square feet, 1.65 x 10^10. That's 1.28 x 10^5 feet square, or 128,000
feet -- about 24 miles square. That's about the size of Miami, I think.

K.28. While your point about practically-unlimited resources is true,
it is only true of the whole human race. It is not true for most
individual human beings, who have extremely limited resources available
to them, because a small minority of other individual human beings have
locked up most of the resources.

> All this quibbling over this one mound of dirt misses the greater
> point: that we can each have whatever resources we want. We don't have
> to fight over a particular hill; we can, if we work hard, have our own
> hills. And we don't have just one hill --- we have the whole universe
> at our disposal.

K.29. I know people who have worked extremely hard for decades, and
still wish they had access to more resources, such as enough money to
send their kids to a good college. I suspect that your experience has
been different. :)

K.30. Anyway, if your point is true -- and I think it is -- then there
is no reason for anyone, ever, to have to go without, because there's
more than enough for everyone. Establishing a social system where some
people hold property while others starve might be a rational thing to
do in a world of great scarcity, because the alternative could be that
everyone starves. But in a world of unlimited wealth, everyone can
have more than enough.

> An interesting argument against taxation and in defense of property just
> occurred to me.
> Surely everyone on this list is opposed to the concept of chattel
> slavery. We can all surely agree that the notion of "First Property" is
> sound, and that every human has the right to exercise control over their
> own body and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Thus, if you deny
> chattel slavery, you have therefore endorsed the notion of property, and
> endorsed it in a strongly individualistic way.

K.31. I'm not certain exactly what you mean by 'chattel'; a dictionary
definition follows:

Chattel \Chat"tel\, n. [OF. chatel; another form of catel. See
Cattle.] (Law)
Any item of movable or immovable property except the
freehold, or the things which are parcel of it. It is a more
extensive term than goods or effects.

Note: Chattels are personal or real: personal are such as are
movable, as goods, plate, money; real are such rights
in land as are less than a freehold, as leases,
mortgages, growing corn, etc.

K.32. So I assume, by 'chattel slavery', you mean treating one person
as movable property of another, analogous to goods, plate, or money.

K.33. If I understand the closing sentence of this paragraph correctly,
you are saying that any person whose ethical system is sensible who
also rejects chattel slavery necessarily endorses the idea of private
property in a strongly individualistic way. The logical conclusion
from this statement is that any person whose ethical system is sensible
and who rejects the idea of private property, or at least doesn't
endorse it in a strongly individualistic way, must therefore accept
chattel slavery.

K.34. Arguing that rejecting the idea of property implies accepting the
idea of human beings *being* property is clearly nonsense.

K.35. The problem is that you are assuming that the *only* reason
someone could possibly reject the idea of slavery is that they accept
this First Property dogma. This is only true if you already believe
that property is the most important ethical value. (In [J.6], you seem
to argue that property is a more important value than not killing
people indiscriminately, although perhaps I have misunderstood.)

K.36. There are, in fact, people who believe that slavery is immoral,
either because they believe in human liberty, because they believe in
some divinely-ordained order that doesn't include slavery, or whatever,
but who do not believe in any kind of innate right to property.

K.37. Actually, though, the logical conclusion from my limited
understanding of your beliefs is the opposite. In an earlier mail, you
said that you don't think anyone has a right to take away your
property, ever, under any circumstances, including the government. Do
you believe (as some people do) that forbidding you from selling some
piece of your property is equivalent to taking it away? If so, then
under the First Property doctrine, you have an absolute right to sell
yourself into slavery.

K.38. Is that really what you believe?

K.39. If your moral system grants everyone an absolute right to engage
in prostitution, slavery, and indiscriminate murder of those who
violate their property rights, yet prohibits people from picking fruit
from their neighbor's apple tree when they're starving to death, then
what the hell kind of moral system is it? Doesn't it hurt your common
sense to assert these things?

> Further, forget "coercion" or "theft" --- (income or estate) taxation is
> tantamount to slavery. It is the garnishing of the fruits of one's
> labors "for the common good." In essence, when (at least income) is
> taxed, I am enslaved to the government. When estates are taxed, I have
> been retroactively enslaved to the government.

K.40. This is curiously inconsistent. You don't have to work like a
slave does. Indeed, you can freely choose to emigrate to another
country where taxes will be lower, or nonexistent if you can find one.
If you can't find a country that will let you work without taxation,
well, you're no more enslaved than the sharecroppers in (K.19) were,
the ones who couldn't make a living except well under the poverty line
because they couldn't find a landowner who would give them a decent
deal. In fact, since in this country, you get to keep between half and
four-fifths of what you make, you're much less enslaved than they

> The problem is that most laws, taxes, and so forth are ideologically
> motivated by a notion of "the common good." However, the popular /
> powerful / wealthy are far more capable of both shaping the rules and
> circumventing them than the less fortunate. (If that's not a good
> argument against law in general I don't know what is. ;-) The people
> who tend to be most adversely effected by taxes / the law are those who
> it is most intended to serve; the billionaire passes on a large part
> or even most of his estate, while the hard-working upper middle class
> guy who worked all his life is able to leave little for his family,
> perhaps even leaves debt. I fail to see how the common good --- if you
> even believe that there is such a thing --- is served by this.

K.41. Yes, this is a big problem. To a great extent, the government
does not serve the common good; it serves the interests of the

K.42. Complex governments like ours, with elaborate tax codes, criminal
codes, and civil codes, as well as massive amounts of caselaw to add
further elaboration, are even worse than simpler governments. A
country whose law can't be understood by the average person is a
country where the average person can't abide by the law.

K.43. I tend to think that no government at all would be even worse.

<kragen@pobox.com>       Kragen Sitaker     <http://www.pobox.com/~kragen/>
Tue Aug 03 1999
96 days until the Internet stock bubble bursts on Monday, 1999-11-08.