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The Meaning of Property and Freedom

A reply to Jonathan Wilson's inquiry.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 10, 2004

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Jonathan Wilson writes:
1. Where does the claim to private property originate? I will offer you my answer as I understand it: History tells me that government is a function of property owners to defend their monopoly. The claim to property must be staked to the quickest and held by the strongest; there are no external checks on the size of the claim. This means there are winners and losers, haves and have-nots. History shows me that as much property is claimed as can be defended. The defense of property being the first duty of an armed functionary, we see the beginning of standing armies loyal to people (the lord owns the land) and principles (if the lord did not own the land we would sink into chaos and instability and hunger) beyond themselves. These armed functionaries, like my ancestors, are drawn from the groups of people too slow and weak to stake and keep claims to private property (i.e. serfs, peasants, my ancestors).
(Letters to the Editor, 6/2/2004, in response to Scott C. Haley's article "How Much Freedom Should We Have?")

My Reply:

Property is often thought of as private ownership over a bordered geographical area. That is but one form of property, and certainly doesn’t define the concept. Property in its original sense is the application of one’s own labor to a natural resource to make it beneficial for humans. The fruit on the tree does no good to man; but when the man picks the fruit from the tree, the picked fruit becomes his property. He saw benefits - self-improvement - from picking the fruit from the tree. That’s why he does it.

When this understanding of labor is applied to to uninhabited land, the person who makes it useful to himself, becomes the owner of it. If he builds a house and cultivates a garden, that is no loss to anyone else, because no one else had seen it fit to settle that land. If the surrounding land remains unsettled, he can not claim it as his own and then not use it; he must employ his labor on that land. The more he cultivates, the more he claims as his property. And if his labor is applied to more and more land, the more it is his, until it extends to the property of another man who has done the same thing - at which point, there becomes a border.

Thus, the notion of "property rights" is not the same as claiming by might more territory than one can readily exert labor on, as Jonathan Wilson suggests. The origins of property is the respect for the product of a man’s labor, the concept that no one else has the right to damage it or take from it without his consent. The foundation of law is the basic recognition that no one has the right to take from a man the products of his own labor. And as labor in its simplest form is none other than a man’s attempt to find nourishment and other means to survive, so it could be said that the only reason we labor at all is that we have to to survive. And that which we work for, we own. The right to property is the foundation of the right to life and all other rights.

As society increases in population and complexity, including trades and the development of markets, it still remains the case that a person has the right to his "property," even if it is just a paycheck. Most people live or work on land belonging to others, and are content doing so. They work under a complex, specialized division of labor devised and supervised by others, for financial compensation. But that paycheck is his property nevertheless.

That’s the conceptual foundation of property.

Jonthan Wilson writes:
2. When private property is successfully claimed and defended, an equilibrium develops. This is when property owners choose to stop competing with each other and choose to start cooperating. A government that represents a consortium of property owners is empowered to make choices on behalf of all of them, such as, where to build a road to facilitate the overland trade between properties. This leads to my second question: Where do roads and other features of cooperative infrastructure come from? Where should they come from?

My Reply:
Where did roads originally originate? Explorers blazing trails, seeking "new life, and new civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before?" Who were they, and what was their motivation? Were they typically agents of a State? Unlikely, because a society’s formal government, in order to function, must already be wealthy enough, with diverse resources and imported goods, to have already benefited from trade across large expanses of territory.

Most likely, it was explorers employed by what we would today call merchants, or who were themselves entrepreneurs, aware that the world was much larger than the few communities which they were aware of, and who sought to find new communities and to discover more wealth. If this is the case then, it should be the case now. If there is profit to be made between cities, across oceans, on the ocean floor, or in outer space, then modern corporations can join together in cartels, pool their resources, do the research, construct the vessels, insure the crew, provide the security, and reap the profits.

The legendary Roman roads provide an example. They were built by the Roman government for the swift movement of the Roman armies, not for the most convenient trade between the merchants in the major commercial cities. And the costs of maintaining the Empire came at the expense of the wealth of the market, which is why it gradually crumbled.

It is a rule of thumb (for me at least) that that which is unjust for a King or a dictator to do, is also unjust for a democratic-republican form of government to do. It is not relevant what the stated intention is; a well-meaning King has no right to ask anyone to pay 40% of his income in taxes, and therefore no well-meaning democratically-elected politician is justified to ask the same of those who voted against him.

There is no mechanism in the State to recognize which "public goods"are valid for the State to undertake, and which should be left to the free market. They have no way of knowing whether this or that science project, or highway, or airport, will only be a wasteful boondoggle benefiting contractors, and which will benefit the people.

The answer to the question, "Shouldn’t the government at least build lighthouses in order to avoid shipwrecks?" can be answered by another question: "Shouldn’t merchants build lighthouses to avoid shipwrecks and the destruction of their cargo?"

What about "free riders," those who enjoy the obvious public advantages of public goods, like small boat-owners taking advantage of lighthouses, without paying for them? The response to this would be, what about them?

Our pop culture has produced some outstanding art, entertainment, and athletic achievement - all underwritten by sponsors and advertisers who know full well that the audience is under no obligation to buy their products. So it goes with lighthouses: the recreational boaters get a free advantage, but they will also probably buy the products brought in by the merchant vessels.

So government-funded public works is ultimately a subsidy for private commercial interests: they reap the benefits of the improved commercial infrastructure such as it is, but the taxpayer foots the bill for the wasteful pork and ill-conceived boondoggles. Public works themselves ultimately serve private interests. Those same private interests, who unlike government must look at a bottom line, would provide more cost-effective and efficient services that are now considered the responsibility of government. Government can afford waste, but private enterprise can not. So let’s privatize "public" services.

Jonathan Wilson writes:
3. The ability for market opportunities to expand is due to a widening base of cooperative infrastructure (of which roads are just a part), True or False. The very act of claiming property rights necessitates the creation of government and thereby makes the cooperative infrastructure possible, True or False. Question: Is it fair to say that the Libertarian Philosophy is not a "first principles" philosophy so much as it is a party based on the freedoms we take for granted in a world where the equilibriums of government-protected monopolies have produced a cooperative infrastructure?

If you can paint for me a model where the private property owners are able to develop a cooperative infrastructure for widening market opportunities without the assistance of a government they appoint among themselves, I’m sold. You can’t show me it’s ever happened in history, though, but the Libertarian view of history is that one compulsion of government followed another to get us here.

Government represents a "short-cut" for the propertied -- a more efficient means for securing their interests. So if you can show me that we would still have the Internet without government projects to build power stations and dams, I will become a Libertarian and not look back. If you can show me that a Libertarian civilization would have produced the means for me to drive a Mazda Protege to another city in another sovereign state, covering 350 miles in just 6 hours including stops for fuel and food, I will carry a card for the Libertarians and argue the philosophy to all my friends.

My Reply:

The above answers hopefully answers also some of Jonathan Wilson’s third part. Commercial development is fostered by property rights, not a monopoly of force. And property rights originate from recognizing the product of a man’s labor as belong to him.

So, as to the first statement of part 3: True. Second statement: False. Third question: False; Libertarianism originates largely from a passion for justice derived from First Principles. You could call it a moral construct, or an "idealistic" philosophy, but it is not Utopian. The moral principle, the Zero Aggression Principle, is that no one has the right to do inflict violence against another person or his property, or take his property through theft or fraud, except in self-defense or retaliation. But undergirding this passion for justice, is a logical understanding of how human action works (see my "My Debt to Mises"). Human action is making choices through time. The less secure one’s own life, liberty, and property is from one’s own government, the more likely human action will be short-sighted and based on fear and false information. The more people act like this, and the more people don’t know how to act any other way, the more civilization is dragged down to bankruptcy and collapse.

Jonathan Wilson’s last paragraph highlights some of the blessings we now have, which may largely be credited to the federal government, such as dams, the creation of the Internet and the Interstate highway system.

I don’t think that there’s any denying that substantial technological progress has been the result of the work of NASA scientists, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other government agencies. Maybe skeptics of libertarianism still believe that brute force and high taxes to build extensive infrastructure is still the way to go, in spite of the obvious waste, and the fact that corporations now become the "free riders" of the government.

We enjoy the lifestyles we have now, and credit government’s actions for much of it. What we don’t see, are the hidden costs. In a world of limited resources, what government taxes to build for one purpose, could have been used to build for another purpose, or the government may have not taxed us at all and not built anything.

Maybe the government’s building of paved highways did more harm than good - maybe it upset the social fabric and "suburbanized" America too quickly. Maybe bailing out the airline industry time and again hides the reality that airline flight might be too expensive in our time, and we’re just wasting resources trying to cover up the fact. Maybe computer technology would not have developed when it did were it not for the military-industrial complex and ceaseless, unnecessary wars.

Maybe we’d have more intact, extended families living near each other, providing immediate assistance to those in need, if government stayed out of our lives. Maybe government planning and subsidy for commercial development de-railed what would have been another route better suited for our moral evolution. What we’ve gained in some respects, we’ve lost in others, to an extent we’re not aware of. Maybe some material things wouldn’t be as good as others today, whereas some things might be much better. Maybe those inventing e-bombs today could be curing cancer instead. I don’t know, and nobody knows. But we do know of government corruption and waste, and that these are inherent problems within the State.

In its simplest form, this goes back to the "Broken Window" illustration of Frederic Bastiat. A boy breaks a window. Is this a good thing? Some people think that it is, because it provides work and income for the glazier, who then spends this income to keep other shops and industries in business. But what if the window was not broken? To take a short-cut on the analogy, the boy’s father would have been better able to buy the growing boy a needed pair of new shoes with the money that he now has to use to replace the window. The shoe-seller, who is doing well in his business, decides to use this income to help build an addition to his house to accommodate his growing family, an addition that requires the services of ... the glazier. As Bastiat wrote, "Society loses the value of things needlessly destroyed." Like broken windows.

In a satire, "The Candle-Makers’ Petition" (PDF) (written decades before Edison’s light bulb), Bastiat wrote, ironically, an argument against windows themselves. They "import" a foreign lighting source into the home, the light of the sun. This unfair competition means that candle-makers, and all manufacturers who produce the ingredients of the candle, are at a distinct competitive disadvantage, which is hurting French industry (Bastiat was French). The solution was for the French government to ban windows and all other sources of outside light, so that indoor lighting would benefit French candle-makers and related industries.

This is exactly the same mentality which insists on protecting American producers from foreign trade. Only, if anything, it is more moral. The blessing from God, the Sun, isn’t hurt one way or another if people shutter their homes, the sun will continue to blaze. But foreign human beings, created in the same likeness of God as we Americans, are indeed hurt when our country, or any country, shuts out their produce and products. The reality is, domestic consumers are punished by artificially higher prices, whether it is by the government banning windows to block out "competition" from the Sun, or from foreign imported products that provide more value per dollar for the customer. Trade barriers are an example of intentionally "breaking a window" in the hope of generating consumer demand and wealth. But as Bastiat points out, this is needless.

This applies to all government policy. Liberty destroyed because of needless regulations. Wealth confiscated through taxes to pay for needless programs and projects. Lives and property destroyed through needless wars.

We may not ever know the original "cause and effect" relationships that founded civilization as we know it. But the monopoly of force, the foundation of The State, originally required the voluntary agreement of the thugs who decide to steal the property and women of the peaceful, productive men. Any and all social organizations, including the violent ones dedicated toward domination, must be, in its internal structure, a voluntary organization. You join because you want to. You don’t join because you prefer peace, family, commerce, and productivity instead.

This may all be conceptual. Maybe non-human powers created civilized man and our history and origin defy sociological or economic explanation. No society has been perfectly "libertarian" or even nearly so. But no society has been purely communist, or conservative, or liberal or fascist, or [name a religion here] either. Libertarianism’s main historical difference is that it is a coherent political philosophy based not on how society "ought to be," but on simply respecting the life, liberty and property of the individual, which is the foundation of all law, and presenting the economic case that doing otherwise causes material and moral damage to society.

So the question to the person wondering if he or she is or is not a libertarian, is this: What do you want done in the future? Do you want more of the same, more government in your life, more taxes, more funding for more programs, more regulations, and more foreign financial and military commitments? Or do you want less?

Even before I considered myself a philosophical libertarian, I voted for the Libertarian Party in 2000 because I wanted less government, particularly less federal government, and no one else was promoting that concept. Maybe you don’t want less government in some things, like the highways, space program, or military pay, or Defense research & development. And maybe you take a Constitutionalist, "State’s Rights" stand on other issues; you may want drugs and abortion to be illegal, but recognize that the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to engage in a War on Drugs, and that the federal government’s branches shouldn’t in any way interfere, for or against, the abortion laws (or lack thereof) of the states.

Congratulations. Except for the space program, you are probably just as radical as Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian candidate for President, if the "Votesmart" questionnaire is any indication. I’m more radical than Badnarik, yet he was the most "pure" candidate of the three major Libertarian Party candidates.

Neither the Republican Party, nor the Democratic Party, will realize that people in America want less government, if the people who want less government continue to vote for these parties, or don’t vote at all. There’s one choice for less government this fall, Michael Badnarik and the Libertarian Party. Again, I’m more radical than he is, and he might not agree with all I’ve written above.

But I wrote the above because there were three questions at stake:

1. What is property?
2. How can public works be provided for?
3. What is to be done?

Even if you don’t like my answers to #1 and 2, if you still want less government in your life, then my answer to #3 is to vote for Michael Badnarik for President and any and every Libertarian Party candidate available.

Comments (1)

Post a Comment

Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
June 11, 2004
Another way to summarize JLW's point would be: the natural condition of the human being is to use the surroundings to produce the means of survival. It is unnatural to the condition of the human being to attempt to control more means of production than are necessary for the provisions of survival.

The attempt to move beyond one's own survival in order to control additional means of production, even if that control deprives the agency of other human beings from providing for themselves, is motivated by power. Power accrues to those who use force to assert their claims over more means of production than they can use. It is these, then, who eventually collaborate to form representative government. Government is the monopoly on force designated to protect the interests of those who control more than they can effectively use for good. Am I correct?

Government may be an unnatural condition to humanity, but it also seems to be the natural tendency, since most human beings seem to carry an innate will to power. No wonder the Libertarian philosophy is such an uphill battle!

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