2013-07-30

Justifying Private Property To The Poor

True to form, Kevin Vallier has another thought-provoking post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, in which he challenges his readers to provide a justification for property rights that will be satisfying even to the poor:
Rousseau asks us to imagine someone who is not convinced of natural rights to property, at least as interpreted by the richer laborers in society. The responder has a rational complaint: who made you [the rich, the “haves] judge of where your property rights begin and end? It’s a dangerous juridical power, one that can easily be used to keep people hungry and powerless. In light of the suffering of the property-less, why should they ever think that the claims of the rich and powerful are naturally legitimate? What could justify the haves in using coercion to protect their property when the have-nots have so little? 
What Rousseau brings into focus is that, at the most fundamental level, property rights are coercive and so trigger a requirement of justification to those who are putatively disadvantaged by the property system.
But just when you think Vallier has gone granola on us, he emphasizes:
I am willing to concede that, despite reasonable pluralism, people who deny that any private property system can be justified to the least advantaged are both wrong and unreasonable. But it seems that the very strong property rights claims that libertarians endorse still raise Rousseau’s worry. How can we justify the coercion involved in delineating and enforcing property rights to those least favored by those arrangements?
Property has always been and will always be disputed. Inequality is unpleasant to those on the low end of the spectrum and always will be. Humans are by nature jealous when poor and rent-seeking when rich. Philosophy cannot, in my opinion, conquer these facts. I also agree with Vallier and, for example, David Friedman when they say that "natural rights libertarianism" (or maybe more accurately: Rothbardianism) fundamentally falls short in its justification for property rights.

In particular, I think the Rothbardians have taken things much too far. They believe everything reduces to property rights
Liberals generally wish to preserve the concept of "rights" for such "human" rights as freedom of speech, while denying the concept to private property.[1] And yet, on the contrary the concept of "rights" only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard.
The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.
Because modern libertarianism is in many ways the result of the combined efforts of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, it is difficult to get most libertarians to think beyond the sanctity of almighty natural rights/property rights. But, while Rand was adamant about her view of property rights, the idea that she refused to consider other possibilities is, in my opinion, Rothbard-Rockwell propaganda. It's hard to crack the sanctified image of Murray Rothbard in the eyes of Rothbardists, but it's also necessary. Many would be shocked to discover that Ludwig von Mises was hardly a proponent of natural rights or Rothbardian property rights:
Private property is a human device. It is not sacred. It came into existence in early ages of history, when people with their own power and by their own authority appropriated to themselves what had previously not been anybody's property. Again and again proprietors were robbed of their property by expropriation. The history of private property can be traced back to a point at which it originated out of acts which were certainly not legal. Virtually every owner is the direct or indirect legal successor of people who acquired ownership either by arbitrary appropriation of ownerless things or by violent spoilation of their predecessor. 
However, the fact that legal formalism can trace back every title either to arbitrary appropriation or to violent expropriation has no significance whatever for the conditions of a market society. Ownership in the market economy is no longer linked up with the remote origin of private property. Those events in a far-distant past, hidden in the darkness of primitive mankind's history, are no longer of any concern for our day. For in an unhampered market society the consumers daily decide anew who should own and how much he should own. The consumers allot control of the means of production to those who know how to use them best for the satisfaction of the most urgent wants of the consumers. Only in a legal and formalistic sense can the owners be considered the successors of appropriators and expropriators. In fact, they are mandataries of the consumers, bound by the operation of the market to serve the consumers best. Under capitalism, private property is the consummation of the self-determination of the consumers.
And herein lies the whole solution to the "problem" posed by Rousseau and Vallier. Property can only change hands by force or by trade. One of these is violent and coercive and the other is peaceful and cooperative. Thus there are only two ways to solve problems of distributive "justice:" by force or by trade.

Philosophy will never be able to make people feel better about the fact that they have little while others have much. Those who think that some of us are "too greedy" cannot be dissuaded by an elegant philosophical solution. What fails to square in their minds is not the notion that the rich feel deserving of their wealth, but rather the fact that the poor continue to starve and die. The only "solutions" they will tolerate are ones that result in the rich being punished for their greed and the poor being rewarded for their need.

But when we think practically, we see that there are only two real possibilities here. Either we are going to use force and violence to redistribute wealth, or we are going to use peace and cooperation to allow resources to trade hands in accordance with the private ambitions of individuals. Resorting to the former necessarily and unequivocally nullifies the latter.

Classical liberalism is the belief that life is most pleasant when people are allowed to do as they please. This sentence is something that either makes you smile because you can imagine the many possibilities embedded in that notion, or it is something that makes you recoil in horror at the many possible injustices that will have to be endured as a result. 

Such a thing can't be "justified" or philosophically explained. Humans want freedom when they have a big idea they want to implement; humans despise freedom when someone else's big idea threatens their own private mojo. All this really tells us is that humans like to entertain the illusion that their own private perspective is the one the results in the greatest happiness and liberty. It is an illusion. Real liberty is both costly to the weak and worthwhile to the strong. The concept of private property enables us to manage this conflict through entirely peaceful means. There is not much else to say about it.