The importance of property rights [updated]

As I wrote in one of my first posts, I plan on using this blog in part to document my “slide into the netherworld of classical liberalism,” or libertarianism. Because it is difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the importance of private property rights in libertarian philosophy, if I am to execute this slide effectively, I will have to read up on the subject. I am currently reading Timothy Sandefur’s Cornerstone of liberty: Property rights in 21st-century America, which seems to be as good a place as any to begin.

As the title of this post suggest, though, I do have a nit to pick with an early portion of the book. The first proper chapter – 2, ‘Why Property Rights Are Important’ – is intended to lay the groundwork for the rest of the book. Unfortunately, Sandefur leads off with a pretty weak argument: the first subsection of the chapter is called ‘Property Is Natural’. The gist of this section is that non-human animals and humans ‘naturally’ seek out private property, property is universal in human society, and depriving people of property has all sorts of negative effects. So, the nit I wish to pick is this: only the last of these has any hope of justifying (the importance of) property rights.

It is ironic that Sandefur attempts, initially, to justify property rights by way of a simple appeal to ‘nature’, as this is a fine example of the naturalistic fallacy. Even if we accept that private property is naturally sought out and universal among human societies, and I see no reason to believe otherwise, it does not follow that private property should be sought out or universal. It may turn out to be the case that private property should be sought out and that it should be universal (and I believe that this is, in fact, the case), but this conclusion must be arrived at via some other logical path.

I am optimistic that the book will be worth reading, though, for a couple of reasons. First, the next two subsections in chapter two have titles indicative of promising alternate logical paths: ‘Property Is Good For Individuals’ and ‘Property Is Good For Society’. Second, despite my objections to the naturalistic fallacy, the ‘Property is natural’ subsection has some value. As stated above, this section discusses the negative effects of depriving people of their property. Insofar as these are well documented effects, their avoidance can serve as a justification for private property.

Sandefur quotes Dan Dennett, one of the more interesting philosophers of cognitive science, in a discussion of how humans use artefacts to establish their ‘selves’ as distinct from the world around them. The Dennett quote concerns the difficulties commonly encountered by elderly folks removed from familiar home environments to nursing ‘homes’. Part of living in your own home is creating a familiar and useful environment. When removed from this, the elderly (and some young folks, to be sure) can have severe difficulty with basic daily activities. Our home environments come to mesh very closely with cognitive systems governing memory and perception.

On reading this, I was reminded of discussions in Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science (one of the two most blog-post inducing classes [with Friedman’s class] that Josh is taking now) about the blurriness of the division between our ‘selves’ and our environments. Here’s an example: when doing long division or multiplication by hand, most people use pencil (or pen) and paper to keep track of ‘big picture’ information while they perform simple calculations on subsets of the numbers (the digit in the ‘ones’ place, in the ‘tens’ place, in the ‘hundreds’ place, etc…). In a very real sense, then, that person’s cognitive system straddles the skin, the most obvious and intuitive boundary between a person and his environment, to encompass the mind and part of the environment.

Although this particular situation only applies to people who have a (perceived) need to carry out long division and multiplication (and can’t do it in their heads), the point is valid more generally, and it ties in with some of Sandefur’s arguments about the personal value of ‘home’. In addition to the cognitive value of ‘home’, Sandefur discusses its ‘sentimental’ value (and argues that all value is ‘sentimental’ insofar as it is subjective).

If we accept that our ‘selves’ – specifically our cognitive systems – extend into our environments, then the fact that there are negative effects of depriving someone of private property is clear. I can’t imagine a justification for depriving an autonomous agent of his memory or perceptual facilities.

Update: Josh makes a good point that, if I’m remembering correctly, Sandefur does not (at least not explicitly), which is this: the onus is on those who would intervene in nature to provide evidence that such intervention is better than leaving it alone. This is, I think in retrospect, the point of Sandefur’s discussion of the elderly in nursing homes, the problems faced by adults who were raised in property-free kibbutzim, and Soviet policy. The ‘Property Is Natural’ subsection would be improved a good bit if this line of reasoning were made explicit, as Josh has done.

This point of view brings up some interesting ethical questions that I will mention but not delve into at the moment. Any claim of ‘better than’ carries with it an implicit measure of ‘good’, about which reasonable people can potentially disagree. The end result is that property rights are put on a firmer foundation than the naturalistic fallacy can provide, although it is, perhaps, not as firm as we might want it to be.


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