IMAGE: Pei Ketron, Flickr, May 23, 2009
Property rights, as I define them, are the rights of humans to own land and material and use them at their own discretion. This includes the right to not have their property stolen or harmed, as well as the right to defend and seek retribution for their property should their rights be violated. I believe property rights are the only legitimate rights and all other so-called “rights” which do not stem from private property norms are illegitimate.
Why is there private property?
First, it is important to establish the basic reasons for the existence of private property. Private property exists in response to a lack of resources. Resources are limited, so there must be some way to control them, because if there were an infinite amount, no allocation of said resources would be necessary. This is why nobody touts any amount of air as their property. This concept in economics is known as “scarcity”.
Property rights can only be followed once we know who has the right to control, own, and manipulate property. Human bodies are made of matter, and thus qualify as property, so we must first decide who owns which bodies in order to determine how they are used to manipulate other forms of property.
This can be determined through simple logic, even if one should choose not to accept a religious explanation, as I do. In the absence of outside resources, humans can only control their own body. If you were dirt poor, and had nothing, you would still own the usage of your body. The usage of your body, then, cannot be delegated fully to any other entity. You may sell your labor, but you would be being paid for the usage of your body, without the ability of the employer to control your body absent the threat of contract termination. It follows that each individual would own his/her own body. This autonomy is the most basic form of property rights- the right to control your body and its usage.
No real advancement or progress can occur without the ability of humans to control property. No human can attempt to achieve their own ends if they are not free to manipulate property. Even communists would implicitly acknowledge private property to some degree, seeing as in order to meet the collective ends as communists aim, individuals would need to manipulate property in some form for some amount of time for something to be built or produced. Nothing that betters any person’s quality of life can be achieved without individual people having taken part in its production.
How can we come to own property?
The problem of ownership arises naturally. Even many who believe in private property rights couldn’t tell you how to decide who should own unowned land. Obviously, if someone already has the property in question, the answer is that they choose who owns it. They may elect to keep it, improve on it, sell it or donate it. The problem, however, of the distribution of unowned property is substantially tougher. One may say the answer is whoever claims to own it does, but what if two people or more claim ownership of the same land or resource?
I believe in John Locke’s general theory, which is that to own property, you must have manipulated it in some way. This is referred to as original appropriation, and it means that you must have a claim on and have improved upon something’s original state for your claim to be legitimate. If you and I claim the same plot of land, but my family has lived there for 10 years and we have built a fence, house, and toolshed on the land, my claim clearly trumps yours. This concept is the best way to decide who will own what is unowned.
How should property be rationed?
Through the right of persons to manipulate property coupled with the necessity to allocate property in some fashion, we can see these rights starting to take root. A scarce amount of resources which are needed in different capacities, in different amounts, by different people creates the question of who gets how much of each resource? The best way to allocate property, I would argue from a historical perspective, is through trade. There have been societies which did not in any significant way respect private property rights. These societies also universally lacked any form of advancement in any arena. The societies which have flourished have done so through the concept of trade.
Trade is the exchange of scarce resources between multiple entities. If I buy a four dollar sandwich from you, that means I value that sandwich more than my four dollars, and you value it less than my four dollars. Each of us, through this interaction, has somehow come closer to our own goals. I was hungry and wanted a sandwich, you had made this sandwich and wanted money for it to save to pay for whatever it is you want to buy with it. This is not to purport that through trade, each person will have an amount of wealth directly proportional to their effort and savviness in trade, but I think it would be close. In the words of Ben Shapiro, “If you’re permanently poor for your entire life, you’re not great with money by definition…”
Using trade, humans cooperate to better their personal state of being, and as a consequence they better the conditions of others as well. In order to gain capital, you must provide a good or service to others who seek it. This seems to me to be the most altruistic way to handle scarce resources: leave it to the people to use voluntary exchange to improve their lives. The reason there has been advancement in any society is because some amount of private property ownership has been allowed.
Which rights are valid?
You may have read to this point and agreed with everything that has been said, but still be left with questions. One question, I would imagine has to do with part of my introduction- “property rights are the only legitimate rights…” I can see why this may look odd, as it is an unconventional view. My reasoning here deals with the distinction between so-called “positive” and “negative” rights. I would contend that negative rights, which are those which require no action of others to be exercised, are the only proper form of rights. What are known as “positive rights” are those which require some action or resource from someone else.
One way to demonstrate whether a right would be truly fundamental is to use the scenario referenced above. In the absence of any outside resources, would you still have the right in question? The answer for property rights is yes, because you can still own your body and have it not be harmed without direct action from another being taken. Positive rights would not not still be held in this scenario, because without someone else taking an action for you, you will not have this “right” fulfilled.
Another way to decide whether a right is actually justifiable is to ask whether someone could be held accountable for the violation of said right. When someone steals my television set, there is clearly someone at fault. The person who has stolen or otherwise violated my property rights is at fault. If your supposed right to education is not fulfilled, who has violated your rights? Is it every single teacher and staff member of any school? Is it the politicians? If you can not pick out the person or people who have aggressed on you, your rights have not been violated.
A positive right would be the right to healthcare. When you hear someone say something like “Healthcare is a right of all humans,” what they mean is that the doctor that you need for surgery should be forced to give it to you. The people who make the material used in your medicine should be forced to do so.
You have no right to take what is someone else’s or to force someone to give you something. Property rights are the only serious form of rights that should be followed by people. Any legal system which should have any level of respect should recognize only property rights. One may be averse to this idea due to the implications therein. Someone could own a store and not allow some specific type of person to shop there, but if people don’t agree with how someone runs their store, they don’t have to shop there. Nobody has to bake you a cake just because you have the money for its market price.
People should be free to choose how to use their property, and anyone that tells you otherwise wishes to violate basic natural law. Don’t allow the world to descend further into the collectivist lie sold by the most prominent among us. Private property is effective, virtuous and the most desirable way to operate a society.