Sunday, October 28, 2012

Physical and absentee property

Up to a point, Libertarian reasoning about property works. The goal of each human is to live a "good life." While people disagree on precisely what a good life consists of, most, I think, are in agreement that a certain amount of physical property is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to living a good life. Additionally, there's broad agreement (even Marx concurs) that a degree of individual autonomy is also a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to living a good life: there are a lot of areas about which each person must make his or her own decisions without social interference. We can put these two ideas together and say that there is broad agreement (with only some head-in-the-clouds Utopian Socialists dissenting) that a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition to living a good life is to have some amount of private physical property, physical property with strictly limited social prescriptions for its use.

The proscription against the initiation of coercion is coherent and sensible regarding physical property. To take property that an individual is actively using entails bodily coercing the individual: to take property I physically possess means physically prying it out of my hands. There are some difficulties: There is property, such as our homes, that we only intermittently possess physically, and there are issues with physical hoarding and destruction of persistent property, but none of these issues seem to pose any deep conceptual problems. No matter what compromises or adjustments we make, there are strict physical limitations on how much property an individual can physically possess and use.

The above reasoning works for physical property, but everything breaks down when we include ownership of property that the owner does not physically possess and use, i.e. abstract, absentee ownership. There are no physical limitations on how much absentee property an individual can own. Also, because, ceteris paribus, one person who owns more property has more power than another who owns less, absentee property tends to concentrate in a small number of people, and in principle all property could be owned by a single person. Since all human beings need to use physical property to survive, those who did not abstractly own property would be de facto slaves of what would be a only tyranny: an oligarchy or monarchy explicitly committed to its own, narrow self-interest. It's hard to see how any philosophy can both extol freedom but lead so obviously into slavery.

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