Paul Bonneau

Private Property vs. 'Your Stuff'




A very interesting text that represents a valid contribution to the debate on property.



I don’t know what it is about the word “property.” Every time I think about it, the thought seems to include such state baggage as titles, and places to record those titles like county courthouses, and arguments in court over who owns it, and state regulations on transferring it, and even taxes! The latest big fuss over “intellectual property” does nothing to change this impression; rather, it is reinforced.

Is property such a great deal after all? What, really, is it?

The Wikipedia article contains lots of descriptions and theories about it, many of them conflicting. Apparently, people have many different ideas about it; that is, its meaning is not a settled thing. (No, I have not read the direct sources outside of a few like Bastiat, nor do I have much incentive to do so. I’m glad to have such resources as the Internet and Wikipedia to condense this information; but any pointers to good references will be appreciated.)

One point that sounded pretty solid was this notion of Bastiat’s: In a radical departure from traditional property theory, he defines property not as a physical object, but rather as a relationship between people with respect to an object. Clearly if there are no other people but yourself, then the whole idea of property becomes pointless.

Still though, with all these theories over what it is, it’s strange there is not more actual conflict over it. There must be some overriding consideration that is not mentioned within these theories. Here’s my guess at what that is: Property is the stuff you can prevent others from taking from you.

What do these various property theories say about a mugging? If someone sticks a gun in your face and takes your wallet, is the money in it still your property? How about when he uses it to pay for a prostitute; is it still your money then? How about when she uses it to pay the rent; is it still your money then?

How about when her landlord uses it to buy flowers for his wife; still your money then? It seems to me that if someone has grabbed your stuff, it becomes silly to think of it as your property anymore. It’s no longer your stuff. It’s gone.

Yeah, in theory it can be recovered. In fact, that is one of the benefits a state advertises that it can do for you. Strangely though, for the state to be able to recover your property, you must surrender more property to the state, to keep it available to do so. Anyone see something wrong with this picture?

What with eminent domain, civil forfeiture, taxes on everything and regulatory takings, it doesn’t take great perspicacity to detect that the state is the biggest thief in the world, a “cure” far worse than the original disease.

A more realistic view of recovery is that if you catch the thief and take the stuff he took from you, it really was his property for the period he had it, and you are just grabbing it back again. But recovery is pretty theoretical, after all. It doesn’t happen much.

Getting back to my homegrown theory, let’s see how it operates in the natural (no government) world. Two scenarios:

1) You have a garden. A little girl comes along and picks a flower. You get your rifle out and put her in the crosshairs.

2) You have a small plot of land and a cow that you have fed and raised. You intend to use it for meat to feed your family; without it, they will starve. One night, someone comes and tries to lead it away, but you catch him at it. You get your rifle out and put him in the crosshairs.

Are these two cases identical? All the fancy theories (to my knowledge, which of course is limited) seem to treat them so. But what happens in the natural world, the world without government?

If you pull the trigger in scenario 2, most people would say “good riddance” and be happy there is one less thief to steal their stuff. You’d be popular. If you pull the trigger in scenario 1, most people would consider you a monster. You’d be a pariah in the community and no one would deal with you - if they didn’t actually come over and string you up from the nearest tree over it.

In both cases you are simply protecting property; but something inside tells you to shoot in one case, and not in the other case. That something has to do with your relationship with your fellow human beings. You care what they think, even if that care is connected to self-preservation.

Despite all the statist fuss around the concept of property, and all the fancy theories, I think it is pretty simple. If you can keep people from taking it from you, it is your property. That may take the form of personal defensive violence against thieves, or it may be that you simply take care to live where people don’t much steal, or where there are voluntary organizations such as vigilance committees that help you keep your stuff. And that’s all it is, your stuff. You may have inherited it, or worked to get it, or traded for it - doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether you can keep others from stealing it from you - and this is leavened by the fact that whatever course you take, your actions still have to seem reasonable to the others you live among.

This “theory,” by the way, is something that avoids the extremes of the other theories. At least some communists and others like them think there is no property at all. It would be unpleasant to live in a society where you can’t even count on your own toothbrush. On the other hand, some theories have no problem at all with a single individual owning vast amounts of wealth or land while his neighbors starve. Sounds like a great recipe for revolution.

I think in the natural world, people will own some plot of land, jointly or individually, and be able to produce from it. The larger that plot is, or the less often the owner is there to keep his eye on things, the more likely he will have a hard time keeping his hands on all of it, as squatters will move in, and neighbors won’t bother to help you evict them. Aspenization ["the process by which a fragile cultural ecosystem is disrupted by tourism and growth"] will probably be a lot more rare.

I’m also a bit doubtful of the libertarian dogma that goes like this: “It’s not great wealth that is wrong, but the use of government by some wealthy to protect their businesses from competition, or other such aggressive actions, that are wrong.” This would seem to imply that in a natural world, there will be examples of great wealth that are not supported by government.

But this seems to beg the question, how really does government form? Is it just a group of bandits that moves into a community and takes over? Or instead, is it created by an association of wealthy who then hire agents to protect that wealth, and who later notice that everybody else is getting a “free ride” in this protection and therefore ought to be taxed to pay for it? I think it very likely that it is great wealth that creates government (just think of the founding of the Federal Reserve as an example). No, in a natural society, people may accumulate a fair amount of wealth; but it will be self-limiting, because great wealth attracts thieves and squatters to harvest it, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing if it stops the creation of a state. How much wealth does a person need, anyway? Great wealth also carries great costs in retaining it, and we need to avoid the tendency to socialize those costs. The time to stop the state is in the very first hints of aggression, and it should be stopped “with extreme prejudice.”

What about intellectual property in the natural world? There will be some, as people naturally seek to control that which they create, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that without a state, it will be hard to keep others from stealing from you; and once it is stolen, it is simply no longer your property. Perhaps some technical or contractual arrangements will be available to prevent this outcome, but that is about it. Again, we will have moderation, not the extremes we see now.

The concept of property probably does not need a PhD in political philosophy any more than the concept of liberty does. I doubt all the fancy and convoluted theories are that helpful, or reflect reality very well. In fact, to reduce the confusion entangling the notion of property with the state, it might make sense to stop thinking of it as “your property,” and start thinking of it in more humble terms as “your stuff.”


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