Friday, November 19, 2004

Libertarian property accounts

I'm posting this on both of my blogs (this one, and just because it is basically a rant about libertarianism, with some conventionalism thrown in as an alternate way of viewing libertarian property rights. The rant has its roots in this story about Robert Nozick's use of rent control laws to get lower rent in Cambridge. Nozick, of course, is the super famous libertarian who wrote Anarchy, State & Utopia. A lovely book, that everyone in philosophy courses treats as the first, and probably only, philosophical treatment of libertarianism (sigh).

For convention purposes, scan quickly down to the Hume bit. There I say that property is just a convention, and that it derives its force from a general following of the convention, rather than something inherent about our right to property in itself. (In a separate blog, I'll try and explain why I think we tell these morality stories. I think they are conventional as well! I owe this insight to my friend, Terrence Watson--although there is some chance that we came to this conclusion together. Terry was saying that moralists are used car salesmen, in his typical contrarian fashion, and we started to ask questions about why people buy into these odd stories about rights and duties and so on. The conclusion we reached is that morality is a sort of language, with its own set of conventions and associations. Thus stories link up with prior moral beliefs by association, and are either approved of or not on the grounds of the strength of the association. This sounds exactly like strong intuitionism. Which it is! Or, at least, we think it is. But this story later.)

This rant is a response to this post, and you can find a duplicate of it in the comment section there. It should also be pointed out that Julian Sanchez interviewed Nozick (this interview kicks serious ass) and Nozick comments briefly on the rent control affair under the section "Ecce Nozick."


There's a few things to say about your analysis. For one, I don't think Nozick has the sort of troubles you allude to. The link between my property, and who I give it to, is not obvious. You have a buried premise in your argument about who is the rightful inheritor of property. Presumably, you assume that your great, great, grandfather would have passed that property down along familial lines, eventually lining your pocket. But that doesn't follow from any libertarian principles. Recall that it's whomever the original property owner *chooses* to give the property to that is the principle of justice in transfer. Nothing about my blood lines entitles me to any part of my family's income, except as much as is required for me to reach adulthood (some libertarians dispute this. But it isn't contrary to libertarian principles to say that a child is *entitled* to as much as is sufficient to ensure some standard of education/health/food etc.) Thus, if there is no explicit declaration of property intentions, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the property goes to no one. It is a custom, and one most libertarians are happy with, that property goes to the kids, and closest of kin, but I see no natural rights justifications for this sort of linkage.

But that's within a natural rights sort of libertarianism. Clearly, there are other variants of that philosophy which would have even fewer problems with this issue. I, for instance, am a "hard-core libertarian" that subscribes to the philosophy on something like conventionalist, mutual advantage, contractarian sorts of grounds. I agree with Bentham that "natural rights" are nonsense upon stilts. And share the antipathy of some against rights as being matters of intuition or tastes. The principle de gustibus non est disputandum, seems totally applicable here. At any rate, I think Hume had it right when he said of property that its extent is determined by the ease with which we associate one idea/object with another idea/object. So, for instance, he points to a race between two Greek (what were they?) emissaries (or whatever) for the gates of a city to take control over the city on behalf of their country. The city had been abandoned, and forfeited. Hume says that, for one, emissaries are naturally associated with states, so it makes sense to have them declare the city on behalf of the country. If it were just a citizen of another country making the claim, it wouldn't have the force of association (by dint of imagination) to legitimize it. Similarly, the gates of the city have force in our imaginations again through association (at least back in those days) since poets and literary types always referred to the gates of cities as the focal point. Since these were salient, they would be considered legitimate for acquisition of the city in its entirety. Property, after all, is just a convention. And any convention requires that it be "agreed upon" (I say this to be in line with most social contract stories. The right thing to say here is "acquiesced with," since explicit agreement, or agreement at all, is unnecessary. All we have to do is abide by it for it to gain force.) by enough others to maintain the convention. On this account, property that has gone unclaimed, or was violated, for some period of time loses its association with the original owner over time. The less association, by way of imagination, the less legitimacy. Thus, over time, the injustice is not multiplied, it simply becomes an historical intrigue, rather than something we would even think of doing anything about right now.

Then there's the set of libertarians who are mostly interested in efficiency, rather than justice, strictly speaking. Rectifications of prior injustice serve no really efficient purpose, and tend to create social costs, rather than benefits. Thus it doesn't matter whether or not you received your property through the principle of justice in transfer historically, just that it is generally more efficient right now for you to keep that property. Of course, there are caveats here. For instance, rectifications of stolen property, of unjust transfers within some period of time, etc., do tend towards efficiency, since property rights, being efficient, require some security and stability. But there are obvious diminishing returns on rectifications, and the longer someone else has enjoyed property that, according to some principle of justice, ought to have been enjoyed by you, the fewer the gains from rectification. And you can be just as hard-core a libertarian and follow some efficiency guideline as some inflexible justice principle on the basis of rights (which are "just obvious" and "self-evident" if you look at it rightly, or read enough Ayn Rand).

At any rate, there isn't a homogenous story to be told here, and we shouldn't reflexively assume that libertarians derive their conclusions from the same natural rights story told by the Locke/Nozick/Rothbard/Rand axis.

The other interesting thing to say about this Nozick story is the following: Libertarians tend, in the main, to assume that people are profit-maximizers and cost-minimizers. They will seek their advantage. In this story, Nozick is clearly acting in accord with that insight about human nature, or human inclination, or whatever. Nozick is illustrating that he is homo economicus, just like he would say he is if pressed upon it. Of course, 'morality' is either a cost or benefit for homo economicus as well, but it is clearly much more foggy and difficult to analyze empirically compared with simple prices, and obvious economic costs. At any rate, the point here is to say that Nozick would possibly be violating a libertarian (and not just libertarian, but, I guess, economic in general) assumption about what we would do when we come to know that some benefit might accrue to us. Nozick became aware of rent control legislation, and acted upon it.

Capitalists, after all, push for regulations for obvious public choice reasons. This is why libertarians are less likely to get money from corporations than statists. Statists make rent-seeking possible, libertarians would dramatically reduce that opportunity.

Wow. What a long response. If you got this far, then it looks like I didn't bore you!


Post a Comment

<< Home