Archive for the ‘Property Rights’ Category
“The things you own end up owning you.”
— Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Quite often, this quote is continued with: “you must separate yourself from your property” (in order to be “free”). If you don’t do it voluntarily, I assume the right to do it for you. Do you see the subtle angle here?
This man assumes not only a role of a liberator (falsely), but also that of an owner. An owner of your “things” but also yourself. In order to release you from the “burden of property” he must assign himself ownership over your person. If you plan to defend what you see as yours, you will be stopped, often under threat of death. Your action in that direction is wrong, from his perspective. But his action is right. His use of your property is seen as just. If it weren’t, he’d be left with words and philosophy, but if he planned to live by his words, he would assume the role of an owner.
So let’s try to formulate a better set of principles.
First of all, if we’re going to argue, we already assume a set of rules of behaviour beween ourselves. We agree to exchange arguments and not fists. We recognize our own independence as thinking individuals, as well as our distinct moral autonomy. So arguing implies morality. If we’re going to argue, we’re going to resort to morality. If we’re fighting, we will use force and threats.
Every human action has then a moral content. As long as we’re formulating an argument, we are bound by that necessity. But things don’t stop here. If we recognize that we are individuals, separate, independent, we recognize that we have certain rights. These rights are about property. Property rights. In this formulation, the word “property” is almost redundant, as all rights are property rights.
So we recognize that we are at least owners of our own minds. Where do we go next?
Since every action bears a moral content, and we recognize the necessity of morality, every action can be judged as a statement of property rights. A man breathing becomes the owner of the air that enters his lungs, then the owner of the water he drinks, the food he eats (assuming at first that none of these has been previously owned). If we didn’t have these rights, we would not be justifiable as moral beings. Our actions would be injust, or at the very least – amoral.
But who we are, is at least our own bodies. The property we incorporate into ourselves becomes a part of ourselves. Every atom of our bodies was once unowned. If we’re to justify ourselves as moral beings, we must assume that we have property over our own bodies. So we’re already seeing an equivalence here. We are our property that is our bodies. (I don’t plan to take on religious topics like immaterial souls, but the language should be compatible with most of these concerns).
But we don’t extend only up to our own skin. We require shelter, clothing, in short – the means of our survival. If I replace my arm with a very strong artificial limb, that would become a part of my body. But if instead I’m using that limb from a remote control, which you hold in my hand, isn’t the matter functionally equivalent? Does it really matter if that arm is attached to my body? Let’s say I change all my limbs with these special grappling tools which don’t stand directly on my body. They hover a small distance away from my torso (which is also hovering in the air). What is moving those limbs is me, and these are a part of me. So does it really matter if I’m physically attached to my car, or if I’m just standing in a seat, driving it? Does it matter if my raincoat is stitched into my skin, or if it just hangs freely on my body?
And morally, what applies to me, should also apply to you. Contingencies don’t matter.
What you justly own is a product of what you are, what others have agreed to exchange, and ultimately, who you are.
You cannot separate the concept of right from that of property, as Murray Rothbard puts it so eloquently:
LIBERALS GENERALLY WISH TO preserve the concept of “rights” for such “human” rights as freedom of speech, while denying the concept to private property.1 And yet, on the contrary the concept of “rights” only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard.
In the first place, there are two senses in which property rights are identical with human rights: one, that property can only accrue to humans, so that their rights to property are rights that belong to human beings; and two, that the person’s right to his own body, his personal liberty,, is a property right in his own person as well as a “human right.” But more importantly for our discussion, human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of “public policy” or the “public good.” As I wrote in another work:
Take, for example, the “human right” of free speech. Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech”; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.2
In short, a person does not have a “right to freedom of speech”; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises. He does not have a “right to freedom of the press”; what he does have is the right to write or publish a pamphlet, and to sell that pamphlet to those who are willing to buy it (or to give it away to those who are willing to accept it). Thus, what he has in each of these cases is property rights, including the right of free contract and transfer which form a part of such rights of ownership. There is no extra “right of free speech” or free press beyond the property rights that a person may have in any given case.