Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Origins of Private Property

Libertarians, or, to name them more accurately, entitlement theorists, are wont to maintain that the market legitimates the distribution of goods it generates, since the market is a process in which people exercise their legitimately self-owned powers. But every market-generated distribution is only a redistribution of titles which buying and selling are themselves unable to create, and the upshot of market activity is consequently no more legitimate than the titles with which it operates. How, then, do the titles which necessarily precede market activity acquire legitimacy in the first place?

The question of what would constitute a rightful original acquisition of private property enjoys a certain priority over the question of what constitutes a rightful subsequent transfer of it, on any definition of private property, since unless private property can be formed, it cannot,
a fortiori, be transferred.

Note that even now not everything around us is privately owned, and most people would agree that what remains privately unowned, such as the air we breathe and the pavements we tread, should not be available for privatization. But the better part of what we need to live is, by now, private property. Why was its original privatization not a theft of what rightly should be held in common?

- G.A. Cohen, on libertarianism (entitlement theory), from an article in
New Left Review
Imagine if the next president attempted to take a particular industry into public ownership without compensation (say a resource-extraction sector like coal), s/he would be attacked for being (among myriad other horrendous things) a thief. That is, such an action would be tantamount to stealing the rightful property of the ‘owners’ of the natural resources in question, violating sacrosanct property rights.

But, as Cohen points out in the excerpt above, how did sources of vital natural resources come to be thought of as the rightful property of an individual in the first place? How was this initial seizure not theft? Set aside the difficult questions of how to negotiate
(with the aim of social justice) the transfer or redistribution of large holdings of natural resources already deemed private property…How do natural resources become the sort of thing that can be purchased and hoarded by individuals in the first place?

This thought puts an interesting spin on issues like nationalization of energy resources as well as agrarian land reform. Instead of dismissing these measures out of hand because they violate 'property rights', why not instead ask how the titles in question obtained their legitimacy and unassailable legal status? Why not ask, for instance, how the enormous estates of Third World post-colonial oligarchs came to be transfigured into legally sanctioned rock-solid holdings?

Once we throw off the dogma that markets and private property are "natural" institutions, an entire universe of interesting political questions crops up.

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