Thursday, August 18, 2011

Private Property and Freedom

In the previous post, I poked holes in the attempt by many on the Right to ground politics on an allegedly fundamental right to private property. Now, it hardly needs to be said that what moves ordinary people in political argument is not lectures about natural rights. Far more moving is talk of freedom, liberation, emancipation. And for good reason. Liberation is, after all, a far more worthy and valuable goal than the abstract, troubled notion of a "natural right" to property.

Unsurprisingly, Right-wing defenders of private property in the means of production have tended to try to clothe their arguments in the language of freedom. More often than not, it is simply assumed that there is a one-to-one identity between private property rights and freedom. As I've argued elsewhere, once we reflect on this assumption it quickly becomes clear that it is false. But let's spend a moment spelling out why.

What is freedom? Right-wingers can't respond to this question by saying "freedom is not having one's right to property infringed upon", for this is circular. We already know that Right-wingers think there is a fundamental right to private property. What we want to know is why we should believe them that there's an intrinsic link between the institution of private property and freedom. So, the answer to our question can't be that freedom is private property and private property is freedom, for that begs the question.

Suppose, then, that a Right-winger tries the following argument: Private property rights equip an owner of some thing with freedom to do as she pleases with that thing without interference from others. To violate the right, then, is to curtail freedom. That's the connection between property rights and freedom.

So far so good. But this argument is hopelessly incomplete. First of all, the argument lacks the appropriate scope to help us know what a free society would look like. It only focuses on one particular owner of some good and tells us that interference with her ability to dispose of that good as she pleases would limit her freedom. It surely does. But societies are much bigger, much more complex affairs than this example lets on. When one individual owns a thing, that presupposes the non-ownership of all other individuals in the society. Ownership, then, isn't a relation between individual persons and objects. It is a social relation: it relates owners to non-owners in specific ways, detailing what each party may and may not do. So, every claim to ownership entails a claim to non-ownership, a claim to exclusion, on the part of others. But, non-ownership, insofar as it excludes non-owners from the use of certain goods, is freedom-limiting. If I lack food or shelter, private property law will coercively prevent me from camping out on a rich person's land and eating fruit from trees growing on it. If I want to find shelter and food on the land of the wealthy, I am coercively prevented from doing so by the regime of private property. That is a very real limit on my freedom: I am coercively prevented from doing that thing that I'd like to do by external force. Families that are being forcibly removed from their homes during the economic crisis hardly need to be told that this coercive process severely limits their freedom to live without interference.

So what does the Right say about such cases? They say that the restriction on the freedom of the non-owner is right and just. The state should intervene on the behalf of the owner. But why? Because, they'll likely say, the "owner has rights". But why?

Here they can tell a story (like the ones refuted in the previous post) about why we supposedly have such rights. Or they can tell a story about why the owner supposedly deserves her land because she worked for it, etc. But what they can't say is that we have such rights because they promote freedom, since the very case we're considering is one in which the freedom of a non-owner is denied! It's vacuous to say that "freedom is curtailed for the sake of freedom" -for what is it that decides that the freedom of the owner should trump that of the non-owner?

Let's change gears for a moment. Suppose you wanted to create a society with maximum overall freedom in it. Ownership, as we've seen, is a social relationship that regulates owners and non-owners. So there's a question of whether different ways of organizing these social relationships make for more or less freedom. Which of the following arrangements, for example, generate more overall freedom?
  1. A society in which 2% of the population owns 98% of the property.
  2. A society in which the ownership of property is more or less equally distributed.
To be sure, this is a rather abstract, and problematic, question to ask. But it makes one thing clear. It looks as though the freedom of the propertyless 98% of the population in (1) is going to be much less than it would be in (2). Insofar as the vast majority of the population is propertyless, their freedom to live without facing coercive state interference on behalf the owners (constituting only 2% of the population) of the majority of society's property is severely limited. It is obvious, then, that there is more overall freedom in society (2). So imagine the following scenario. Imagine we're in society (1) and, we ask a Right-winger who, supposedly, believes that freedom is the most fundamental political value the following: "Shouldn't we reorganize our society so that it's more like (2) and less like (1)?". The Right-winger will, of course, say no. That would interfere with the property rights of the 2% who own most of the property. But in saying this, the Right-winger shows her true colors. Freedom-enhancing changes to society are not to be undertaken if they interfere with the "sacred" institution of private property. So private property rights trump freedom for those on the Right who (unjustly) call themselves "liberatarians".

But how is it putatively "natural" property rights are supposedly so fundamental and important that we can't even violate them to promote greater individual freedom? My response would be that they aren't so fundamental or important. In fact I don't even think there's any reason to think that there are such things as "natural" property rights at all. Property is a social institution governing the use of certain things. It can be configured in all kinds of different ways--depending on the kind of society we're talking about. It seems to me insane to claim that human beings by nature come packaged with "rights" to particular, specific institutional arrangements that fit cleanly with the functional demands of a modern capitalist economy. For most of human history such a thing would have made no sense.

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