February 25, 2013 columns

How Property Protects Liberty

In my last essay, I noted that both John Locke and Robert Nozick seem to make utilitarian appeals to the social effects of property in arguing for its justification. In this essay, I clarify the nature of those arguments, and show how they can be developed to provide a genuinely liberty-based defense of private property rights, against the critiques of Spencer and Cohen.

The first and most important thing to note about both Locke and Nozick’s arguments is that, unlike utilitarian arguments, they are individualistic rather than collectivistic in nature. For the utilitarian, all that matters in justifying an action (or an institution like property rights) is its effect on overall well-being. On the utilitarian view, then, property rights are justified if the overall benefits they produce are greater than the overall harms they produce, regardless of how those benefits and harms are distributed among different individuals.

For Locke and Nozick, on the other hand, property rights are only justified if they benefit (or at least do not harm) each and every individual. Now, this probably seems like an extremely tough argumentative hurdle for the defender of property to clear. Could it really be the case that each and every individual is better off under a system of private property rights than he would have been without one? Consider the position of the poorest of working-class Americans today and ask what his situation would be like if nobody had ever appropriated anything. What would his life be like if he enjoyed the full bounty of the state of nature, but none of the results of the past appropriations which (in our world) have actually taken place? He could walk or work or live on any land he chose; he could draw gold or oil from the ground, hunt or harvest all the food he could find from the land, and draw all the fish he wished from the sea.

But how would he get to the oil, or the gold? Without a system of private property in place to protect and provide incentives for creative work, who would have built the tools for him to get it? Who, even, would have built the knife or the spear with which he might hunt or fish? Tools such as these require physical resources, time, and effort to create. And unless people can be relatively sure that others will not seize the fruit of their creative efforts, why should we expect them to invest these scarce goods? No property rights means no industry or trade, even in their crudest and most basic forms. And no industry or trade means, in the famous words used by Thomas Hobbes to describe the state of nature, “no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So there is, at least, a strong initial case to be made that everyone, even the poorest day-laborer, is better off under a system of property rights than they would be without. But there’s an even more interesting way of developing Nozick’s argument that makes the connection to individual liberty even more straightforward. As we have seen, a substantial part of both Locke and Nozick’s argument for property rights is based on the claim that private property rights make people and resources more productive. But if we think carefully about what this claim really means, it suggests that most of the property that exists today simply wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for private property rights. In a state of nature, we wouldn’t be arguing about how to distribute iPhones, or access to CT scans, or university educations, because people simply wouldn’t have bothered to invest the resources necessary to create these things without the protections and incentives provided by property rights.

And this makes the status of the claim that property rights restrict liberty a bit unclear. Cohen’s argument is that the poor individual who can’t afford a train ticket is being coerced by a system of property rights – if she tries to get on the train without paying for a ticket, men with guns will stop her. And that’s true enough, as far as it goes. But can we conclude from this that property rights in general are restricting her liberty? After all, without a system of property rights, the train she’s trying to board wouldn’t even exist in the first place. So if property rights merely prevent her from using a resource that wouldn’t even have existed in the absence of property rights, does it really make any sense to say that property rights restrict her liberty?

Moreover, if we add to this consideration a list of the various ways in which property rights enhance liberty, the libertarian case in their favor grows even stronger. Protecting an individual’s property in her self and her positions allows her to control her own life – to make choices and plans and to take action safe in the knowledge that, as far as her own belongings are concerned, she alone has ultimate jurisdiction. This is obvious in the case of property rights in one’s self. But property rights in ones own body would do little to enhance one’s liberty if one had no ability to make use of and control external resources like land and other physical goods. Finally, it is because of private property that individuals have the ability to exercise their powers of choice over a staggeringly wide range of options in everything from the flavor of their toothpaste to the aesthetic and cultural character of the neighborhood in which they raise their families. Of course, not everyone likes to call that kind of ability “freedom.” And I won’t quibble over terminology. But whatever we call it, it shares a lot of the liberating power that makes freedom attractive. And the fact that the institution of private property puts such ability in the hands of the masses is one of its great moral virtues.

This, I think, is a rough outline of how a system of private property should be defended on genuinely liberty-based grounds from the critiques of Cohen and Spencer. But it leaves a number of important questions unanswered. I have claimed, for instance, that a system of property rights makes even the poorest better off. But better off compared to what, exactly? What is the baseline against which property arrangements must be compared in order to be justified? And what if there are some people in a capitalist society who aren’t made better off by the sort of property arrangements it enforces? Must we then discard capitalist property arrangements altogether? Or does this, as Jason Brennan has recently suggested, open the door to redistributive policies within a capitalist society, on grounds not of charity but of justice? These questions raise important theoretical and practical issues, but their resolution will have to wait for a future essay.