February 5, 2013 columns

More on Property, Freedom, and Coercion

David Friedman thinks that my recent essay about libertarianism and property confuses two different issues. But that might be because he himself has confused what my original essay was about. My essay was about the way that property limits freedom. It is not about the difference between property rights in created and uncreated goods. That is a useful distinction to draw for some purposes. But it is orthogonal to mine. My claim that property rights limit freedom applies to property claims of both kinds.
 
Why do I say that property rights limit freedom? I start with the belief that to be free is to not be subject to interference by other people. I then note that property rights are, at their core, socially and legally enforceable licenses to interfere with others. If I have a property right in a piece of land, I get to physically interfere with anybody who tries to use that land without my consent, or call on the police to do my interfering for me. So my having a property right in the land limits your
freedom to use it.
 
This argument holds whether we’re talking about land, or automobiles, or human bodies. The fact that I hold a property right in the Sienna that’s parked in my driveway means that you are not free to use it to drive your kids to school. The fact that I have a property right in my body means that you are not free to put a bullet through the space where I am standing. Of course most people, myself included, don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with restricting people’s liberty in these ways, at least the second one! But that response only counts as an objection to my definition of liberty if we assume that to call something a restriction of liberty must necessarily be to say that there’s something immoral about it – a point which I have taken pains to deny in my previous essays and will, God Help Me, try to bury for good in my next one.
 
David is right that Cohen’s point about money isn’t really about money; it’s about property claims more generally. But he’s wrong in suggesting that property rights are less a matter of social convention than money, and thus that the woman ejected from the train and the man on the desert island are basically alike in that they are both “constrained by the absence of objects [they] have a right to use.” I think, on the contrary, that there is an important difference with respect to freedom between the woman ejected from the train and the man on the island. If, as I have defined it, liberty means freedom from interference by others, then Robinson Crusoe is free, even if he starves from inability to catch any food. The reason is that his not being able to do much is the product of natural conditions, not human action. A beggar who starves on the street in front of a fish shop, by contrast, is not free, for what keeps him from eating is not some natural lack of food in the area, or a physical inability on his part to grab some and eat it. What keeps him from eating is the threat of coercion by others. There is plenty of food around, but it is all held as the property of someone else, and if he attempts to take it without their consent, they can (whether or not they will) use coercion to prevent him.
 
I’m not sure what to make of the excerpt with which David concludes his essay. As far as I can tell, his point is that taking stuff that used to be in the commons and making it one’s own private property doesn’t really diminish the liberty of others after all, since before your appropriation they were free to do anything they had a right to do, and after your appropriation they were still free to do that. It’s just that now, since they don’t have a right to use the stuff that’s your property, that freedom is a little less convenient for them to exercise.
 
Perhaps I’m misunderstanding David’s point, but this doesn’t seem to me to shed much helpful light on either the problem of original appropriation, or the relationship between property and liberty. What David has shown is that there is some way of talking about liberty in which the liberty of the propertyless is not diminished by acts of appropriation. Yes, there are all kinds of specific actions they were at liberty to perform before, and all kinds of objects they were at liberty to use, all of which are now closed off to them. But still! They are free to do everything they have the right to do, just as they were before.
 
If you take a nap on unowned ground, and I build a 10 foot wide, 10 foot high, 10 foot tall brick wall around your sleeping body (with my own labor and my own bricks!), would you be comforted by the fact that “You still have the right of freedom of action, and that right is still limited, as it always was, by my right not to have my private property violated”?