The Ethics and Economics of Private Property
I. The Problem of Social Order
Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe can do whatever he pleases. For him, the question concerning rules of orderly human conduct—social cooperation—simply does not arise. Naturally, this question can only arise once a second person, Friday, arrives on the island. Yet even then, the question remains largely irrelevant so long as no scarcityexists. Suppose the island is the Garden of Eden; all external goods are available in superabundance. They are “free goods,” just as the air that we breathe is normally a “free” good. Whatever Crusoe does with these goods, his actions have repercussions neither with respect to his own future supply of such goods nor regarding the present or future supply of the same goods for Friday (and vice versa). Hence, it is impossible that there could ever be a conflict between Crusoe and Friday concerning the use of such goods. A conflict is only possible if goods are scarce. Only then will there arise the need to formulate rules that make orderly—conflict-free—social cooperation possible.
In the Garden of Eden only two scarce goods exist: the physical body of a person and its standing room. Crusoe and Friday each have only one body and can stand only at one place at a time. Hence, even in the Garden of Eden conflicts between Crusoe and Friday can arise: Crusoe and Friday cannot occupy the same standing room simultaneously without coming thereby into physical conflict with each other. Accordingly, even in the Garden of Eden rules of orderly social conduct must exist—rules regarding the proper location and movement of human bodies. And outside the Garden of Eden, in the realm of scarcity, there must be rules that regulate not only the use of personal bodies but also of everything scarce so that all possible conflicts can be ruled out. This is the problem of social order.
II. The Solution: Private Property and Original Appropriation
In the history of social and political thought, various proposals have been advanced as a solution to the problem of social order, and this variety of mutually inconsistent proposals has contributed to the fact that today’s search for a single “correct” solution is frequently deemed illusory. Yet as I will try to demonstrate, a correct solution exists; hence, there is no reason to succumb to moral relativism. The solution has been known for hundreds of years, if not for much longer.1 In modern times this old and simple solution was formulated most clearly and convincingly by Murray N. Rothbard.2
Let me begin by formulating the solution—first for the special case represented by the Garden of Eden and subsequently for the general case represented by the “real” world of all-around scarcity—and then proceed to the explanation of why this solution, and no other, is correct.
In the Garden of Eden, the solution is provided by the simple rule stipulating that everyone may place or move his own body wherever he pleases, provided only that no one else is already standing there and occupying the same space. And outside of the Garden of Eden, in the realm of all-around scarcity the solution is provided by this rule: Everyone is the proper owner of his own physical body as well as of all places and nature-given goods that he occupies and puts to use by means of his body, provided that no one else has already occupied or used the same places and goods before him. This ownership of “originally appropriated” places and goods by a person implies his right to use and transform these places and goods in any way he sees fit, provided that he does not thereby forcibly change the physical integrity of places and goods originally appropriated by another person. In particular, once a place or good has been first appropriated, in John Locke’s words, by “mixing one’s labor” with it, ownership in such places and goods can be acquired only by means of a voluntary—contractual—transfer of its property title from a previous to a later owner.
In light of wide-spread moral relativism, it is worth pointing out that this idea of original appropriation and private property as a solution to the problem of social order is in complete accordance with our moral “intuition.” Is it not simply absurd to claim that a person should not be the proper owner of his body and the places and goods that he originally, i.e., prior to anyone else, appropriates, uses and/or produces by means of his body? For who else, if not he, should be their owner? And is it not also obvious that the overwhelming majority of people—including children and primitives—in fact act according to these rules, and do so as a matter of course?
Moral intuition, as important as it is, is not proof. However, there also exists proof of the veracity of our moral intuition.
The proof is two-fold. On the one hand, the consequences that follow if one were to deny the validity of the institution of original appropriation and private property are spelled out: If person A were not the owner of his own body and the places and goods originally appropriated and/or produced with this body as well as of the goods voluntarily (contractually) acquired from another previous owner, then only two alternatives would exist. Either another person, B, must be recognized as the owner of A’s body as well as the places and goods appropriated, produced or acquired by A, or both persons, A and B, must be considered equal co-owners of all bodies, places and goods.
In the first case, A would be reduced to the rank of B’s slave and object of exploitation. B would be the owner of A’s body and all places and goods appropriated, produced and acquired by A, but A in turn would not be the owner of B’s body and the places and goods appropriated, produced and acquired by B. Hence, under this ruling two categorically distinct classes of persons would be constituted— Untermenschen such as A and Uebermenschen such as B—to whom different “laws” apply. Accordingly, such ruling must be discarded as a human ethic equally applicable to everyone qua human being (rational animal). From the very outset, any such ruling is recognized as not universally acceptable and thus cannot claim to represent law. For a rule to aspire to the rank of a law—a just rule—it is necessary that such a rule apply equally and universally to everyone.
Alternatively, in the second case of universal and equal co-ownership, the requirement of equal law for everyone would be fulfilled. However, this alternative would suffer from an even more severe deficiency, because if it were applied, all of mankind would instantly perish. (Since every human ethic must permit the survival of mankind, this alternative must also be rejected.) Every action of a person requires the use of some scarce means (at least of the person’s body and its standing room), but if all goods were co-owned by everyone, then no one, at no time and no place, would be allowed to do anything unless he had previously secured every other co-owner’s consent to do so. Yet how could anyone grant such consent were he not the exclusive owner of his own body (including his vocal chords) by which means his consent must be expressed? Indeed, he would first need another’s consent in order to be allowed to express his own, but these others could not give their consent without having first his, and so it would go on.
This insight into the praxeological impossibility of “universal communism,” as Rothbard referred to this proposal, brings me immediately to an alternative way of demonstrating the idea of original appropriation and private property as the only correct solution to the problem of social order.3 Whether or not persons have any rights and, if so, which ones, can only be decided in the course of argumentation (propositional exchange). Justification—proof, conjecture, refutation—is argumentative justification. Anyone who denied this proposition would become involved in a performative contradiction because his denial would itself constitute an argument. Even an ethical relativist would have to accept this first proposition, which is referred to accordingly as the apriori of argumentation.
From the undeniable acceptance—the axiomatic status—of this apriori of argumentation, two equally necessary conclusions follow. First, it follows from the apriori of argumentation when there is no rational solution to the problem of conflict arising from the existence of scarcity. Suppose in my earlier scenario of Crusoe and Friday that Friday were not the name of a man but of a gorilla. Obviously, just as Crusoe could face conflict regarding his body and its standing room with Friday the man, so might he with Friday the gorilla. The gorilla might want to occupy the same space that Crusoe already occupied. In this case, at least if the gorilla were the sort of entity that we know gorillas to be, there would be no rational solution to their conflict. Either the gorilla would push aside, crush, or devour Crusoe—that would be the gorilla’s solution to the problem—or Crusoe would tame, chase, beat, or kill the gorilla—that would be Crusoe’s solution. In this situation, one might indeed speak of moral relativism. However, it would be more appropriate to refer to this situation as one in which the question of justice and rationality simply would not arise; that is, it would be considered an extra-moral situation. The existence of Friday the gorilla would pose a technical, not a moral, problem for Crusoe. He would have no other choice than to learn how to successfully manage and control the movements of the gorilla just as he would have to learn to manage and control other inanimate objects of his environment.
By implication, only if both parties in a conflict are capable of engaging in argumentation with one another, can one speak of a moral problem and is the question of whether or not there exists a solution to it a meaningful question. Only if Friday, regardless of his physical appearance, is capable of argumentation (even if he has shown himself to be capable only once), can he be deemed rational and does the question whether or not a correct solution to the problem of social order exists make sense. No one can be expected to give any answer to someone who has never raised a question or, more to the point, who has never stated his own relativistic viewpoint in the form of an argument. In that case, this “other” cannot but be regarded and treated as an animal or plant, i.e., as an extra-moral entity. Only if this other entity can pause in his activity, whatever it might be, step back, and say “yes” or “no” to something one has said, do we owe this entity an answer and, accordingly, can we possibly claim that our answer is the correct one for both parties involved in a conflict.
Moreover, it follows from the apriori of argumentation that everything that must be presupposed in the course of an argumentation as the logical and praxeological precondition of argumentation cannot in turn be argumentatively disputed as regards its validity without becoming thereby entangled in an internal (performative) contradiction.
Now, propositional exchanges are not made up of free-floating propositions, but rather constitute a specific human activity. Argumentation between Crusoe and Friday requires that both have, and mutually recognize each other as having, exclusive control over their respective bodies (their brain, vocal chords, etc.) as well as the standing room occupied by their bodies. No one could propose anything and expect the other party to convince himself of the validity of this proposition or deny it and propose something else unless his and his opponent’s right to exclusive control over their respective bodies and standing rooms were presupposed. In fact, it is precisely this mutual recognition of the proponent’s as well as the opponent’s property in his own body and standing room which constitutes the characteristicum specificum of all propositional disputes: that while one may not agree regarding the validity of a specific proposition, one can agree nonetheless on the fact that one disagrees. Moreover, this right to property in one’s own body and its standing room must be considered apriori (or indisputably) justified by proponent and opponent alike. Anyone who claimed any proposition as valid vis-à-vis an opponent would already presuppose his and his opponent’s exclusive control over their respective body and standing room simply in order to say “I claim such and such to be true, and I challenge you to prove me wrong.”
Furthermore, it would be equally impossible to engage in argumentation and rely on the propositional force of one’s arguments if one were not allowed to own (exclusively control) other scarce means (besides one’s body and its standing room). If one did not have such a right, then we would all immediately perish and the problem of justifying rules—as well as any other human problem—would simply not exist. Hence, by virtue of the fact of being alive property rights to other things must be presupposed as valid, too. No one who is alive can possibly argue otherwise.
If a person were not permitted to acquire property in these goods and spaces by means of an act
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