The Ends of Property

January 22, 2010

Whether you subscribe to the Hobbesian contractual theory of property, the Rousseauvian finding of property as the root of inequality, the Marxist theory of alienation and surplus value, the Proudhonian conception of property as theft, or even, arguably, the Lockean labor theory of property, there must be some sense in which the plight of every surviving Haitian leaves you with raging question marks dancing over your head.

The attached must-read essay from Professor Guy-Uriel Charles (Duke Law), sums it up nicely. “Stop calling quake victims looters,” he says, pointing out how offensive the journalistic use of the term is in the face of dire circumstances.

I couldn’t agree more, but I’d just want to add one thing, with due attribution to Hobbes.

The charge of looting doesn’t make a damn bit of sense in this state of nature, because the idea of property doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Nobody owns anything now. Nothing. Not a loaf of bread. Not a bar of soap. And most definitely not a high definition television set. There are no institutions to establish these rights; though there are no representatives of institutions to enforce such rights. The absence of enforcers isn’t what crushes the very idea of property (sorry Hobbes), but the utter nonsense engendered by the idea of property.

Seriously? Seriously? …Seriously?

Does it really make sense to talk about property ownership in the face of absolute devastation, in the face of starvation, dehydration, and the death of one’s siblings?

Sure, we might grasp at maintaining order by re-asserting these rights, but talking nonchalantly as though they persist through the even the most devastating events. “Damn looters, stop goofing around and put the shoes and shirts back on the shelves.” But Haitians are in a dire state at the moment, a state so dire that it does not make sense.

To the starving, food on a plate is not property. Food in a field is not property. Food in a grocery store is not property. It is food, first and foremost. It is property only once regimes of ownership and jurisdiction once again make sense.

“That was McNulty’s store, but is no longer,” is all the authorization one needs to move into a phase of complete disregard for jurisdictional boundaries. The walls no longer stand, the shelves no longer stand, the contents of the store are just objects.

I appreciate deeply Charles’s argument, but it seems to me to miss this fundamental element. There is no property in the state of nature. It’s just stuff.


  1. […] part of the coverage that was strange given that… these people have no food or water. Via Ben Hale: The attached must-read essay from Professor Guy-Uriel Charles (Duke Law), sums it up nicely. […]

  2. “There is no property in the state of nature. It’s just stuff.”

    Tell that to the little old lady who just had her piece of bread taken by someone stronger.

    It is back to “might makes right” apparently.

    I disagree with the quote. The concept of property evolved out of the state of nature.

    Even little children know it is fair when you take something they belive is theirs.

    That bit of food or fresh water I have is my property, which I need to stay alive. It is not just stuff. It is life and death.

    • I’m operating under the assumption that the supposed looters are not so much looting from one another as “looting” from stores and places of business. Taking bread out of the mouth of another is wrong for a variety of reasons, not all of which are tied to the bread being the woman’s property.

      • Alright – lets focus on looting of property from places of business.

        During the breakdown of civil order, is it ok for me to protect my store and its contents with force, to prevent its looting?

        Is there such a thing as murder or wrongful death in a state of nature – because I sure would want to stop people from looting my property – especially without any working police force to do it for me.

        I can also see lotters fighting each otherh over the spoils. If this results in death is that wrong? Maybe not – in a state of nature.

        See I don’t buy it.

        It is not ok to loot – and it is even less justifiable under the doctrine of necessity to loot TV’s than it is to loot food.

        Property is property – even in a state of nature.

        Or else might does make right.

      • That position is profoundly tautological. Property is property, I agree. Unfortunately, saying such a thing doesn’t offer much insight into the nature of property.

        What you need here is a theory of property, and even under the most generous interpretations of what is (arguably) the single-most influential natural law position, by which I mean the Lockean labor theory of property, the right to the property is constrained by the extent to which there is “enough and as good” for others.

  3. Nice post. I was reminded of Katrina when reading it, and it seems Charles made the connection as well.

    Nothing about the misuse of the term ‘looter’ need imply that might makes right.

  4. Guy-Uriel Charles: ‘We cannot separate the word looting from its racial implications or the supposed crime of looting from its racial origins.’

    We can if we’re not race-obsessed professional grievance-mongers twisting Haiti’s tragedy to fit the bonkers ebony tower of American academic identity politics. Has the man no shame?

    Re Ben’s ‘the utter nonsense engendered by the idea of property’: I don’t know enough about philosophy to offer an informed comment, so I’ll just go ‘Hmmmm’, narrow my eyes and scratch my chin in a thoughtful manner.

    (But I will add that I wouldn’t hesitate for more than a few seconds before taking abandoned or unguarded food to keep me and mine alive. I wouldn’t think of the food as my property. I’d know I’d acted illegally. Immorally? Not sure. But I’d take it and eat it.)

  5. Property is derived from physical force; you own what you can keep others from having. Property also has a time dimension; you only own what you can keep others from having now. Anyone who has ever watched a video of lions being chased away from a kill by hyenas knows this. Thus, I would argue that talking about property ownership makes even more sense in times of destitution; that’s when who owns what really matters, because those who don’t own anything die. But if people can own things in common, as the lions do after a kill, then they can ensure survival of both the group and the individual much more readily. I would argue that looting is essentially the implicit recognition that in order to survive, private ownership must dissolve in favor of common ownership until resources are plentiful enough that the individuals in a group are confident they can survive on the resources they can exclude the other group members from.

    More to the point; why are we thinking of property only as *private* property? Property is only made private when the individual can exclude either by their own force or by the force of a state apparatus like the police or military. What about situations where exclusion isn’t possible or practical? Normally we would then call this public property; air, water, parks, etc. Is it looting when I breath air? Hardly, because exclusion isn’t possible. In the case of Haiti exclusion is also impossible, so it’s not looting. Hasn’t the food or clothing simply turned into public property? It could certainly revert to private property once someone with a big enough gun shows up, but without that threat it’s no one’s and thus everyone’s all at once.

    • That’s a pretty primitive view of property.

  6. On occasion, while feeling particularly wracally, Eli wanders into a libertarian blog and opens with “property is theft” proceeding to dare show that any ownership cannot be traced back to an act of war or theft, but the bunny repeats himself. It is great fun to watch the clowns tie themselves up in spittle and knots.

  7. “There is no property in the state of nature. It’s just stuff.”

    And the stealing may be justified, but it is still stealing. If one lives under a rule of law then one is breaking the law. If one live under the rule of the jungle, then one is taking from somebody else (and if they’re strong enough they’ll bash you over the head).

    And one can steal from society. A hungry man breaks into the National Museum and takes a rare artifact to trade for food. He trips on the way out and said priceless national treasure is no more…

  8. “Taking bread out of the mouth of another is wrong”. Per Hobbes, in a state of Nature your statement is meaningless.

    Was “The absence of enforcers isn’t what crushes the very idea of property (sorry Hobbes), but the utter nonsense engendered by the idea of property.” meant to be a reasoned rebuttal of Hobbes?

    And I quote:

    To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his Senses, and Passions. They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no Propriety, no Dominion, no Mine and Thine distinct; but onely that to be every mans that he can get; and for so long, as he can keep it.

    • Yeah, I’m not a Hobbesian.

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