Archive for the ‘Property’ Category


Libertarian Gold

April 16, 2010

John Holbo has a nice post over at Crooked Timber. He continues the thread inspired by the outrageous claim of Bryan Caplan’s that somehow the ladies were freer back in the 1880s than they are today. It’s an interesting post if only because he suggests that there are sociological reflections of conceptual distinctions in libertarianism, and also because he runs his argument through the establishment of liberty as property:

I think it is not generally recognized – it seems right to me, correct me if I am wrong! – that the thick/thin libertarian distinction, even though it can be fuzzy, in practice, marks out two fundamentally distinct kinds of political philosophy, based on totally different principles. This gets disguised because there is considerable overlapping consensus at higher levels; and the thin side, in particular, tends to be systematically confused about where it is coming from (where it has to be coming from, to be what it is). Once we see this, a few things that are a bit strange about libertarianism, as a sociological phenomenon, look less strange. Also, maybe it turns out that libertarianism is a Bigger Tent than liberalism, philosophically, even though it is sometimes classed as a mere fringe of the liberal tent. Liberalism really is one kind of thing, broadly speaking. But not libertarianism – which is really two fundamentally different kinds of thing in one. (You could debate that, arguing that liberalism, too, has some pretty serious and deep internal divisions. But that’s not today’s topic.)



February 2, 2010

Old habits die hard. Looks like Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, doesn’t much care for houses (or the people in them).

The first positive annulment of private property – crude communism – is thus merely a manifestation of the vileness of private property, which wants to set itself up as the positive community system.

Communism (α) still political in nature – democratic or despotic; (β) with the abolition of the state, yet still incomplete, and being still affected by private property, i.e., by the estrangement of man. In both forms communism already is aware of being reintegration or return of man to himself, the transcendence of human self-estrangement; but since it has not yet grasped the positive essence of private property, and just as little the human nature of need, it remains captive to it and infected by it. It has, indeed, grasped its concept, but not its essence. (Marx, Private Property and Communism)

Estrangement is one thing. Estrangement in -20 C is something else entirely.


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.


Sea Shepherd Splintered

January 8, 2010

Revkin had a post up a few days ago on Dot Earth about the Sea Shepherd ramming. Near the end of his post, Revkin slyly asks:

If a whale is hit by an exploding harpoon near Antarctica and the world doesn’t have a way to witness that, does it make a sound?

Apparently, Peter Singer, Philosopher and Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, responded:

Yes, it has a sound. Because the question about a tree falling in the forest assumed that there are no sentient being able to hear it fall. But whales are sentient beings, and they make sounds that can communicate through the water over a great distance. But even if the whale was alone it can hear the harpoon and feel its own agony, as studies have shown that harpooned whales often die slowly.

I’ve been heavily influenced by Singer, even though I disagree with him pretty strongly (methodologically speaking). Not only does his response to Revkin strike me as having missed the point of the question — the question, in other words, was not technically about whether whales are phenomenologically aware of their own slaughter, but about the extent to which the slaughtering of whales matters politically if no one is around to call attention to the fact that they’re being slaughtered — but it is unapologetically entrenched in his sentientist POV.

On the first point, clearly the question was political. One might also ask the same thing of a protest organization like Sea Shepherd: if they continue doing what they’re doing, and nobody is around to hear, does it make a difference?

Indeed, ever since Sea Shepherd began allowing cameramen on board to shoot Discovery Channel’s Whale Wars, critics of Sea Shepherd have accused Watson of jumping the whale shark.  My students, mostly fascinated by the extent to which Sea Shepherd walks a tricky legal line, cannot stop talking about what a pompous self-promoter Watson is. Until the show came on the air, they’d only caught wind of direct action organizations like Sea Shepherd through the twisted missives of the self-parody that is the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

But that’s just the way it should be: Whale wars is a media phenomenon. They’re in the news now, partly because they’ve been very good about getting and holding media attention.

On the second point, it’s true by definition that sentient creatures like whales are aware of pains and pleasures, and so presumably would “hear” the harpoon as it enters their body. But simply because this is true ought not to be the critical factor in determining what’s wrong with harpooning whales. Singer and many like him argue in multiple locations that sentience is what matters morally, presumably because pains are bad and pleasures are good. But many others disagree. So what if whales can feel the harpoon enter their body. Of course they can. Cows and pigs can probably also feel it when they get clobbered with a hatchet. I have to wonder if the awareness of the whale is a strong enough reason to stop harpooning whales.  To combat the shortcomings of this view, many try to argue for personhood, just as these scientists argue that dolphins should be viewed as non-human persons. Watson also argues something like this when he claims that whales are more intelligent than humans. This strategy also has its substantial shortcomings. For starters, it’s a relatively confusing, given the commonplace use of the term “person,” and the extent to which this is caught up in moral language.

A slightly better strategy, it seems to me, is to argue that the relevant features of an existing being are salient in a particular circumstance. I guess my attitude is that we can give lots of great reasons why whales ought not to be harpooned and slaughtered, and we don’t need to adopt the strong sentientist or personhood position to make these claims. There are reasons for me to not go mowing down a forest in Alaska, for instance, and those reasons don’t necessarily overlap with the forest’s intelligence, personhood, or ability to feel.

Semester begins on Monday. Should be a bit easier to hit my schedule when I’m in a routine.


The Unraveling of Private Property

November 9, 2009

The New York Times has a nice story on the property rights struggles of Moscow residents.

The Soviet government’s land monopoly may have ended some two decades ago, but the ability of the authorities to give and take away territory has not, real estate experts here say.

While private land ownership is not forbidden today as it was in the Soviet era, current real estate laws are vague: residents can buy homes and apartments, for instance, but not the land they stand on. In all cases people are left open to the caprice of corrupt officials and businessmen.

Aw, but come on. They should rejoice in this ambiguity. In such ambiguity lies emancipation. Here, from the 1844 manuscripts:

The abolition [Aufhebung] of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vice versa. Need or enjoyment have consequently lost its egotistical nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becoming human use.

See? All clear now.