Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Practical" Arguments for Property Rights

During my twenty years defending property rights, I have regularly encountered individuals who rely on economic and similar "practical" arguments in the defense of property rights. But these arguments are seldom effective, because people are ultimately moved by morality.

Economic arguments, while important, are insufficient. Divorced from morality, economic arguments concede the moral high ground to those who wish to violate property rights. The result is essentially an attempt to compromise; it is an attempt to agree on moral principles while arguing for a different application of those principles.

In "The Anatomy of Compromise", Ayn Rand wrote:

In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

Consider conservatives, who argue for property rights on religious grounds. Property rights, they claim, are necessary so that we can prosper in order to serve God and do His work. The conservative argument for property rights rests on altruism.

A more secular version argues that property rights result in "the greatest good" for society. But, one's values ultimately determine the meaning of "good". Socialists argue that equality is the "greatest good"; the Taliban argue that the Sharia serves the "greatest good"; environmentalists argue that protecting the snail-darter serves the "greatest good". The mountains of evidence demonstrating that property rights lead to economic prosperity would be meaningless to these groups. They simply don't care about economic prosperity.

The utilitarian argument--"the greatest good"--also rests on altruism. If a particular action or policy will result in "the greatest good", but violates the rights of a small number of people, it is justified according to utilitarianism. The good of some must necessarily supersede the good of others. In the end, some will be forced to sacrifice for the "greatest good".

This is why utilitarian arguments are futile. They embrace the same altruistic morality as the enemies of property rights. As Rand identified, in any conflict between two men who hold the same basic principles, the more consistent will win. In any conflict between two altruists, the more consistent will win--the one who more consistently demands sacrifice will be more convincing. This is a part of the reason why Republicans continue to get stomped at the polls.

There may be some who are convinced by economic arguments. From my experience they too are altruists. But they embrace the flip side of the altruist coin--rather than sacrifice themselves to others, they sacrifice others to themselves. They agree that life requires sacrifice and victims, and they choose to be on the receiving end.

Any argument for property rights that is divorced from morality will ultimately prove ineffective. Such arguments attempt to ignore the purpose of rights, as well as their source. Rights are not a gift from God--as the conservatives claim--or a social convention--as the utilitarians imply. Rights are a requirement of human life--they sanction an individual's freedom of action in a social context. Rights allow an individual to act in accordance with his own rational judgment, in the pursuit of his own chosen values.

This is not to say that economic arguments have no purpose. They do, because the practical consequences of freedom are an important fact. But the practical is also the moral--the purpose of morality is to provide us with the principles necessary to live and prosper. Morality is the cause; a successful life is the effect. The defense of property rights must include both the cause and the effect.


Michael Labeit said...

While I've found that consequentialist arguments for private property work semi-effectively, I've found it even harder to convince people that selfishness is moral.

Brian Phillips said...

I've been listenting to Peter Schwart's lectures on package deals, and one point he makes is that few people can even comprehend a rational view of the concept. Altruists present two alternatives--sacrifice yourself to others, or sacrifice others to yourself (selfishness). When someone accepts this premise, they have a very difficult time envisioning life without sacrifice.

Our challenge is to reclaim the concept and teach others to reject the false alternative.

BassPig said...

Defending Property Rights

The property tax has got to be the most immoral tax on earth.
How can a vital essential to life--particularly in cold northern climates--be considered taxable when food and some clothing is not?
The logic of taxing the home or primary domicile is one of 'they got you by the balls' and the homeowner has no option NOT to pay, otherwise he faces a cabal of armed storm troopers bent on murdering him if he resists and chooses to protect his home for him and his family.
In effect, the property tax criminalizes low incomes and creates legalized slavery.

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.
Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.
["Man's Rights," The Virtue of Selfishness]
It is only on the basis of property rights that the sphere and application of individual rights can be defined in any given social situation. Without property rights, there is no way to solve or to avoid a hopeless chaos of clashing views, interests, demands, desires, and whims.
["The Cashing-In: The Student 'Rebellion,'" Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal]
The source of property rights is the law of causality. All property and all forms of wealth are produced by man's mind and labor. As you cannot have effects without causes, so you cannot have wealth without its source: without intelligence. You cannot force intelligence to work: those who're able to think, will not work under compulsion; those who will, won't produce much more than the price of the whip needed to keep them enslaved.
["This Is John Galt Speaking," Atlas Shrugged]

The above statements form the foundation of a free nation. Without property rights, there IS no freedom.
The property tax is partly based on stale, Marxist class-envy politics. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were so eager to destroy the successful upper and middle-class "bourgeoisie." Ever since the passage of the 16th Amendment, which granted the federal government the power to directly confiscate our income -- our property -- we can own nothing to which the government cannot also lay claim, at least in part. If there is a valid argument justifying taxes levied on voluntary transactions, there is absolutely no justification for a tax that is nothing less than State-sponsored theft. Though I would be incarcerated -- and rightly so -- for walking next door and taking money out of my neighbor's wallet without his permission, the government makes this very act routine.
The property tax is immoral and oppressive and deprives citizens of their necessities of warmth and shelter.
It is with these facts that I propose that no law enforcement agent take part in the aiding and abetting of theft of homes from people who owe no voluntary mortgage, but who may be unable, due to the expanding greed of local government, to pay the extortionist and confiscatory taxes. No moral law enforcement officer should obey an order to remove an otherwise moral and law-abiding family from their rightfully owned home for inability to pay property taxes. This should be a fundamental part of the Oath Keeper’s pledge. Property and security in one’s home is a FUNDAMENTAL American right.