Jan Narveson – The Justification of Private Property by First-Comers


Since the days of Locke and Hume, who regarded property rights as obvious components of the foundations of society, the subject has gone downhill. Few in the philosophical mainstream simply defend them as altogether reasonable. Most seem to have been persuaded that the subject is either highly problematic, or that the case for property rights must be hedged with restrictions at least, or that the subject is wide open. I shall resume the investigation, arguing here that it’s nothing of the sort, and that the case for property rights is clear, brief, and sensible. The view that anything can be defended in that way nowadays is unpopular, alas. In producing this clear and sensible account, I should really supplement it, no doubt, with a highly dense, metaphysical explanation – something like Hegel’s, perhaps. Unfortunately, the truth is often boring, even when it is extremely important, as the present subject certainly is.

Ownership Defined

You have a property right in something, x, when you get to do what you want with x and others do not. Except, of course, if you want to use it to violate somebody else’s rights, as when you propose to slug him with it. Property rights are limited in their scope by other people’s rights. That they are thus limited is self-evident in the case where those other people’s rights are themselves property rights. If I have the right to do with x as I want, then obviously you cannot also have the right to do with x what you want; and in the case where you use your shiny new property – say, a .45 – to do something to x that I don’t want done with it, such as in the case where x is my body and you shoot me, then you have violated my rights. There is nothing mysterious about this.

There are lots of things you can ‘do with’ x. You can take it apart and rebuild it, put it on the mantelpiece and glance at it every now and then for forty years, rent it to someone else and charge for that, lend it to someone else, sell it to someone outright, sell half of it to someone and take up joint ownership, make a nice bonfire with it (with due precautions against polluting the neighbors’ air), etc. All of these constitute doing something with x; and if we say, without qualification, that you own x, then we are ipso facto saying that it is you, not anyone else, who has the right to do all of those things. Granted, selling x isn’t quite the same kind of thing as frying it or painting it chartreuse. Selling it is laying down your right to do all those other things with it, and transferring that right to someone else, for a consideration. Many writers are hung up about this. In their view, there is a real question why people should suppose that they can not only use x for some purposes, such as the ones they first started using it for, but also use it for others once they get under way; and also, why they should be able to withhold it from others even if the others want to do something with it that they never dreamed of in the first place. That is another of the readily answered questions, in fact. There isn’t any mystery about it, either. I will try to make that clear in the body of this essay.

Thus far I have been concerned only to define the notion of ownership. This cuts across such issues as ‘private’ vs. ‘public’ ownership: it is the same thing, no matter who the ‘you’ is in the preceding paragraphs. Public ownership is ownership by the public rather than by any subset of individuals. How the public goes about using or doing anything is, of course, a very difficult question; and where it could get its claims to such ownership is even more so. I think, in fact, that the latter question is unanswerable, while the former has answers that should give pause to public-spirited philosophers thinking to promote the public good thereby. We’ll come to that below.

Acquisition Theory

Central to most people’s normative beliefs about property is that if someone stumbles upon something previously unowned, and takes it into his possession, then that person has thereby also acquired it, that is, it becomes “his property” in the sense defined at the outset. Numerous philosophers have attempted to formulate this idea – Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, for example. They in one way or another propose that ownership, that is, legitimate entitlement to control over a thing, is a legitimization of possession, which is physical, de facto control over it. Whose formulation is precisely right needn’t be settled here. They are all variations on the idea contained in the old maxim, “finders, keepers,” or “first come, first served.”

Of course it is logically possible to have a property system in which that is not accepted. One can imagine a system in which someone’s ownership of x is deter-mined entirely by the arbitrary say-so of the priesthood. That innumerable other ways of organizing the use of things are conceivable hardly shows that they are sensible or even in any way morally eligible: the Nazi state was not only conceivable but, alas, actually happened. Bad ideas are very frequently instantiated in this world. My claim is that the system of classically liberal property rights is a good thing from the public point of view, that it is the best such system, and that there are persuasive reasons for thinking so. It is not that no other way of doing things is logically possible. Socialism doesn’t make much sense, but it is not (quite) a round square -it is, instead, merely the attempt to put square pegs in round holes.

The classical system is pretty easily stated. Its general ideas were assembled lucidly by Robert Nozick, picking them up more or less from John Locke. First we have the ‘finders, keepers’ or ‘first occupancy’ principle. The first person to utilize an item that is hitherto unowned, and who continues using of it, thereby becomes the owner of that item for the indefinite future, that is, until some alteration occurs, such as his sale of it, or his death.

The ‘finders, keepers’ principle is actually a special case of a more general idea: that if you make x, then x is yours. When we ‘find’ something, we use it, and in using it, we realize value from it. If it’s an apple tree and I pluck an apple from it, I create something desirable: viz., the situation of its being ingested and thus utilized by my body. In other cases, I fiddle with the item, twisting and shaping it or perhaps melting it down, altering its nature quite thoroughly. These differences in ways of possible usage make no fundamental difference to the idea. When I think up an idea, it is unclear what material items, if any, I am in any way manipulating; but what I thereby create is nevertheless mine.

This first and fundamental norm regarding ownership creates, of course, a fertile ground for further work in the way of clarifying and specifying criteria of finding, making, and using. What constitutes non-use of property? For how long does non-use of it by its erstwhile owner justify deeming it to have reverted to the public domain, available for use by others? Exactly how much of the world has been acquired in a given first-use? E.g., how far down beneath the surface do ownership rights to land go? All of these are, in various cases, capable of being quite difficult – but also, often susceptible of easy ans-wers. If someone picks up a clearly defined hunk of something – the rest of it goes right along with the portion he has his hands on, say – then if no one else got his hands on some other portion of it simultaneously, and no one had undertaken continued use of it previously, then there is no problem about whose it is. In plenty of other cases, as when two prospectors come from opposite directions upon the same lode, it will be more difficult. It might even be impossible, and need to be resolved by some kind of arbitratrary procedure. It is a mistake to infer from the difficulty of some cases of this type that the whole thing is wrong in principle. Quite the opposite: it is the rightness of the idea in principle that motivates investigation into the difficult cases.

Theorists proposing to throw over the entire idea of first-ownership as a ground of possession do genuinely create insoluble problems and unintelligible or, much more likely, perverse solutions. Those, for example, who wish to make all ownership fundamentally ‘common’, awarding effective control on the basis of alleged public good, invariably defend, de facto, a system of arbitrary control by a few who end up having what is extensionally equivalent to virtual ownership; the dictatorship of the proletariat is invariably the dictatorship of the Party, and often enough of a Lenin or a Stalin to boot.

Second: Insofar as an item is someone’s, then any further transactions involving it require his permission, or what amounts to that. Owning it is (morally or legally) having power over it, control over it. So if anyone else is to use it, he can do so only with the permission of the then owner. If the use that the new person acquires is complete including the right of further transfer, then that is a full transfer of ownership, which is the limiting case of property use being designated for others than the original acquirer. Thus the elaboration of rules concerning property in this aspect are rules helping to make more precise the concept of transfer; especially, the subject of exchange. It is not always obvious how they are to go.

Finally, there need to be principles concerning what to do when something goes wrong vis-a-vis one of the foregoing. What the owner of x fundamentally has in this respect is the right to restitution, should that be possible, and to compensation, if not. This third area for further work tends to degenerate into theories of punishment, averting theoreticians’ gaze from compensation. It is easy to see why that happens. First, of course, property owners do, understandably, get angry at people who ‘invade and despoil’. Second and much more important, however, is that public authorities have a field day if they are thought to have the right to set and administer the rules in this area. This will populate prisons at public expense, meanwhile effectively siding with the thieves so far as owners are concerned.

Defensing First Use

That is what is to be defended. What justifies it, then? The type of answer I will assemble has it, simply, that recognition of these principles, rather than some other, is maximally useful to all concerned. This means, in particular, not only that it is useful to me that I should be able to come to own things in the above way, but also that it is useful to me that you should be able to do so; in general, my thesis is that it is most useful for all if each may do this.

Question: Why should the fact that you currently possess x be regarded by me as any reason for letting you continue to use x in future? That is what the initial acquisition principle does: it says if you have it now, then it continues yours until you relinquish it: what you get when you get there first is the right to do whatever you may want to do with the thing, within, of course, the limits imposed by other people’s rights. One might easily suppose, especially if, like most of us, you really would like to have rather more than you do – especially, to have rather more, instead of rather less, than that no-good lout Jones down the street – that getting there first is an arbitrary, accidental matter with no relevance to the things that really matter. (Except, of course, to the aforementioned no-good, Jones…)

The answer to this fundamental question is in two parts. Firstly, I am interested in letting you do this only if you in turn recognize my similar right. Nobody may unilaterally impose duties on anyone else. Someone has a right only if somebody else has a duty. But that someone else has that duty only if he agrees that he does; or, barring actual negotiation, only if he is willing, given his interests, to assume it: only, then, if it is in his interest to assume this duty. Such is the liberal gospel. I believe that all anti-first-possession theories deny that in fact. It is no accident that socialist theories are authoritarian, despite their proponents’ intentions and proclamations.

Secondly, if I don’t recognize your right to x, then that means that I feel free to take x from you if I should be so inclined. In that case, of course, you will have an interest in defending yourself from my incursion – as you see it. I may not see it that way, to be sure. But you, unsurprisingly, are likely not to be impressed by this. After all, you put yourself out to some degree to come into possession of this thing, and you aren’t about to relinquish it without a fight. Someone with my attitude, then, is someone who proposes to turn the scene into a fight. That’s a nuisance – quite likely a bloody nuisance – for all concerned.

Thirdly, if someone actually owns the thing, and knows that he can rely on its use in future as well, then that person is in a position to effect improvements on it. This is no small matter, as has been noted by Aristotle, who pointed out that, as a familiar fact even in his day, that people take better care of their own property than they do of common property. This continues to be true right down to the present, by and large. The reason is simple enough. If you own something, then you’ll still have it tomorrow and the next day and the day after. If you make an improvement now, it will still be an improvement tomorrow, if you’ve done your work well – and if not, then it is you who will bear the consequences. Meanwhile, you won’t ‘have’ things owned by others, and in any sense in which you do, there are others to take the needed care while you merely help yourself to the benefits. Thus does private ownership maximize incentives to care and improve.

Moreover, such motives may well, in turn, lead him to be disposed to relinquish it in exchange for something that he wants even more. That exchange, of course, leaves both the person who gets it and the person who sells it better off than before the exchange – not surprisingly, since that is why they make the exchange which, remember, they do not have to do. No other property system can make this statement. If you aren’t the exclusive owner, and the other party isn’t the exclusive owner of whatever it is you’d like to trade your item for, then the exchange process is made less efficient. Negotiating with one party is a lot easier than negotiating with many: a trade union will take weeks to negotiate what an individual member might settle in five minutes.

Fourthly, there is no nonarbitrary basis for anyone else, either individually or collectively, taking over control of x. This fourth point is programmatic, of course. It suggests a need for detailed discussion of alternatives. But there is little need for detail here. Any other system will take from people the capacity to act with maximum efficiency on behalf of their own values. It will substitute for their judgment and effort the judgment – but not, usually, the effort – of others. The effort an individual may have invested in something will, from that individual’s point of view, have been wasted, in whole or in part, insofar as others take over the decision-making power regarding that object. And this gives him a disincentive to invest the effort in the first place, as Aristotle observed.

People might invest effort in anything, of course – slaughter and rapine, say, as well as more constructive ends; and often enough they will invest effort in ends set for them by others – wives, priests, sorority sisters, and so on. They might, yes: but why should they, unless they happen to want to? If an item actually belongs to someone, his incentive to do what he wants to is greater, since he can rely on its being around in future, just as he left it the day before. Otherwise it might be purchased, say: but then, that is essentially the same thing as his working on what is his own. If I offer Jones y, which he wants, provided Jones will do something with my x, then I may well elicit as good effort from Jones as if he were working for himself. But the reason is obvious: for he then is working for himself. He works on x, but he’s working for y, on terms agreed to by himself.

None of this is in any way incidental. It might be (and has been) asked why giving a person the product of his own labor should be an appropriate ‘reward’ for work or effort. Those who ask this say, for example, that if Smith works just as hard as Jones, but what he works on is much less amenable to that effort, then to give Jones what he has made and Smith what he has made is to give Smith too little or Jones too much.
But to advance that kind of criticism is to treat the ‘reward’ for effort as wholly extrinsic to the effort expended. Of course it is not. If A works on item F, and B works on item G, then A directs his effort at producing something, and what he has produced is not a ‘reward’ but the intended outcome of the effort, the point of the procedure. Since it is precisely what he was trying to produce, no wonder he gets it in the course of his effort, if that effort is successful. To call this ‘reward’ is to assimilate it to the blue ribbons bestowed upon runners, or the flowers sent by an admiring fan, rather than to the performance of a Beethoven sonata that emerges from the fingers of the artist doing her level best to produce just that performance. But no one ‘bestows’ this: withno input from anyone else, Jones and Smith end up with the respective outcomes of their efforts. The classical liberal theory simply bestows its blessing on the whole thing, conceptually speaking.

In the case where Jones and Smith work together, there will be interaction and exchange between them, to be sure; but each works with the other voluntarily, with a view to improving his own situation. Even here, no one necessarily ‘rewards’ anybody; rather, each does the agreed thing, and the results emerge, to benefit each in the proportions agreed. Again, to characterize it asa process of ‘reward’ is to suppose that there is no inherent connection between work and result – that the Central Committee is into it right from the beginning.

The liberal view, proposing that we should each be free to do whatever we want to and can, of course proposes that the man making the shoes should, if that is his interest, be the man who ends up with those shoes, unless and until he decides or agrees to do something else with them. This is equally true of the factory worke, even if he has no interest at all in the products he makes on their own account. Still, he sees himself to be earning his pay, to be ‘making’ his living, when he attaches the widgets or arc-welds the seam. Again, it is not a matter of ‘reward’ but of pay, that is, agreed terms for his services of turning over the immediate product of his labor to someone else in exchange for something he does want, and which makes sense of his otherwise unintelligible activity.

Nature and Community

There is a conceit in the field that nature is a bundle of goods – ‘natural resources’ – and that all of that in principle belongs ‘equally to us all.’ It is a conceit because the idea is totally unfounded. None of us, upon being born, has done anything to bring any of this stuff under our own control; and indeed, it’s not under our control. The theorist who maintains that ‘nature’ belongs equally to us all despite that needs to be asked, quite pointedly, whether this is supposed to constitute some reason why I should not be allowed to use some hitherto unused material item in some way. If so, then what is that reason? Saying that it ‘belongs’ to others repeats, but does not explain, the claim in question. Why does it so ‘belong’? No answer is forthcoming, though reiterations in different forms are plentiful enough: ‘because it is part of our heritage as human beings’ or some such.

On the other hand, if you want a reason why I should not think that others inherently own all of nature, the answer is exceedingly simple: it’s because the claim is made at my expense. Those who say this claim that all humankind has a positive right to everything. A ‘positive’ right in general is a right entailing a positive duty on others, a duty to do rather than merely to refrain. The positive duty in question is to supply x to those who haven’t actually got it, the theory claiming that they are entitled to it. So who, then, is going to supply them with it? The obvious answer is that it is the ones who do things – the ones who, in particular, produce useful things and perform ther useful services. On the ‘common ownership’ theory, they are to wait hand and foot on their fellows, regardless of the latter’s specific relation to the items in question. But why should they do this?

In fact, no reason is given. Or at any rate, no reason, that is acceptable to the people whose lives are so extensively invaded as a result of this claim. We may be told that God gave it to Mankind in Common, for instance. If you are from Missouri, you will not be impressed at the arguments brought in to support that claim. And the theorist of this type generally just pays no attention to them – after all, he has the majority of Mankind on his side, does he not? He doesn’t have to listen to the people who actually do things in this world. Having the resources to crack the whip over questioners, why should he bother with their complaints?

Defenders of the classical system of private property often talk of its superior efficacy for promoting social wealth – reasonably enough, since it has, both in theory and in practice, proven that superior efficacy. And people who would rather not concede any such thing if they could help it sometimes point to that same thing as a sort of excuse for the private property system: ‘Well, I suppose we must tolerate it, since it does seem to work rather well for certain limited purposes’. This way of thinking about the matter, however, quite misses the point. The superiority of private ownership is not an incidental, external byproduct, to be tolerated. It is, instead, the very essence of the thing – the whole show. For ‘social wealth,’ after all, is only what innumerable individuals have produced and enjoy. Some of it is visible from greater distances, and much of it is used by lots of people besides its actual owners. Much of it benefits people who were not among the intended beneficiaries of the activities producing those benefits. But while true, that does insufficient justice to the case. For these incidental benefit are not the primary point of the system. Rather, it is the essential benefits that most fundamentally count. Those are the benefits that are achievable by action in accordance with one’s plans and intentions.

Why not act in accordance with somebody else’s plans and intentions? This is surely self-answering. One might or might not be interested in others’ plans, but one cannot be uninterested in one’s own. To act on plans and intentions is to act on one’s own plans and intentions, no matter who you might have selected as your role model or inspiration. If I want to forward your plan, then it becomes part of my plan to do so, and the kind of freedom that leads to property ownership is necessary for doing that just as much as it is for forwarding my more strictly self-regarding plans.Social Efficiency

We may now return to the original question: why should first-comers take all? That is, to take the ‘all’ that they actually do ‘take’ – wich is, of course, a miniscule fraction of all there is, in any actual case. The fundamental reason is remarkably simple: it’s more socially efficient than any alternative.

To explain this, we must first make a general observation about the notion of efficiency in social contexts. Efficiency in general is a matter of the relation of input to output: the more output for a given input, the more efficient. Fuel efficiency means more miles to the gallon, or more calories in the house per unit of gas, and so on. But society, of course, is not a machine, nor a factory. It is not out to produce some one kind of ‘output.’ Rather, it is a whole lot of people each trying to live the best life he or she can, as judged by criteria which differ markedly from one person to another. What, then, are we to account ‘output’ and ‘input’ in such a way that a comparative judgement of efficiency can credibly be made?

In answer to this question, I point to the familiar criterion proposed, in essentials, by Vilfredo Pareto. The Pareto criterion is remarkably simple: if social condition x contains at least some persons who are better off than they are in condition y, and no one is worse off, then we count x as socially superior to, in being more ‘efficient’ than, y. And if there is a social state such that no one in it can be made better off without making someone else worse off, then it is accounted ‘optimal’ or, simply ‘efficient’.

Pareto’s criterion has been widely misunderstood, and is often discounted as trivial on the ground that its condition can never be realized. But here we must distinguish between the relative criterion and the absolute one. In no society, I suppose, is the optimality condition literally met: that would have to be a condition in which nobody can improve his own situation except at the expense of others. But the relative criterion is another matter. It is, in fact, easy to meet and is met frequently – almost all the time, in some parts of the world.

However, the question immediately arises who is the judge of ‘better off’ and ‘worse off’. And answers to this go to the crux. If you apply criteria that the persons in question do not apply, then indeed the advantages of Paretianism are spurious. But we reject that. We take the liberal view, according to which whether Jones is better off is a function of whether Jones believes or accepts that he is better off; or more precisely, whether Jones shares the fundamental normative criteria involved in the assessment. (Whether he is really better off even by such criteria is also a function of the facts, about which he can be ignorant: ‘He didn’t know how well off he was’ describes a possible condition. The question is whether some answer to it on our part justifies action in relation to the subject.)

Thus we will talk of people’s preferences, or their reasoned preferences, regarding their own situations. This has a special implication. If we are liberals, we will expunge from the list of eligible critera of assessment of one’s situation any that entail relative evaluations of self versus others. If I account myself better off only if I am also better off than you, my criterion would entail that you, then, must be worse off in order for me to be better off. And so it may be, in your illiberal view; but obviously society cannot use any such thing as its criterion. It can attend only to alterations of case that are not logically a function of the illfare of others.

Once this point is appreciated, then we shall say this: If Jones is better off and Smith no worse off, then Smith has no complaint. That is: any objection Smith makes to this situation entail that Smith’s envy of Jones is to be rewarded – Jones is to become a slave of Smith, or a tool for Smith’s pleasure. This is not allowable. The common good of society is impossible if we think of it as entailing the justification of evils for some in order to promote the good of others.

Thus Paretianism in the sense relevant here says this, to use the words of an ancient maxim: Do not do evil that good may come! By this we understand, of course, that one is not to do evil to others that good may come for oneself or for still others. Our relations with each other person should be such that either that person is unaffected, or if affected, then is so with his own consent, on the basis of his own values. State of society in which some people are better off and no one worse off are perfectly possible provided the criteria of assessment are confined to the logically independent states of persons discussed above, and are socially relevant when the evaluations involved are made by the very persons concerned. Then no one may complain that he is being treated on the basis of someone else’s values, and thus made subordinate to that other person.

Social efficiency is thus achieved whenever one person’s activities benefit himself without harming anyone else, or affect others only with their unforced approval. They are also achieved, therefore, when they benefit other people besides the agent, without harming others. Normal market relations meet this criterion, in general: the parties to the exchange both prefer the post-exchange to the pre-exchange situation, and third parties are not normally negatively affected.

If third parties are affected, as in some pollution cases, a further set of considerations must be brought into play; these are mostly not considered here, but they of course stem from the right of those third parties not to be imposed on. However, we must look at one familiar argument about this which would indeed go to the heart of the matter. If Jones can relevantly claim to have had his situation worsened purely because Smith’s acts of acquisition have deprived him, Jones, of future otherwise-possible benefits, then Smith’s first-occupany claims would be cast in doubt.

Note that as it stands, the claim puts Smith and Jones in a zero-sum game. Regarding any particular bit of the world, either one person has it or another, but not both. That is to say: either one person may do whatever he pleases with it, or another may, but not both; they cannot both be exclusive masters of it (we ignore the residual case in which the two agree about absolutely everything). But since that is a zero-sum game, no social gain is possible regarding it, and social efficiency would not be possible if the world were generally like that.

But it is not, as we have seen. For the situation of ‘states of nature’ is that they are previously unoccupied by anyone, and those who come to occupy it come ordered in time. Moreover, the parents of those people acted of their own volition in conceiving their offspring, and bear responsibility for them, at least while young, and more generally for having them at all.

Let us take a typical case: hypothetical first-comer A arrives at a time, t, such that the temporal gap between t and the arrival of the the second-comer at t+n, is substantial. Make it a couple of decades, for instance. Now if A knew that as soon as the next person arrives, that person would be entitled to take over some or all of the things that he had come to regard as his property, A’s incentive to do anything with it is much reduced. Let’s start with another fairly extreme case. Suppose that A knows that the next person on the scene could outrightly expropriate what A has made. Unless A happens to like that newcomer a lot, his incentive to do anything of permanent value to that real estate, or whatever, is essentially nil.
Now take the most extreme case of all. Suppose that A is not even allowed to do anything with x until B comes upon the scene, twenty years later. In that case, two whole decades of value-bestowing effort on A’s part are down the drain. A society adopting a system with such a feature wastes the efforts of its members, except perhaps for such few as are willing to work entirely for the benefit of others. There are, I surmise, no such people. The only people we know approximate being ready to work entirely for the benefit of others are people who will work for the benefit of quite specific others, such as their children. A tiny tribal society might be able to reckon that a lot of its members will have that motivation in relation to practically all of the rest of the members. But that is doubtful. Moreover, the track record of tiny tribes in the way of technological improvement is dismal. Tribalism of that kind sentences the society in question to perpetual poverty.

As pointed out above, the situation with regard to possession of any particular thing in the world is a zero-sum game, if two or more persons are outright competitors for it. Either A gets it or B gets it or C or … and whoever doesn’t get it hasn’t got it. Shared ownership by two or more persons doesn’t help. It excludes each of its members from unique ownership, as well as excluding all other persons outside the firm from any ownership whatever. Is the decision of who gets it arbitrary, then? Zero-sum games have no social solution. But in the case where the potential claimants to x arrive in temporal order, ownership of x is not a zero-sum game. Whoever does get it uses it and, as I have been pointing out, has incentives to improve it. During period n, then, value is gained for A without any value being lost for B, who simply isn’t there.
Moreover, under an individual property system, the others, seeing ownership of x settled, have incentives to look elsewhere rather than expending their energies on, say, conquest or litigation regarding x. A system not recognizing first-comers as the legitimate owners loses the benefits of whatever investment in x A may produce. This is coordinate with the fundamental point that any such system manifestly interferes with the free activity of A who, after all, having arrived on the scene first, does no actusal harm to anyone in the process of using x.

Now A, of course, has every reason to protest at the interferences, as he will reasonably see them to be, which would be licensed by any other view of the matter. But more importantly for present purposes, so too will C and D, on a moment’s reflection. For if they come upon a scene in which A has done nothing to x, for whatever reason, then the scene they come upon is exactly as impoverished as the original scene faced by A. But if, on the other hand, A has had ownership of x, then the further value A has imparted to x in the meantime may become available, in one way or another, to others. For example, A may hire B to work on a thing which he has improved to the point where B’s labor is much more highly beneficial to B than would B’s labor on some hitherto unimproved thing. (“may” is rather weak here, for that is in fact the typical situation.) Or again, B may wander through the wilderness injured, and come upon the hospitality and care of A instead of the decidedly inhospitable reception with which raw nature will visit him. Previous ownership of x by A is a benefit to B, and more of a benefit to him than would x’s remaining in an unowned condition up to the point where B comes upon it.

And this must generally be true. Civilisation does improve things for people, year by year, century by century – so long as its achievements are not destroyed by war or by the kind of neglect that is historically encouraged by systems in which people will not be permitted to enjoy the fruits of their own labour.

Wealth in Social

Why have people thought otherwise? The answer is probably depressingly simple: they overlook the fact that the value of things is a result of human effort. They think of nature as a storehouse of desirable finished products, just lying around waiting for us to pick them up. This idea is false, and so absurdly false that it takes an unworldly academic to think it.

We may of course imagine that A is exceedingly stingy, narrow-minded, tight-fisted, and stupid, so that when B comes along all A could think to do with him is to shut him out in the cold. This loses A all benefit of interaction with B, and any improvements to x that could be brought about with B’s help and could not be brought about, or not as efficiently, without it. John Stuart Mill points out that any hypothesis can be shown to work ill if we suppose universal stupidity to be conjoined with it. But that is no way to refute a serious hypothesis. Most people are not (that) stupid; we are all subject to occasional stupidities, indeed – but the kind of pervasive, head-in-the-sand stupidity assumed here is happily rare – besides being utterly and insultingly demeaning. And then, of course, if people were that stupid, it is hard to see how socialism could do them any good either. But in fact, socialism will compound whatever stupidities they do have, for it will necessarily put some into leadership positions over others. The amount of harm one can do to oneself by stupidity is bad enough, but when put into positions of power, we are going wholesale.

What all this adds up to is that the rule of first-comers enables society to realize values that will be achieved by people who can act in the secure knowledge that their efforts won’t be wasted. During the interval between first-comer A and second-comer B, A’s situation has improved without anyone else’s being worsened, in any way that social philosophy can accept as relevant. And when B arrives he arrives upon a scene which is, generically, better for him than it would have been had previous-comers not had rights in their improvements. Thus private ownership is the more efficient system. Any one other will, by definition, visit evils upon some in order to bring about goods for others. Quantifying this generally would, of course, be impossible; but in innumerable particular cases, it is easy to see how gains can be achieved by persons with property rights that would not otherwise, very likely, be achieved at all.

It has to be mentioned at this point that the preceding hypothetical cases need not be, and of course almost never are, “state-of-nature” cases. All real persons do “come upon” things owned and previously improved by various others. And as to “finding” things with a state-of-nature quality about them, we need look no farther than any creative mind. When someone has a new idea, he or she for all practical purposes “finds” it, and is the first to find it; and it being merely an idea in the mind, it cannot, so far as it goes, be thought to be got at the expense of others, except for the cases in which the finder is plagiarizing. Real estate may be all taken up in the real world, but the realm of ideas, infinite in extent, is always there and ready for discovery by individuals. And good ideas are the most important things we have. Having a socially recognized right to your own ideas is one of the most important things we can have nowadays.

We must remember too that each person supposedly deprived of access to ‘nature’ or whatever will, in his turn, enjoy the benefits of whatever labours he can exert. And the field for such exertion is always indefinitely large in scope. Second-comers can open a pizza business which would have been impossible for pioneers; third comers will get into computer systems; and so on. The benefits of private ownership to non-owners of the particular things owned are both potentially and actually immense.

I close with a reminder. The system of private property enables people to do what they wish with things. One thing they can wish to do is to form a co-op with a set of willing others. If that looks to be the best way to go, they are free to go that way, given the private property system. For to defend private property is merely to defend the legitimacy of single acquisition and exchange; it is not, of course, to jolly well insist that everybody forego any jointness of control. It is only to rule out forced, coerced jointness of control. That, in practice, is inevitably forced coerced dictatorship by some one or few people over the rest of us.
Why is private property unpopular with academics? A nice question, in one way. But I take it that the main objection of the thoughtful, insofar as there is one, is that free markets can’t handle public goods problems. Pollution and so forth raise their ugly heads. While I believe that such objections are also unsound, it is for other papers to go into that. Suffice to say that innumerable cases of uses of property by private persons impose no nontrivial costs on any further parties. Those cases are, I believe, utterly typical. So the objection is not to much point. Private property, acquirable by sheer finding and other sorts of industry, stands in the field head and shoulders above all rival theories.

Comments are closed.