A Definition of Property Rights
(Continued from Sand
Castles and Property Rights)
Here is one definition of property rights from an online dictionary:
The conditions of ownership of an asset, the rights to
own, use and sell.
That's the simplest definition I could find. Here is another
one that I found online:
A property right is the exclusive authority to determine
how a resource is used, whether that resource is owned by government
or by individuals. All economic goods have a property rights
attribute. This attribute has three broad components.
1. The right to use the good.
2. The right to earn income from the good.
3. The right to transfer the good to others.
That gets into a bit more detail about what ownership actually
means. An owner can use something for himself, make a profit
or income from it, and give or sell it to others. What neither
definition of property rights even hints at, is how we gain such
a right to something. We started to look at that in the first
part of this essay, using a child's sand castle to understand
one basis for ownership.
At the simplest level, we all intuitively understand the concept
of property rights. We all want to keep what we call ours, and
we all feel that there is something wrong with others taking
our things (or money). We also feel it is only fair that we decide
how to dispose of what we own, whether by giving it away or selling
it. We feel that we own our labor as well, as demonstrated by
the fact that we feel violated if forced to work or if we are
not fairly paid for our work.
Seen from the perspective of this simple and universal sense
of ownership, we can understand that property rights start from
the right to one's own life. If we have a right to life we must
have a right to that which sustains our lives, which is our own
work and the fruits of that labor. These are such basic and evident
principles that arguing them (at this level) seems almost pointless
- but nonetheless, for clarity, one more example follows.
Find the most communistic person you know and tell him you're
going to take all the things he calls his and share them with
others - and start with his favorite jacket and the money in
his pocket. See how he reacts, and you'll see that we all understand
the most basic kind of property rights. To own things is part
of our most basic human right to life and to maintain our lives.
This basic concept of "mine" that we all share suggests
that governments should recognize property rights to some degree
if they exists to serve what we all see as our own interests.
On the other hand, property rights are not an absolute. They
serve the purpose of survival at the most basic level (how do
you farm if anyone can take your tools?), but what about when
they don't do that?
The Limitations of Principles
There is truth in this world, and we may plainly see the truth
of the value of letting people own things. But truth is often
lost when we take what principles we see, formulate them in words,
and then by logic extend those principles to apply to any extreme.
This happens in the case of the principles of property rights
just as it does in all areas.
For example, we have decided that people have a right to own
things and to protect those things from others who might want
to take them. What we call theft or stealing inherently assumes
ownership by the one stolen from. The logical extension of our
previously discovered principles says that any such taking of
things owned by others is wrong.
The result is that a child can starve while the leftover food
of rich man's banquet lays rotting in the sun just a few feet
away, on the other side of a wall, and people can claim it is
wrong to take some of that food to save the child. Yet, from
an immediate intuitive sense of the greater good, we might feel
that if the man has excess wealth, it is right to take it to
feed the child. This is correct, in my view. If the right to
life is the basis of property rights, then why wouldn't life
take precedence over any particular definition of property rights
we have invented?
Being a capitalist-leaning believer in freedom, free markets,
and property rights, this may be one of the more socialistic-sounding
ideas you'll see in my writing, but I think that it is right
to take from those who have excess to help those who are in extreme
poverty, even if this must be accomplished outside the legal
system by way of what we call theft. The poor should steal from
the wealthy if that is the only way to feed themselves and their
children. It is a moral obligation in my mind - especially if
the alternative is to allow one's child or oneself to die.
This does not suggest that we equalize incomes or assets among
all people. There is no problem with some people being very wealthy.
As long as the essential necessities of life are there for all,
why would it matter if some have more than others? In fact, although
it is a subject for another essay, the ability of some people
to accumulate large amounts of capital - in the form of money
or other things of value - is one of the ways whole societies
get richer, and so this process can help alleviate poverty.
Here is my own definition of property rights:
The right of a person to benefit from and control that
which he or she creates or obtains honestly through mental or
physical labor, but limited by the rights of others to take unneeded
excess for higher purposes.
I know many of my libertarian friends would recoil at such
a definition of property rights. The terms "unneeded excess"
and "higher purposes" are so vague. But they have to
be, if they are to fit the context of each unique situation.
And before you reject this definition, let me show you how you
may already have accepted the idea of social utility or "higher
purposes" as part of how we rightfully limit property rights.
Imagine a man who pioneers the use of the only running water
for fifty miles in any direction: a natural spring. He spends
his money, time and effort to put to use what was unused before.
He lays pipes to deliver the water here and there. In time a
whole community grows around him, buying their water from him.
He has provided a real service to all, and makes a good profit
from it - as he should.
Now imagine if, under the justification that it is his
property, he caps the spring and shuts off the only water supply
the community has. Perhaps he is angry with the town for some
reason. The people face a choice: recognize the owners absolute
property right to that spring and lose everything as the town
is destroyed before their eyes, or force him to turn the water
back on again. And by the way, the same essential choice would
have to be made if instead of shutting off the water, the man
simply charged a hundred times as much as he did previously,
making survival impossible for the people.
Even most who accept that it's perfectly okay to make a profit
from the water (I do) would probably feel that the people are
justified in saving their town by violating the "right"
of the owner of that water. If you feel that way, then you do
recognize the limitations of ownership. The survival of the town
is a "higher purpose" than the preservation of the
man's property rights, and if you think it's okay to force him
to charge reasonable prices and provide the water, you accept
that they can rightfully take or limit his "unneeded excess"
of profits in order to serve that higher purpose.
You might just agree with my definition of property rights