Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Property Fence

Munger draws our attention to an interesting Proudhon piece here. For those of you who don't already know, Proudhon is the 19th century intellectual famous for launching the modern anarchy movement and for having coined the phrase "Property is Theft," a notion seized upon by my favorite Twitter imp, Matt Bruenig.

Mungo's eye was almost surely caught by the same graf as mine:
Understand once for all: the most characteristic, the most decisive result of the Revolution is, after having organized labour and property, to do away with political centralization, in a word with the state, and as a consequence to put an end to diplomatic relations among nations, as soon as they subscribe to the revolutionary compact. Any return to the traditions of politics, any anxiety as to the balance of power in Europe, is based on the pretext of nationality and of the independence of states, any proposition to form alliances, to recognize sovereignties, to restore provinces, to change frontiers, would betray, in the organs of the movement, the most complete failure to understand the needs of the age, scorn of social reform, and a predilection for counter-revolution.
Delightful. And not just because it fits well with the spirit of Marx that the state shall wither, branch and trunk once ... something something something (I don't believe I have to explain to any of my readers how the central problems of production and exchange cannot be solved by appending residual ownership to the labor force). No, it's delightful because of that subjunctive clause: "after having organized labour and property." Boy howdy, way to pithily pack a punch. A result of all the blood and fury of the Revolution is that labour and property are now properly organized, as if the grand sum of human activity can be arranged as pieces on a chess-board.

Can I get a "yikes", people?

Proudhon's philosophical premise can pretty easily lead to this conclusion: if property occurs as the result of state violence, then it follows that it can be just as easily re-allocated through other acts of violence. And any improvements to the initial endowment of capital (land would probably be the extent of the initial endowment) would regress to that original act of violence (or, coercion, if you enjoy EE terminology), as the leaves regress to the roots. That is to say, if you can I,Pencil my wristwatch clear back to a canton Councillor in Switzerland granting claim to a patch of land (and all the exclusionary rights so appended), then the basis of my ownership of the watch on my wrist rests ultimately on a pseudo-arbitrary exercise of force.

So here's my question: if that initial exercise of force lacks moral validity, does the entire chain of ownership unravel?

Trafficking in stolen goods is illegal. If I buy a nicked radio from a fence, and it ends up confiscated by the police, I am due no recompense whatsoever, even if I thought I was buying it in good faith (though I can sue the fence under the UCC for breach of implied warranty, fwiw). In legalese, this principle is known as nemo dat quod non habet, or (roughly) "no one gives what he does not have." It's bedrock, antique common law, and I have a feeling that if you were to survey ordinary folks they'd agree with it.

Up to a point, anyway. Maritime salvage is a finders-keepers rule. And if you can't trace mens rea back to the initial parting of the legitimate owner with her property, you might find the subsequent adverse possession case contested. Also, there are exceptions for making trades using stolen legal tender. Still, what I'm curious about is what folks' moral intuitions would be about the whole kit and caboodle: if the median jurist were to suddenly accept the Proudhon/Bruenig suite of arguments about the origin of property, would she then be eager to dissolve all current claims, to then reconstitute according to the Spirit of the Revolution? Or would she hew to Hume and Locke when they argue in favor of legitimacy in property as arising from making improvements to existing stocks?

Is property euvoluntary? If not, how far down the rabbit hole would the typical citizen be willing to chase historical injustice?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?