Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What is this thing called property?

My nomination for the most misleading metaphor in modern philosophy is John Locke’s notion that, in a state of nature, one mixes one’s labour with something to rreate property. In John Locke's words:
The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
This is nonsense. Animals engage in “mixing their labour” with things all the time, they do not thereby create property. In fact, one of the distinctive things about homo sapiens is our sense of property. Not a sense of “territoriality” (“this is mine”); plenty of species have that. But the sense of “yes, that is yours and I will deal with it and you on that basis". Property, at its most basic, is acknowledged control, a game of reciprocal constraint. I acknowledge your property in the expectation you will acknowledge mine. If that happens, social possibilities massively expand.

[ADDENDA Hopefully the following clarifies and extends my argument in ways which are more persuasive: but that is a virtue of blogging; offering ideas for comment and testing. Locke's approach has plausibility because of belief that labour is worthy of his hire, so property as "reward for effort" has resonance. But that is not Locke's argument.

Locke's argument starts with the notion that we own ourselves. It does not rest on us being the creation of our own labour, but a notion of self-ownership. By "mixing our labour" with things acquired from nature we "create" property by a process of extension of our self-ownership.

There is a series of problems with this argument. First, if we own ourselves, do we really think that we can therefore sell ourselves, either entire or by amputation and alienation of bits? And, if not, in what sense is this ownership? Is there not something perverse about a concept which implies an acceptable separation of our physical self (in whole or in part) from ourself. To be property is to be owned by something that is not itself and which can be passed on to others. So, to be property, even of ourself, is to be lessened from what we feel is the proper status of being a moral agent.

A notion of self-dominion makes more sense; we control ourselves and property extends from that control. By taking some unowned thing from nature, we assert control over it; it is the assertion and acceptance of control which creates property.

As ever, slavery provides a limiting case. The institution of slavery contradicts Locke's notion that we own ourselves. Slavery is morally obnoxious (a violation of self-dominion, and so human autonomy, in the most profound sense) but it does not make slaves any less property. It is the acknowledged assertion of control over the slave that creates slavery, not the labour of the slaveowner (even if it is directed to that end) extending the slaver's self-ownership to cover the slave. Do we really think that the process of enslaving is a process of the slaver "mixing their labour" with the slave? Surely not; neither as a description nor as some act of legitimation. No amount of applied labour by the slaver makes slavery legitimate nor is it what makes slaves property.

The process of enslaving is a process of getting acknowledged control over the slave. The more difficulty involved, the more the slaver has to act to do so, but the effort required does not affect any "level" of being property, merely whether it is worth the bother. Locke's use of the term 'labour' directs attention to the effort and not to what is being effected. (Hence the connection to the labour theory of value, which makes the same error.)

Moreover, by starting with self-dominion, we can see how slaves can buy their freedom. Although their legal status as property formally precludes them from having any property, the degree to which they can control their own actions can give effective (i.e. economic) property rights.

Nor do we do think the recipient of property gained via exchange is somehow less legitimately the owner because none of her labour has been applied to the thing exchanged (though she has [trans]acted). Her ownership is hers, it has no connection to the labour of any previous owner, merely that it has been acquired by some legitimate process (which, for day-to-day transactions, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume to be the case for any current possessor).

Property exists in acknowledged control; it rests on acknowledgement of a domain of authority by a person over an attribute which is accepted as constraining others (and so is quite dependent on a moral sense, upon which property law can be built) regardless of whether it was acquired from nature or by transaction with another.]

Property is fundamental
For once you have a concept of mutually acknowledged control of things, then you can engage in exchange. For exchange is a transfer of control. And with exchange comes vastly increased social possibilities. One can access resources that do not originate in one’s own area. People can specialise, so produce more, and swap what they have a surplus of for what they have a deficit of. (Or, more precisely, swap what they value less for what they value more.)

The gender-exchange of hunter-gathering (women mind children and gather; men go out singly or in groups and hunt) was likely what gave our foraging ancestors a crucial advantage over Neanderthals, by increasing both our foraging and our child-rearing success (a primordial application of comparative advantage).

Locke’s disastrous metaphor led to the, quite false, labour theory of value, which has things so the wrong way around. Things do not have value due to labour, we direct our labour to acquiring things we value. Our sense of value directs our labour (not always successfully). So Marxian studies which connect movements in use of labour to shifts in price (“exchange-value”) tell us nothing other than labour is more flexible than capital and that we direct resources we control to creating (or otherwise acquiring) according to our expectations of value. As such efforts are rewarded (or not) in commercial exchanges, the selection processes of markets operate.

Karl Marx famously made the labour theory of value his analytical centrepiece. But he did so on the basis of poor reasoning and created a self-contradictory theory of exploitation.

Effective control
According to a definition developed by economist John R. Commons:
A property right is an enforceable authority to undertake particular actions in specific domains.
As Elinor Ostrom says in her Nobel prize lecture, out in the world, five types of property right can be identified.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. > This is nonsense. Animals engage in “mixing their labour” with things all the time, they do not thereby create property.

    Yes, but animals engage in killing each other all the time as well, and they do not thereby commit murder.

    Human concepts require sentience and awareness of the rules.

    When an action takes place we regard it as either human caused (in which case it has a moral content) or an "act of God" (in which case it does not).

    Thus, "animals don't create property by labor" is not a disproof of the maxim "labor creates property". You may - for the purposes of this sentence - be correct that "labor does not create property", but you have not yet proved it.

    > For once you have a concept of mutually acknowledged control of things, then you can engage in exchange.

    Yes, you can, but with out a moral, normative stance, we still haven't created property. I can acknowledge your control over a peach and you can acknowledge my control over an apple but

    (a) we have not yet created an ethical framework that allows you to walk away from the peach (thus temporarily surrendering active control) and retain the concept of property.

    (b) we have not yet created an ethical framework that prevents me from reaching out and taking your peach sans your permission. If "property" is nothing more than "control" you have LITERALLY defined a system based on "might makes right". After I take your peach, and push you away each time you attempt to reclaim it, do we not settle down into a new equilibrium where you acknowledge that I exert control over both the apple and the peach, and I acknowledge that you exert control over neither?

    I think you're on a good mission to try to debate at the roots before "mixing labor with land" gives birth to the labor theory of value, but I think you're going at it the wrong way.

    What ** I ** would say is that in a state of nature all things are without ownership, and mixing labor with matter only confers ownership in cases of unclaimed labor.

    Once you've claimed a branch, claimed a rock, knapped the rock into a knife and then used the knife to whittle the branch into a spoon, I can rent your spoon or knife for a few berries and do work with it, but it does not become mine.

    Further, I can see your example, claim my own previously unclaimed rock and stick, and then make a total hash of things and end up with a splintered rock and a mangled branch. I have, perhaps, created OWNERSHIP but I have not created VALUE.

    1. (1) If property requires "sentience and awareness of rules" then it is not created by labour; at the very least it requires labour and something else. The later epistemic point (we acknowledge property that we have no idea how you required) perhaps needs to be cited to complete the point.

      (2) Surely mutual constraint is ethical, or at least at the heart of ethics. Your examples seem to rely on the acknowledgement being suspended, which hardly rebuts my point.