Private property needs no justification

Matt Bruenig, a writer for a socialist website called Jacobin magazine claims that private property isn’t justified:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.”

Bruenig later quotes libertarian Matt Zwolinski:

“If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.”

No source is provided for the quotation, so Bruenig is against good scholarship as well as capitalism. Bruenig asks about justification of private property instead of looking at what problems capitalism solves. This is an example of justificationism being used to shield an anti-rational ideology, socialism, from criticism. Since justification is impossible, that is true but irrelevant. What is relevant is how capitalism solves the problem of disputes about how to use a piece of property, which Bruenig doesn’t discuss.

Private property is an institution that helps people solve disputes about how to use property and to enable the correction of errors in how property is used. Suppose that Jim wants to use a particular unowned place to grow corn. Peter would like to use the same place to graze cattle. That place can’t be used to fulfil both of those priorities at the same time because the cows will eat corn and will knock it down and trample it. No matter who uses that place somebody won’t get to fulfil his initial preference for it. If nobody ever uses that place then nobody’s preferences for how to use it will be fulfilled. So there is a problem to be solved. Note that this problem exists whether or not we have an institution of private property. So Bruenig can’t blame that problem on capitalism or private property.

Private property provides a way to solve the disagreement between Jim and Peter. Under a system of private property, the initiation of the use of force is forbidden so a person will only engage in an exchange if he prefers what he will get to what he gives up. So an exchange will solve some problems for the people who engage in it. If Jim has fenced in some land and planted corn on it and nobody else owned the land before him, then he owns the land and Peter shouldn’t use it. If Peter accepts this rule then he can move on and look for somewhere else to graze cows. Or if there is no more suitable grazing land, Peter can come up with a new idea about what he should do since he hasn’t found any grazing land. Or if Peter can make a lot of money from cows he might be able to pay Jim to let Peter take over Jim’s corn field.

In the world as it exists now, a lot of property is already owned and some of it was taken by initiating of the use of force against previous owners. In many cases the original owner hasn’t been identified. Under capitalism, you can pay somebody to find stuff you used to own and you may be able to get it back. So identifiable problems in current ownership titles can be corrected.

Intervening by initiating the use of force in exchanges of property can only thwart the process of getting property back to its rightful owners. Socialism involves initiating the use of force, and so prevents some property exchanges that would solve problems. So socialism prevents people from solving the kinds of problems Bruenig pointed out.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

4 Responses to Private property needs no justification

  1. > In the world’s it exists now,

    typo, missing “as”

    What does Bruenig want? That we vote on all uses of all property every time it’s to be used? But if we assigned property initially by vote, and then had a system of private property, that’d be unacceptable to him, so we have to vote every time, billions of times per day? So maybe temporary property, like vote every year and redistribute everything then?

    I mean redistribute whatever’s left of the property you give people while telling them that, no matter how well they take care of it, they can’t keep it next year anyway. Or maybe they will get social credit points for caring well for the property they are voted to be temporary user of, which voters are then encouraged or forcibly required to take into account at the next vote?

    Or if not voting, what? Voting seems to be one of the few things people think is fair and not an initiation of force even if a majority may vote to, say, form a police squad that forcibly oppresses some minority. But if even voting is force, and he hates force, what does he want us to do? Nothing, ever? We can’t use anything? Or we can use anything by like first come first serve with some rules about what is a forcible taking and what is just grabbing it when the other guy sets it down (without intending to use it again for some time period?) which is fine?

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