The Property Problem

E.F. Schumacher...Small is Beautiful...

Many of my peers (and some of my betters) on the left seem determined to blame our economic ills on our notions of property and ownership.

(These comments were prompted by Interview: On Marvin Brown’s ‘Civic’ Economics of Provision on the P2P Foundation blog)

I agree with placing the major emphasis of economics on fair distribution and provisioning human needs (as E. F. Schumacher put it, “Economics as if people mattered”) but I often find arguments against “property” per se to be problematic:

1. Most ordinary people today are used to property and are threatened even by well intentioned efforts to replace it with less familiar paradigms.

2. Property isn’t just part of an economic theory, it is deeply embedded in law throughout the world. This creates a very high barrier for alternatives.

3. Slavery was a serious misapplication of property law, but the fix is a relatively simple declaration: People shall not be property.

4. Some argue that things like natural resources should not be property. But it can also be argued that public property is a designation of property rights that helps civic society define resources as part of its common-wealth and to protect them from private enclosure or abuse.

5. The concept of property has a lot of utility. It may sometimes be broken or misapplied in certain ways, but I think it can be more easily fixed than replaced with something new. The main fix is to emphasize conditionality. Ownership is actually a “bundle” of severable rights. Some rights are held by the nominal owner, but some are held by others with various equitable or social interests. This divisible bundle of rights is well established in Western common law (I’m not familiar with oriental law) but it is not well established in the public mind. We need to educate people about their own legal “roots” before we decide to replace thousands of years of common law with something new and untested.

Arrangements worked out over centuries and millennia often embody strategies for resolving ambiguity and complexity that are themselves ambiguous and complex.

Too many well-meaning reformers fail to observe the “if it aint broke don’t fix it” rule and the “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” rule. If we fail to properly correlate causes and effects, we often fix the wrong thing and/or produce unintended consequences (sometimes known as “shooting oneself in the foot”).

Property law is probably as complex as a motorcycle, and fixing it is more like motorcycle maintenance than philosophy.

One thing I have learned about private vs community property: even in a common-property household or community, chain saws should be privately held. It only takes an instant to dull a chain whereas expert sharpening is non-trivial. The guy who messes up the chain should be the same guy that has to sharpen it and should be the only guy who gets hurt because of it.

Poor Richard

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