Propertarianism: Core Concepts, by Eli Harman.
I have never looked into the concept of propertarianism before. To the extent I had heard the term in the past, I considered it a critic’s way to refer to libertarianism – you know: “those libertarians, all they care about in law is their property.”
Now it is time to correct this misconception.
First, some background. The website from which the current essay is taken has on its masthead the following: Propertarianism: The Philosophy of Western Civilization in Scientific Terms. From the “About” page (all emphasis in original):
The central idea is the completion of the scientific method, and its application to the entire spectrum of human knowledge.
The rest of the work consists of application of that scientific method to the scope of human knowledge: “Here is the completed scientific method. If we apply the completed scientific method to the full scope of human knowledge, organized by combining categories of philosophy and social science into a single hierarchy, the result is *all of these ideas*.”
The consequence of completing such a reformation of the scope of human knowledge, is our ability to explain not only all of human behavior, but to compare all human civilizations and explain why each excelled (The West), developed (China), fell into stasis (India), or regressed (Islam, Australian aboriginals, and possibly central africans), were conquered (far too many), or Collapsed (Mesoamericans).
Not a small task, and I do not intend to follow the path this far. Instead, I will focus on a very small subset taken from the “Core Concepts” essay. I will not examine the entire essay; I find only portions of it relevant to the discussion here and to my interests. However, for completeness, I offer short excerpts from the introductory portions of the essay:
What is Propertarianism? Propertarianism is a scientific, rational, empirical, approach to understanding and analyzing human behavior, incentives, norms, institutions, cooperation and conflict originated by Curt Doolittle and developed by him in cooperation with others.
What is Science? Science, or the “scientific method” is an empirical method for gaining understanding of reality and access to truth.
Testimonialism: Testimonialism is limiting your speech and communication to testimony of that which is your personal, first-hand, knowledge; free of assumption, bias, error, misunderstanding, leaps to conclusions, etc.
Operationalism: Operationalism means speaking in operations or actions, like a recipe or a computer program.
Propertarianism Grew Out of Libertarianism: Curt Doolittle and many of his students are former libertarians or students of the libertarian project, which is itself descended from and something of a reboot of enlightenment classical liberalism.
I will not examine what are described in the essay as the errors of libertarianism, only to offer:
To correct these errors, Propertarianism seeks to reconcile what is salvageable from the libertarian project…
With this, we can begin:
What Makes Propertarianism Propertarian? One of the central insights of propertarianism is that all rights are property rights…
So far, no conflict with libertarianism. The issue lies in the definition of property. Whereas libertarians limit property to the physical – to include the body – propertarianism goes farther:
What is Property? Property is that which individuals and groups demonstrate a willingness and ability to defend.
Whether libertarians agree with this definition as pure “libertarianism,” one cannot escape that the issue must be dealt with in the real world; people will defend much more than physical property, no matter how elegantly pure the theorist.
So property could be physical, private, property, or it could be the market value of the same. It could be physical, common, property, like a park. It could be common, intangible, property: like public order and decency, the integrity of our language or culture, truth in the “marketplace of ideas,” the ancestral gene pool, or something else. It could be private but intangible: reputation, intellectual property, honor, etc.
I take exception to some of this, but will come to this later. The problem, as advocates of propertarianism see it, is as follows:
…if the purpose of property rights, norms, and regimes, is to minimize conflicts by codifying who owns what, and consequently, who may do what, where, and why, then…there are whole categories of conflict [libertarianism] does not address nor prevent because it does not codify property rights in things that people value (with good reason) and conflict over….
Yes, this is one of the items I have struggled with.
Propertarians speak of “Property in Toto” or property in all of its forms, to include everything over which people lay claim, everything over which people demonstrate ownership, everything people defend and everything over which people conflict.
You insult my wife. I punch you in the nose. Which one of us has broken the law if the purpose of law is to minimize conflict? Libertarians would have one answer and propertarians another.
If someone wants to fight you because you are insulting his woman’s honor, it’s pointless to maintain that he has no “right” to fight you because you have a “right” to say whatever you want to about her. He’s going to want to fight you, and he probably will, all your protests or arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. “Rights” arguments are generally a means of trying to get your way or justify and license your own behavior without paying its full costs (one cost of insulting someone’s woman is the cost of defending yourself from retaliation in defense of her honor.)
The fact that someone wants to fight you to defend his woman’s honor demonstrates that he considers this his property. Your critiques of its legitimacy as property are irrelevant.
This is my point. That which is called “property” in the strictest libertarian definition may not be all that some people consider to be property. Whatever the one offering the verbal insult believes about property, the husband is going to punch him in the nose…and there goes the idea of law minimizing conflict.
Besides the different conceptions of property and rights, the main point of departure of propertarianism from libertarianism is rejection of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP.) The NAP is in some sense question begging, because it depends critically on a theory of property. Without a theory of property you can’t tell what is aggression and what isn’t, what is defense, retaliation, etc.
Except that the libertarians do have a theory of property; it just is one with which propertarians take issue and one which I have suggested might not fit for all people in all cultures all of the time.
Finally, the standard for valid transactions among propertarians (emphasis in original):
“Nothing but voluntary, fully informed, warrantied, transactions, free from negative externality… else we fight.”
There is much more to this piece – much that libertarians would generally agree with and some that libertarians would find disagreeable. I may return to this at a later time.
In a short summary, I offer my two cents.
First, to dispatch with my one strong disagreement – the criteria for a valid transaction, identified immediately above in bold. No two parties in a transaction can ever be “fully informed” in any strict sense of the words “fully” or “informed.” They do not have the same brain capacity, they do not necessarily know what is important to the other, they do not have similar life experiences, and they do not have similar expectations of the product – no matter how much discussion they have on the matter. People think differently; people have different definitions in mind.
Second, every transaction comes with a negative externality. It is called supply and demand. As soon as I demand a product, the price of all other similar and complimentary products will rise – albeit minutely, but they will rise. Conversely, as soon as I supply a product, the price of all similar products will fall – complimentary product prices may very well rise. I sell my house at a price below that which my neighbor thinks it is worth – a negative externality for my neighbor. Tough luck for him.
If fully informed and absence of negative externality are cause for fight, we are in for a world of nothing but fights. The world functions pretty well without certainty in either of these; I suggest leaving well-enough alone.
Now, on to my agreement: property is to be defined before one can speak of aggression or law. It is to be defined in different ways by different groups in different places. Propertarianism apparently comes to this through science; it seems to me culture and tradition is sufficient for the purpose – call it the science of trial and error toward what works to reduce conflict, what works over the course of generations.
That many libertarians wish property to be very strictly limited to physical property (including life) is really irrelevant. People will defend what they value – always and everywhere – weighing the cost and benefit of that defense versus the value of the “property.” As “we” work this out, we come to define property.
A child is shot as punishment for stealing an apple. I recall writing once, upon hearing this inanity from a prominent libertarian author; you will ruin libertarianism. I recall few, if any, prominent libertarians publicly calling out the inanity of this statement. If this is just under libertarianism, it is a dead theory to me. Of course, I have concluded it is not just. Propertarians, it seems would conclude the same – perhaps for different reasons.
I got there via culture and tradition – and defended my view in this manner from the beginning. Propertarians get there through science – however, as I read further through the subject essay, for the most part the science is based on culture and tradition.
I may examine this additional part of the essay in the near future, but for now this is enough.