For perhaps the majority of people, property rights are based on an unquestioned and obvious truth: if I buy something, make it or grow it, it's mine - be it a shirt, a house, a shovel or a carrot. Intuitions like this are not always reliable or easily defended, but that is how most people, in my experience, see things.
Some property rights are less clear to the intuition; few file sharers regard themselves as thieves. Chris Dillow discussed file sharing in a recent post, concluding:
There are a vast number of ways in which property rights are severely limited. To take an example from the music industry, the Licensing Act, in effect, limits the ability of new acts to perform in small venues, thus limiting their opportunities to earn money from their talent. It’s rather odd that a government that supports this restriction upon musicians should be so keen to defend their “rights” in other ways*.It's possible to consider the charging of rent for artistic performances to be a temporary stage we passed through as recorded media became available, and that we're moving back towards the situation that pre-dated that, in which performers were paid for performances.
Now, these considerations don’t suffice to refute the claim that musicians’ rights over their music are so extensive as to debar file-sharing. What they do, show, though, is defending such rights requires one to either argue for many changes in the law, or to show that there’s something special about those rights.
None of this is to defend large-scale file-sharing. In a free society, many things are morally or aesthetically deplorable but not illegal. One could argue that file-sharing falls into this category. We could say to the file downloader: “don’t you think you should instead give the artist some money for creating that song?” without asserting that the artist should have a full legal right to the money.
* Actually, it’s not odd at all. The principle is that government does what big business wants, but not what smaller businesses want.
But I was struck by Norman Geras's discussion of one point Chris raised:
Talking about property rights, Chris refers to one common justification for property: namely, that 'creating something generates rights over it'. There's no doubt that it's a widely shared moral intuition. If I fashion an old piece of wood into an intricate sculpture, whose should the sculpture be but mine? If you spend long days writing a literary masterpiece, are you not a proper beneficiary of its publication and sale?Expanding on this, in his final paragraph, Norm makes what I see as the founding error of Marxist thought: the imposition of agency where none exists, followed by the assumption that this agency should be directed.
What is less clear is why we think the creation of the object generates an entitlement on the part of its creator.
Scepticism towards the moral robustness of an affirmative answer to these questions, of property rights resting on an entitlement to the 'fruits of one's labour', may suggest that the real principle at work is, rather, one of reward-for-effort. I made the sculpture and it cost me time and energy to do so - that's why it's mine... However, once ownership is to be decided on the basis of desert, things become more complicated. For there are different bases of desert than merely effort, and there are other reasons for assigning things to people than merely desert - need being one of these. And should two people who have to expend different amounts of effort to achieve the same result be rewarded differently?1. The idea that the consequence of some effort is a "reward" for it is unfounded. The consequence of the effort is just that, a consequence. That an apple hits the ground if I drop it is not a reward for letting it go. The word "reward" suggests an external agency providing the sculptor with a compensation for his effort. This isn't what happens, though. A consequence of moulding clay is that the clay winds up moulded. Nothing intercedes to reward the person with clay under their nails with the final shape of the material. It would be more meaningful to ask whether the clay was the sculptor's to mess with in the first place. Maybe they dug it up - in which case the lump of clay would not have been a "reward" for digging, but again the consequence of doing so.
2. Sticking with Norm's argument, he then suggests that the artist gets this "reward" because they "deserve" it. This is a pure invention, they wind up with it because it's the consequence of the actions they took. However, this then opens the way to argue that...
3. Since the "reward" the sculptor gets is "decided" by some unidentified agent on the basis of merit (desert)...
4. These decisions of reward allocation could take into account the fact that people have differing abilities. Maybe, it could follow, students of a pottery class should line up their creations at the end of a session, then see them handed out on the basis that the best ceramic should go to the person who worked hardest, not the one who made it.
This argument only works, to the extent it appears to do so, because an external agency has been inserted into the proceedings, the quality of choice has been attributed to them, it has been argued that this choice could be exercised differently, and then a notion of fairness used to guide such choices. This notion of fairness is also completely arbitrary. Once you depart from the idea that it is fair that someone experience the consequence of their actions, you can just make it up as you go along. Most people who make these kinds of arguments wind up suggesting that their view of how things should be allocated is based on morality, but this is "morality" in the sense of "my opinion is so important I'm going to use a word that suggests it's an eternal truth".
That's not to say that the issue of whether the sculptor owned the clay in the first place isn't important. It is, to every side of the debate except the purely anarchist. A fierce defender of property rights would want to know the clay wasn't dug up from somebody else's land, without their permission. A Marxist might argue that one person taking that piece of clay deprives others of the right to take it themselves.
The latter is trivially true and unavoidable. If I eat a carrot I deprive others of the right to eat it. Without such deprivation, neither I nor the others, similarly depriving me of carrots, could live. If I use a piece of wood to build a house, I deprive others of the right to use it. I deprive others of the right to use the land I build the house on. If we didn't all do that, none of us would have shelter.
The defender of private property has an easier argument. The wood isn't zero sum, we can all plant trees. The land is zero sum, but there's enough to go round and it's rationed, rationally, by price. The potter needs a start, but once they have it they can make pots, sell them and in time buy some land. Inheritance fits badly into this argument, but that's another subject.
I haven't yet seen a Marxist argument against private property that does not rest on the logically fallacious imposition of agency where there is none and desert where there is only consequence.
But there's a stronger argument in favour of private property, for me. Well, two stronger arguments, both pragmatic. Private property works. It has delivered extraordinary gains in well-being for every human alive. Only where property rights are abrogated, in countries with arbitrary and corrupt governments, do people languish in genuine, as opposed to relative, poverty.
But most importantly of all, every time there has been an attempt to radically impose the imaginary agency of reward for effort, there has been genuine horror: totalitarianism, oppression, secret police, prison camps. And I can't really care how well motivated a philosophy is, expounded from the warmth of a private property-owning democracy. If that's been the consequence of your philosophy, then it's plain wrong, morally. And that's from a morality based on the avoidance of known causes of extreme human suffering.
UPDATE: Norm has responded to this post. I accept he was "posing a number of questions" rather than making a firm argument for one conclusion, but the issue of agency I wrote about above often appears in discussions of property rights and I took his post as a convenient hook from which to hang my discussion. I didn't mean to imply that Norm himself argues for totalitarian ends, because he doesn't. At least, I've never seen him do so.
I do say you should be entitled to "own what your actions have brought about as a consequence". The reasons I give are pragmatic. The first argues that acknowledging this ownership gives good outcomes. The second offers a watered-down version of utilitarianism: rather than seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, I recommend avoiding known causes of extreme harm. Both could be offered as a basis for morality, just as utilitarianism (also based on outcomes) was by Mill. If that is accepted, then we do have a moral case for the ownership of the consequences of our actions.
This is one problem with moral arguments; we have no commonly accepted principles on which morality is based, against which propositions can be tested.
I expect some would react to that by thinking of the plight of the least well off, in a society with absolute property rights and no form of redistribution. But redistribution to the needy does not have to be seen as based on the questioning of property rights. It can be advocated as a humanitarian, rather than egalitarian, policy.