The famous occultist Alisteir Crowley had it that “Do what thou wilt” is the whole of the law. That’s not a law, though. It’s the absence of law. “Finders keepers” on the other hand… now that’s a law! Even a child can understand it. But that doesn’t make it a childish law. Far from it.
Hopefully most of you know by now that I’m incredibly keen on this thing, ‘private property’. I am, in the dismissive phrase of one self-described libertarian, one of those “hands off my stuff people”. So, in reply to a reader’s comment – and in a shocking break from the norm – this is a post about that.
Here’s a fun fact about private property: you can’t argue it doesn’t exist without contradicting yourself.
Let’s say you’re about to eat a banana. I come up and say “Give me that banana.” You say, “No, it’s my banana”. “Yours? Ha! There’s no such thing as private property. Give it to me!” What could you say in response to this? Well, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but what you could say is this: “Owning something means getting to decide how it is used. So while you may say you don’t believe in private property, these are just empty words. You clearly believe you are the one who gets to decide how this banana is used, otherwise you wouldn’t be demanding I give it to you. But this means that you do believe in private property”.
You could continue: “Even worse, this is assuming you can make the demand at all. Just by walking over to me and speaking you’re making use of your body in particular ways. How can you do this if you don’t believe you are the one to decide how your body gets used? That is to say, if you don’t believe you own your body? In the very act of arguing ‘there’s no such thing as private property’ you are demonstrating that you believe in private property.”
So, there must be property rights if men are to live. But surely we want more than just “to live”. We want to live peaceably. Ideally we want to live without conflict. This is where rules and ethical principles governing property come in. Insofar as they are followed, men interact with one another in a conflict-free manner. When it comes to unowned goods, finders keepers is the only rule that guarantees peace.
What is the basis for the first-user first-owner principle, popularly known as “finders keepers”? Why should the first user of a thing get to decide how it’s used? The usual way of putting it is to say, with Locke, that the first user of a thing “mixes his labour with it”. He changes a thing by his actions into something it wouldn’t have been without his actions. If I pick an apple from nature, the object ‘the picked apple’ is different from the object ‘the apple on the tree’. If I collect wood from nature and fashion a shelter from it, the shelter would not exist without my actions. I have literally created ‘the shelter’. As far as claims to ownership go, having created (and not subsequently given away) an object is as good as it gets. Furthermore, neither my eating ‘my apple’ without sharing it, nor my living in ‘my shelter’ alone, are aggressive acts. How could they be? These things, these goods, didn’t exist prior to my actions. But someone coming along and snatching my apple from me, or turfing me out of my shelter, these acts certainly are aggressive. How could they not be?
The first owner of a good is the first person who gets to decide how that good is used. Among the things he can do is to transfer ownership of it to someone else. There are several voluntary ways he can do this: sell it; gift it; lose it in a bet, etc. Whoever he transfers ownership to then gets to decide how it is used, and so on, and so on. As long as all transfers are voluntary we have what Hans Hoppe calls “pure capitalism”. In such a system property rights might be called ‘absolute’ – they are not infringed at all. (Technically, of course, private property rights and ‘absolute’ private property rights are one and the same thing.)
In order for rules and ethical principles to be effective they have to be acceptable to all. Why should “finders keepers” and ‘absolute’ private property rights be universally accepted? Ludwig von Mises’ concept of ‘autistic exchange,’ and Murray Rothbard’s essay ‘Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics’ provide the answer.
Here are three a priori propositions:
1)Every human action is an exchange. (Doing anything at all means one state of affairs is replaced by another.)
2) Every human action is performed to improve the actor’s position according to his own assessment. (We only do something if we prefer doing it to not doing it.)
3) Only voluntary interpersonal exchanges improve both participants’ positions according to their own assessments. (If we thought we would profit from an exchange we wouldn’t need to be forced to participate.)
Therefore, no matter what any actor’s preferences, he will always improve his position according to his own assessment as long as all exchanges are voluntary. As the only way anyone can be worse off is when involuntary interpersonal exchanges exist, it would be rational for each individual to accept in advance a society where the only prohibition is on involuntary exchanges. In other words, pure capitalism, the voluntary society.