Sunday, January 6, 2013

property is theft?

People who make this claim are trying to make a subtle point with a simple statement, and it just causes confusion.  As long as you and I cannot use the same object at the same time for different purposes, we need some understanding or rule to determine who gets to use it now and who has to wait or find some other solution. I am perfectly happy calling that ownership or property.

Even if you don't buy deontology for individuals, you should want deontology for society en masse. Utilitarianism  is too arbitrary to suffice as a means of coordination.

People who use that slogan want to change the rules regarding property, rather than eliminating it. 

"Taxation is theft" - now that is pretty clear.


3 comments:

Darjeelingzen said...

I would agree that "property is theft" is an expression meant to convey a subtly of "property" as arbitrary claim of control and I also agree that the expression often causes more confusion than it conveys the subtlety of meaning.

Those who would use the expression "property is theft" would generally like to use an alternate term ("possession") that they do not believe conveys the same (possible) problematic arbitrariness of "property".

It may be difficult to determine an individual's "property", as "property" is an abstract framework, dependent on prior conditions, which require an investigation of fact/evidence before they can be maintained, while as "possession" is an immediate fact/evidence condition... yet to determine "just" or "legitimate" "possession", we still may still require that investigation of fact/evidence...

A more utilitarian or NVC approach might be a negotiation of strategies that could result in win-win outcomes, rather than on appealing to normative ethical frameworks, whose premises may not be shared by all parties... and since deductive-reasoning upon which normative-ethics are grounded, requires a shared premise-set, I do not see a win-win outcome when there is not a pre-existing shared premise-set for deductive-frameworks...

Thomas said...

Thanks for your comment!

It sounds like you're saying that you agree that the slogan is misleading, that it leaves out a bunch of complications about possession and use of objects and places, that even if we abandoned the term property, we're still stuck deciding what sort of possession is okay. Yep, that's what I was trying to say.

I'm not clear about your NVC suggestion. I can imagine two extremes and a sort of spectrum between them. On one end, custom and common law determine the default "rules of the game" within which persons may negotiate and contract for exceptions from or additions to the common understandings. On the other end of the spectrum, every aspect of possession and use is constantly up for grabs and open to challenge from anyone. To lampoon it a bit, at one end of the spectrum, people drive on the right, at the other end, everyone stops and negotiates which side they will pass on whenever they meet someone going the opposite direction.

That naturally leads to the question of what happens when someone decides that a custom is bunk. This situation used to be the excuse for having a legislature, since they could "update" or "correct" the common law when people decided something wasn't working. And that leads to the problem of how to limit the arbitrary power of the legislature. Which appears insoluble.

I have some vague ideas about alternatives (how to change the defaults), but since no one has yet appointed me benevolent dictator of the universe, my time is probably better spent working on things where I can actually make a positive difference. On the other hand, if I actually came up with a workable alternative, maybe it would "go viral" and the state would collapse. Mwa haha!

Thomas said...

A similar discussion happened on another web site, here's what I said.
I define ownership as the justified ability to decide who may control an object. We could give this another name, but the issue remains, who may control an object, and who decides? Whoever decides who may control an object in effect claims ownership, under that model. Disputes among rival owners get resolved in one way or another, leading to either a reasonably coherent set of rules of property, or an incoherent mess.

Other people want to replace language of ownership with that of possession or justified possession. The OP wants to use language of responsibility. Seems to me it is just semantics, as the underlying mechanism remains. Some person or persons controls each object at each instant. It can be used, stored, shared, loaned, traded, modified, abandoned, destroyed, etc. People can have disputes about these actions. The dispute will be resolved in a way that makes sense or not. Maybe this is what a different poster meant by saying ownership is axiomatic.

I suppose I should apologize for this drive-by post. I skimmed the thread, which is rude of me. I can't help feeling that I am contributing something, but I may have fooled myself. Most of the issues raised did not help me understand what seems like the main point to me, which is, how would anything be different if we switch to "responsibility" instead of "ownership"?

The original poster addressed this indirectly, with an example of a person who lived on and used land which he claimed not to own, so he could not sell it. If someone else began using part of that land as if the newcomer owned it, or someone tried to evict the occupant from the land, who would dispute that in the local system of dispute resolution? By my model, the person who requests the resolution of the dispute also in effect claims ownership. If the person occupying the land has all the other powers of ownership, that is he could abandon it and leave, he could allow someone to use the land, or disallow someone else, plant a tree, uproot a tree, etc. then he is in fact the owner. We can change the name, but why? "Responsibility" has a broader and vaguer meaning, and is a useful word on its own. Use it if it makes sense in context, by all means, but why confuse things by pretending it can replace "ownership?"

Perhaps I would reinterpret the OP as meaning something like this: responsibility goes along with ownership in all cases, and even more so in some cases, such as ownership of land. People will suffer when land owners act irresponsibly. If a land owner treats land as beneath him, or as having no importance or significance different from that of a shoe, this sort of reckless thinking invites danger.