October 13th, 2004

breaking bad

Property / Rights

I was thinking about how libertarians speak as if the verb 'to own' has a simple constant meaning, which expresses a natural relationship. There's a discussion on Crooked Timber here about how Canadians pay much less for medicine than Americans; some libertarians join in, and I think they speak in this way. You can judge for yourself.

I think 'own' has a lot of different meanings. In the 19th century some British people 'owned' most of the land in Ireland, although some of them had never been there, and had done no work to get the property. Nevertheless the law allowed them to take the products of that land, and leave the farmers who grew the crops to starve to death (I know I'm simplifying a complex chain of events). The government enforced ownership, and imposed very limited social obligation in return. It's a classic libertarian view of property rights.

However in most other societies ownership is embedded in social obligation. For example in an agrarian Empire one can only own within the borders and conventions of the Empire. In a Feudal society land ownership is one aspect of a complex system of loyalty and military obligation. And so on. A society enables ownership to exist, and therefore the owner must in turn act in a way that supports the society. Otherwise the owner is burning up the very system which creates ownership. This kind of slash and burn ownership which doesn't maintain its society is sometimes found in colonial situations (like Ireland, perhaps the Wild West) but I don't see how it can have any long term future.