Saturday, June 18, 2005

The ‘problem’ of initial acquisition

Philosopher and academic Gerald Cohen has a problem with how values come into the world; how they came to exist. He calls this ‘the problem of initial acquisition.’ I call it trivial idiocy, but he and his supporters set great store by it.

Cohen argues that all the world’s resources were originally ‘jointly owned’ and therefore like Proudhon he claims that all property is therefore theft. “Why was its original privatization not a theft of what rightly should (have continued to) be held in common?” he asks.


There is a ‘dilemma’ in this ‘theft,’ says Cohen:

1. The acquisition of most natural resources was by force. 2. Either force made the acquisition illegitimate or not. 3. If it did, then governments may now rightfully confiscate and redistribute it. 4. If it did not, then governments may now rightfully confiscate it and redistribute it. 5. Hence, either way, if force was the source of the initial acquisition, then governments may rightfully redistribute current holdings.


You will observe then that he follows Marx’s programme for the abolition of property as advocated in point one of the Communist Manifesto, and that he makes the same error as Proudhon of stealing the concept of ownership in order to argue against it – as Marx himself pointed out.


But let’s be clear: he is advocating theft. Ironically, Proudhon wasn’t advocating anything of the sort; unlike Cohen, he was being ironic. “Property in its modern form…,” Proudhon went on to say, “may in fact be considered as a triumph of Liberty. For it is born of Liberty, not, as it may first appear, against right, but through the operation of a better understanding of right.... There is a corollary to this principle, that property is the only power that can act as a counterweight to the State…”


Indeed. And this is what Cohen is arguing against. He wants a State large enough to give him anything he wants. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, such a State is big enough to take it all away again - and take it away big governments frequently do.


In any case, Cohen's claim that the world is or ever was “jointly owned” itself requires some support. Where's his evidence for this? Quite apart from stealing the very concept of ownership, to which Cohen can certainly claim no right, the claim is absurd on its face.

If, for example, the island on which Robinson Crusoe were to find himself turned out be be vast -- turned out to be, say, the coast of West Australia -- then Crusoe would have no more claim to an ownership share in the entire continent of Australia than would an aboriginal tribe living 2,500 miles away on the New South Wales coast, and in no sense can either be said to have ever ‘jointly owned’ the whole continent. In fact, if those two locations were the only Australian locations to be inhabited, then no one would own Australia – it would in fact not be jointly owned as Mr Cohen claims, but entirely unowned, with the exception of course of the small area that each group or each person is using to sustain themselves. They would notbetween them own all of Australia; they would each only own what they owned. Having recognised that, we can see that, contra Cohen, Crusoe no more takes food out of the mouths of those 2,500 miles away on the opposite coast than those living there do so out of his, and it is fatuous to base an entire argument on the assertion that they do.

This argument of initial acquisition is of little importance outside the academies; it is of little importance for three very simple reasons:
1) Most land isn’t acquired by theft anyway, except in those few remaining bastions of Marxism that still follow Mr Cohen’s antediluvian social model.
2) Most ‘property in such and such’ is in things other than land: sweaters, for instance; cars; laptops; skyscrapers; cyclotrons; the beer in my fridge, etc. Was the ‘initial acquisition’ of my Dell Inspiron 8000 done by force? Of course it wasn’t. Would I retaliate if you tried to take the beer out of my fridge? Of course I would.

3) As I’ve said before, most importantly, most property is in things that have been brought into the world as a new thing that did not previously exist. In such things the producer has a clear natural right. In this respect, John Locke's argument that property rights come from "mixing one's labour" with nature is clearly lacking, but James Sadowsky's 'entrepreneurial theory of property' offers support. As Sadowsky points out: Examples of good judgement do not necessarily involve production, or even any real labour. It may for example be doing something as simple as moving something from one place to another. A jug of water for example is more valuable in the Sahara than on the shores of the Nile. Moving it there adds value, and makes the world wealthier. If I moved it, that new value is mine. (Note here that if that ownership right is not recognised and the water is taken away, I might very well die of it. This shows again the important connection between the right to property and our right to life, and the consequence for the latter if the former is taken away.)
In fact, it 'entrepreneurial' activity such as this that explains how all wealth is built. Wealth and property are not created by theft, but by moving things from lower value to a higher value (see for example my brief explanation of wealth-creation in 'The Miracle of Breakfast.'), whether that is done by trade, or by recognising a resource where it did not previously exist, or by creating a value where it did not previously exist. It is not, as John Locke asserted, that the mixing of our labour with property justifies our right in that property; what make sit ours is that we have mixed our minds with what exists to bring a new thing into existence.

So Cohen has a problem with ownership and with wealth. He doesn’t like it, and he clearly doesn’t understand it. To use his example, if I own a sweater, Cohen maintains that somehow deprives someone else of that sweater – as if a) there are only so many sweaters to go around, and b) the sweater was plucked from a sweater tree jointly owned by all of us, and not produced and brought into the world by a certain individual who has the rightful claim of ownership of that sweater, and who may then wear it, destroy it or use it to trade for other goods or services – just as I did with the producer in order to take possession of the sweater.
But that sweater-producer owes a debt to others, you say. To whom? To the person who claims he is deprived of it because he doesn’t want to offer him a value in exchange? To that moocher he owes nothing but contempt. To the shepherd? The wool-sorter? That debt has already been paid: they each produced part of the sweater, and each exchanged the value of what they produced for a greater value, such as their own beer vouchers to put their beer into their own fridge.

How about the people who ‘jointly owned’ the sheep, or who ‘jointly owned’ the fields in which the sheep were grazing then? Get outta here. Neither fields nor sheep are any more ‘jointly owned’ than is the beer in my fridge. Enclosing an unused field takes away nothing from anyone else. Buying a used field from one who has already enclosed it takes away nothing from anyone else. Growing sheep on that field takes away nothing from anything else, and brings into the world a new value that never previously existedas in fact does each stage of this process, from enclosure to shearing.

If it were I that enclosed that bought that field and produced those sheep, then these newly produced values are mine, and I have every right to them. Producing these values and trading those which are surplus to my requirements is what keeps me alive, and allows me to stock my fridge.

So if Mr Cohen wants one of my beers, let him ask nicely. And let him realise too that a beer tastes best when you know you've earned it.

[UPDATE: Updated and slightly revised, 24 September 2005]

The owner of [such] property performs an entrepreneurial function. He must predict the future valuation that he and others will make and act or not act accordingly. He is ‘rewarded’ not primarily for his work, but for his good judgement.

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17 Comments:

Blogger Rick said...

"He calls this 'the problem of initial acquisition..' I call it trivial idiocy"

It is an important and legitimate issue, neither trivial nor idiotic though the solutions of some may be so.

6/20/2005 11:10:00 am  
Blogger Icehawk said...

Uh, PC...

You seem to be assuming that there has never been jointly owned property. That all property has historically been either individually owned or unused.

That's a very odd historical view: pretty much every society whose history I'm aware of has gone through having property being unused 'wilderness' to having the it come into use as 'commons' to having it then become 'private'. Nor are there necessarily sharp boundaries between these - traditions often slowly solidify regarding land use.

Are you denying the historic claims that the Maori held land in common? Likewise the Anglo-Saxon commons? The Norse common pastoral hill-lands?

Do you consider our beaches and foreshore 'unused'? I rather thought the big scrap we were having is because most New Zealanders do use them, and consider them part of the public commons?

6/20/2005 01:16:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi PC, I probably won't have time to respond to your more recent article until after my exams finish (i.e. a bit over a week). But in the meantime, I should point out that you have, in places, quite badly misinterpreted Cohen and myself. You have also repeated many of the mistakes I called you on in my previous thorough response - the section there on "PC's arguments" could also serve as a rebuttal to much of what you say in the present post.

I find it remarkable that you show so little concern for the origin of property rights, given how central they are to your philosophy. How anybody can acquire title over previously unowned material is a foundational question, and thus of the utmost importance. Without it, your entire philosophy crumbles away. That you consider this issue "trivial" says something about the superficiality of your political thought.

When Cohen asks “Why was its original privatization not a theft of what rightly should (have continued to) be held in common?”, he is asking a question that the libertarian must answer. But you have not answered this challenge at all.

(BTW, if you got that 5-step "force" argument from my blog, the source was Kymlicka, not Cohen.)

"But let’s be clear: he is advocating theft."

Um, no. It is theft to take another's legitimate holdings. But the question here is whether your holdings are legitimate in the first place.

"Cohens’ claim that the world is “jointly owned” itself requires argument."

We must distinguish two senses of 'joint ownership'. The first sense really just means "common unownership", i.e. everybody has access to the common resources. This is the traditional understanding of the 'state of nature', and you must explain how anybody could have the right to unilaterally appropriate natural resources and forcably prevent others from their use. Because that doesn't sound very respectful of others' autonomy to me.

The second sense of 'joint ownership' is that everybody actually shares property rights over everything, such that nobody may make use of the material world (which is partly others' property) without their consent.

Cohen never claims that the world is jointly-owned in this second sense. Though it isn't clear that the libertarian has grounds to rule it out in any case.

Now, to respond to your "three reasons":

1) That is simply false. If you trace back the historical record far enough, almost all property derives from the spoils of war.

2 & 3) "Nothing comes from nothing." Your fridge wasn't made from thin air. All property (barring, perhaps, so-called "intellectual property") contains physical material. So you still need to explain how you (or the manufacturers) could come to have absolute rights over the natural resources that went into the production of the object.

By taking and using the resource, you prevent others from making use of it. What right do you have to do such a thing, without their permission?

(Again, I discussed all this in section F, but you have simply ignored it.)

" So Cohen has a problem with ownership. He doesn’t like it, and he clearly doesn’t understand it. To use his example, if I own a sweater, Cohen maintains that somehow deprives someone else of that sweater"

You are seriously confused. Cohen's sweater argument is about freedom, not ownership. The point is that you will forcably prevent others from taking your sweater. That's not to say you are necessarily wrong to do so. Reread my section A on how you are confusing 'freedom' with 'rights'. It's frustrating that I have to repeat myself so often to get through to you. This is exacerbated when you make such ignorant claims as that Cohen "doesn't like" ownership and that "he clearly doesn’t understand it". How very ironic.

"Enclosing an unused field takes away nothing from anyone else."

Incorrect. It takes away their liberty to make use of that field themselves. That is the core issue here, that you keep refusing to adequately address.

(Funny that, you'd think I'd be used to you ignoring my arguments by now. Huh, oh well.)

6/20/2005 06:22:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"each group or each person would only own what they owned."

Well, duh. The question is, what do they own? Your answer, "what they owned", is indeed "trivial idiocy".

I'm not sure what relevance your Crusoe example has when compared to a world where resources are scarce rather than abundant. Not everybody gets to have their own island. Suppose a few more people wash up on Crusoe's island, which he had claimed for himself. What right does he have to prevent them from eating the coconuts? Why should we think that the coconuts are rightfully "his", merely because he got there first?

Worse still, what if Crusoe wasn't first? What if everyone had previously made free use of island's natural resources (i.e. "the commons"). But Crusoe comes along, sees that no individual yet privately "owns" the island, so he claims it for himself and tells everyone else to stop "stealing" from "his property". How are you to justify any of that?

That, you see, is the problem of initial acquisition.

6/20/2005 06:32:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Icehawk, you say "You seem to be assuming that there has never been jointly owned property. That all property has historically been either individually owned or unused."

No, I'm not saying that at all. I'm not at all sure how you take that from what I've said?

6/20/2005 09:24:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Richard, you still seem to be skipping over the points that answer your objections.

For example, you say, "Worse still, what if Crusoe wasn't first?" But that's the point, isn't it. If you're talking about 'intial acquisition' then ipso facto you're ~talking~ about ~the first~.

So, when talking about ~the first~ we're talking about a world in which people are scarce, in which Crusoe must produce his own values in order to live, and in which land is un-owned.

""“Why was its original privatization not a theft of what rightly should (have continued to) be held in common?”"

In common with whom? At the first tt's not jointly owned or 'jointly unowned' (talk about an anti-concept) it's simply there. To use. Fine.

In the Australian example I posit, both Crusoe on the west coast and the Aboriginal tribe on the east coast use what they need to live by, and hopefully to flourish. By doing so, Crusoe takes no food from the mouth of the Aboriginal tribe (or vice versa) since they are on opposite coasts, and neither is probably even aware of the other. Neither do they take food from anyone else, since if they're ~the first~ then there is no one else.They're it. Neither then do they take anything from anyone else when they each fence off the land they're using for their own survival, or stake out the quarry they're using to break rock to build their house, or tag the trees they're using to produce their fruit, or, etc....

In doing each of these tasks they perform an entrepreneurial action. They make the land -- the trees -- the rocks -- their own, and they do so at no one else's expense, since there is no one else around. They literally bring property into existence where it did not previously exist before, and by so doing bring a new value into the world. That value is theirs by right.

But, you say, "By taking and using the resource, you prevent others from making use of it." But there are no others at this point. Surely that's the point of an argument about 'initial acquisition.' Do you suggest Crusoe should wash up on the shore and refuse to touch anything on the principle that umpty-tum generations later you might feel like wanting some of that fruit or some of those rocks? But if Crusoe dosn't feed and house himself there won't be any later generations, will there? The argument is moot. And with property to secure production, there is likely to be more fruit available and better ways to shelter oneself -- as their has been. WIth property, new values are continually produced, as they have been.

You say, "Suppose a few more people wash up on Crusoe's island, which he had claimed for himself." If Crusoe's island is Australia, as it is in the example I use, and there is still land available on the continent of Australia then they may acquire it by the same means as he did. Of if they want Crusoe's land they may trade for it. In either case, neither steals anything from anyone else.

As I said, ownership isn't just about land. Ownership arises when you bring any new value into the world, including that new sweater about which your Mr Cohen is sweating so much. When for instance you bring up the idea of the Kiwi Carnival, then that's your idea. You brought it into the world. You own it. It's yours. If you want to make it freely available that's excellent (in fact in the case of the Carnival it's not much use if you don't make it freely available) but it's still your idea.

"You are seriously confused. Cohen's sweater argument is about freedom, not ownership. "

No, Cohen's argument is about stealing values that someone else has produced for their own use. That's theft. If you want the values I've got, then either ask for them, trade for them or produce your own. Mr Cohen notwithstanding, there is nothing that gives you the right to steal them. Theft is what it is.

6/20/2005 10:07:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Cohen never said you have any right to take the shopkeeper's sweater. That issue is entirely separate from the issue he was using that example for (namely, freedom). You're misinterpreting him.

Now, initial acquisition is not just about when there are few people with abundant resources. It also arises when you have many people and scarce resources (esp. land) that had previously been held "in common", as much land was up until a few short centuries ago. The libertarian needs to provide some account for how such land can be justly appropriated by an individual, when this then excludes others from using it.

"Do you suggest Crusoe should wash up on the shore and refuse to touch anything on the principle that umpty-tum generations later you might feel like wanting some of that fruit or some of those rocks?"

No, but that may be what the consistent libertarian ought to conclude, for otherwise Crusoe harms others without their permission.

Of course, a better option is to grant him a provisional (rather than absolute) property right, as I suggested in my post on intergenerational justice.

Note that you nothing you've said here explains why Crusoe has a right to forcably interfere with anyone who attempted to make use of "his" resources (once there are no free resources left over). Having a right to eat the local fruit does not entail having a right to prevent other people from doing so! So even if we grant Crusoe the former right, why should you give him the latter? You haven't justified that at all.

Many individuals in modern society are born into poverty. They have no resources to trade. Other people have already taken all the natural resources, leaving none for them. Don't you see the injustice in that? These impoverished newcomers are forced to sell their labour, as their body is the only possession they own (if you'll excuse the phrase). They are forced to agree to whatever (perhaps exploitative) arrangements others are willing to offer them -- their life is literally at the mercy of others. If all the capitalists arbitrarily refused to offer them work or money (as you must hold is within their rights to do) then the poor will starve to death, through no fault of their own. How can that be just? How could an initial appropriation of the material resources be justified, if it left others (i.e. these newcomers) in this dire situation?

6/21/2005 12:03:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

Richard, you refuse to understand that when new values are created and brought into the world, they rightfully belong to the person who performed that entrepreneurial action.

"Many individuals in modern society are born into poverty. They have no resources to trade. Other people have already taken all the natural resources, leaving none for them."

So how does the world continue to get wealthier? How is it that Africa, blessed with natural resources is poor, while Hong Kong -- a 'resource-free' rock in the Ocean -- has more Rolls Royces per capita than the British Royal family?

The 'ultimate resource' is the free, independent mind, from which all wealth comes, and from which all value is produced. What value you produce you have a right to.

"... for otherwise Crusoe harms others without their permission."

Crusoe harms no one.

"Now, initial acquisition is not just about when there are few people with abundant resources...."

Let's stick with one starting point, shall we.

6/21/2005 12:46:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

PC, you refuse to understand that nothing comes from nothing. Our "entrepreneurial actions" do not create material out of thin air, they transform one sort of resource into another (hopefully more valuable) one. In doing so, we prevent others from making use of that resource. You must face this fact.

Now, you cannot say that just because you transform something, you therefore have an absolute right to it. That's just a hopelessly inadequate account that would excuse all sorts of obvious injustices -- as I have repeatedly described.

How can you say that "Crusoe harms no one" when he forcably prevents other people (newcomers to the island, say) from taking the natural resources they need to survive? They will die, when if it weren't for Crusoe they could live. And you, laughably, deny that this is a "harm"!?

6/21/2005 12:54:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Richard, you said, "PC, you refuse to understand that nothing comes from nothing."

This would be called 'putting words in my mouth,' and rather silly ones at that. As you now recognise "Our entrepreneurial actions' ... transform one sort of resource into another (hopefully more valuable) one." Quite right. In some case that may not even involve production at all, but even by doing something as simple as moving something from here to over there - a jug of water for example is more valuable in the Sahara than on the shores of the Nile. Moving it there adds value, and makes the world wealthier.

"In doing so, we prevent others from making use of that resource." Richard, if we're discussing 'initial acquisition,' then they don't. If we're talking about 'initial acquisition,' which we are at present, then there is no-one else making any claim on the 'resource' we're taling about. I talk briefly below and elsewhere about what happens later, but lets stick to the point for now, huh?

"Now, you cannot say that just because you transform something, you therefore have an absolute right to it." I say that bringing into existence a new value makes that value your own. I can say that and I do. If you move a bottle of water to the Sahara, it's yours. Without it you're going to die, so it's worth your life to know that your property in it is protected.

"That's just a hopelessly inadequate account that would excuse all sorts of obvious injustices -- as I have repeatedly described."

On the contrary. As I've said and argued here and elsewhere, your descriptions of what you call 'injustices' have been not been injustices at all. As for example your claim here: "How can you say that 'Crusoe harms no one' when he forcably prevents other people (newcomers to the island, say) from taking the natural resources they need to survive?" But once again we're talking here about 'initial acquisition' not later developments, and as I've said before you can't expect Crusoe, when he's there on his own, to make future provision for every hypothetical possible visitor to the continent by depriving himself of a living.

Should you be making provisions at present just in case for example a galactic visitor from the future were to appear and demand 'resources' from you? Of course not. Should you keep a cake in the cupboard just in case more earthly visitors call? Maybe, but that's not a question of rights or demands, it's a question of generosity.

Hypothetical future visitors may make no just claim on Crusoe or on us, as I've said before, and if they want your cake or my bottle of water then they must ask nicely: in other words, you cannot demand of Crusoe or me that we sacrifice an 'actual' (ie., our life and property and well-being) to what is merely a potential, particularly as our life and well-being is no business of yours, and neither are the resources we're using, nor the values we produce with them.

"They will die, when if it weren't for Crusoe they could live. And you, laughably, deny that this is a "harm"!?"

Richard, this is just laughably inaccurate and ignores the clear record of history. Have a really good look for example at the early history of the Jamestown colony. If his property rights are secure, Crusoe has nothing to gain by starving anyone. Other than Marxist shitholes and welfare states, people don't actually live by taking the food out of other people's mouths.

Further, a) if Crusoe's property rights are secured he can afford to be generous if generosity is required, and b) if we're still talking about Crusoe's island as being the continent of Australia -- which we are -- then in these early stages of 'initial acquisition' there is plenty to go around; and c) if there isn't plenty to go around, then why on earth can you claim that the need of new arrivals is a claim on the work, energy, life, property or values of Crusoe? If these new arrivals want what he's got, they must either ask nicely for it or trade with him - and as the record of history shows, in places where property rights are protected that is precisely what happened, and by so doing everyone became richer thereby (see for example my piece on the 'miracle of breakfast' to explain how this happens).

Essentially, as we move away from the stage of 'initial acquisition' over time, if property rights are protected then a network of 'rights boundaries' emerges, within which each is free to exercise their moral space in pursuit of their values. Those boundaries emerge without the need of a central planner or of any utilitarian calculus by a benevolent dictator. As I say in my other recent piece on 'Freedom , Thick and Thin,' when each person is free to exercise his ingenuity over the values and resoures to which he has a right, it becomes clear that 'resources' are not in fact a zero-sum game that leaves me hungry if you eat too much pizza: there is instead an ever-increasing stream of new values being produced, which are themselves new resources for the production of new values, which ... etc. The ultimate resource, as I've sid many times before, is our minds, and the identification our mind make of the things that presently exist, and how we can move or transform them from lower value to a higher value.

Now, there is nothing wrong with taking some time and skull-sweat to understand the concept of rights - after all, the concept of rights wasn't even identified until just three-hunded years ago. The discovery of rights was a huge achievement, representing an enormous integration of a number of important facts and principles, including (as I've said before) the nature of human beings, the nature of trade and production, the nature of political freedom, the relevance of values, the nature of justice, the importance of the mind, etc.

You're not going to understand it overnight. But reflect on it, and you might.

6/21/2005 03:31:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"If we're talking about 'initial acquisition,' which we are at present, then there is no-one else making any claim on the 'resource' we're talking about."

Rubbish. Initial acquisition is simply the question of how rightful privatization occurs. Whenever it occurs, that involves the (alleged) establishment of a right to apply force against others to prevent them from using the "acquired" resource. If there was no-one else making claims on the resources, there would be no need for ownership rights!

Note that the central question we are asking here is, how can one acquire a right to prevent others from making use of a natural resource? You cannot answer this by imagining scenarios where no-one else has need of the resources in question -- the issue won't even crop up.

Let's offer a concrete example to make the problem plain to you.

Imagine a pasture that has not yet been privatized, so that anybody in the nearby village may use it. Can an individual come along and claim it for themselves, barring everyone else from making use of it? The "problem of initial acquisition" is to explain how such unilateral appropriation of common resources could be justified.

One appropriated, the owner has a right to bar others from using the resource. If the resource is the only food source in the area, then he can force everybody else to starve. The "problem of initial acquisition" is to explain how you could come to have such a right.

An absolute property right is forever. Once you own something, you can bar any newcomers from using it. But how can you acquire a permanent right over natural resources, without regard for all the people who will be harmed by your doing so?

You say we cannot plan in advance for every possible future contingency. That is exactly my point! Absolute property rights are not responsive to people's changing needs. By giving a permanent property right, you are saying, "this natural resource is yours and yours alone, come what may." How can you say that, if you cannot foresee the future? My argument is that you can't. It would be unjust.

You say, "we're talking here about 'initial acquisition' not later developments", but if initial acquisition is permanent, then it must take later developments into account. You don't just acquire a right to use the property today. You also acquire a right to prevent others from using it tomorrow. The question is, how could you possibly acquire such a right? That, again, is the 'problem of initial acquistion'.

I wrote: "How can you say that "Crusoe harms no one" when he forcably prevents other people (newcomers to the island, say) from taking the natural resources they need to survive? They will die, when if it weren't for Crusoe they could live."

To which you made the bizarre reply: "this is just laughably inaccurate and ignores the clear record of history."

It's a thought experiment, not a history lesson. It can't be "inaccurate", because I get to stipulate what happens. I'm asking you to imagine that newcomers came to the island, and the only food available was on land that Crusoe had claimed for himself. In this scenario, I stipulate that it is a brute fact that without the food, the newcomers will die. But if Crusoe didn't drive them away, then they would be able to eat the natural resources and survive. It follows, in this scenario, that "They will die, when if it weren't for Crusoe they could live."

The point of this thought experiment is to demonstrate how, in principle, the acquisition of absolute property rights can harm others. You say that "Crusoe has nothing to gain by starving anyone." But that's irrelevant. The point is, if he has an absolute property right to the only food on the island, then your theory entails that he has every right to starve the others. This absurd conclusion is a reductio of your theory. Or, at the very least, you must explain how anyone could come to have such a right. This, again, is the problem of initial acquisition.

I hope that you have a better idea of the problem now. So can you please quit dodging the issue, and actually start to address the problem of initial acquisition?

"You're not going to understand it overnight. But reflect on it, and you might."

Wow, I mean just... Wow. That's stunning. The irony meter is surely gonna blow on this one. *rolls eyes*

6/21/2005 11:38:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

To help focus the problem for you, I remind you of my destructive reductio:

An absolute property right entitles the owner to dispose of their property however they wish -- even destroying it, if they so desire. But how could anyone acquire such a right? How could you have a right to destroy a natural resource, thereby preventing anyone else from ever making use of it? Is it not clear that you harm others by destroying natural resources that they could otherwise make use of?

The problem of initial acquisition is to explain how you could have a right to impose this sort of harm. So please. Explain away.

6/21/2005 11:45:00 pm  
Blogger PC said...

Richard, you've ignored the example we've started with -- Crusoe on the entire continent of Australia -- and you now wish to propose an example in which acquisition of property would have likely already occurred centuries before, ie., one pasture near an already functioning village.

And you've told me you wish to ignore actual history, ie., the actual concrete example of initial acquisition of land in the Jamestown colony, in favour of an imaginary, context-free flight of fancy of your own.

So who exactly is "dodging the issue"?

Reflect, Richard, reflect.

6/22/2005 12:14:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

PC, I explained why your example was not a good one. And you seem remarkably ignorant about the existence of 'commons', if you cannot recognize the importance of the pasture example. Thought-experiments are a standard philosophical device for getting at the heart of an issue and testing underlying principles. Your reluctance to engage in this speaks to the inadequacy of your principles.

I have explained time and time again why your understanding of the issue is inadequate. (Either that, or you are simply intellectually dishonest and refuse to face up to the challenge.) My previous comments made it, I hope, extremely clear just what is at stake here -- just what the real issue is -- and you have refused to address it.

I ask you again: How can you acquire a permanent right to prevent others from accessing or making use of a natural resource?

If you are not willing to address this issue, then just say so and stop wasting my time.

6/22/2005 11:50:00 am  
Blogger PC said...

Richard, your argument why the Australian example was a bad one was the following: "Note that the central question we are asking here is, how can one acquire a right to prevent others from making use of a natural resource?"

No, the central question for initial acquisition is, how do I cone to intially acquire a right in something.

"You cannot answer this by imagining scenarios where no-one else has need of the resources in question -- the issue won't even crop up."

Indeed, and I suggest looking at the record of history rather than just "imagining scenarios." But in any case, if we're talking about 'initial acquisition' and how we come to have a right to things, then let's start at the beginning, as the Crusoe example did. If you want an actual example then let's use Jamestown.

Inclosure of the commons was in most cases done voluntarily, as it was in Jamestown, and when it was done 'resources' were not 'withdrawn' but were enormously increased across the board. Such is the result of curing the 'tragedy of the commons,' a concept and a solution I'm sure you're familiar with.

But in any case, if we're talking about 'initial acquisition' and how we come to have rights in property, then let's start at the beginning, huh. As I've done. As we stand, you still haven't addressed that.

"Thought-experiments are a standard philosophical device for getting at the heart of an issue and testing underlying principles."

They're also a very good way of avoiding reality, and ignoring the actual cases of history. A long as they do, then any thought experiment is just a floating abstraction saying nothing about the world.

"I ask you again: How can you acquire a permanent right to prevent others from accessing or making use of a natural resource?"

Because it's yours. And I've said, argued and explained how this becomes yours.

"If you are not willing to address this issue, then just say so and stop wasting my time."

This is a joke, right?

6/22/2005 12:21:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

In an attempt to clarify the debate, I've continued the discussion here.

6/26/2005 12:05:00 am  
Anonymous david L said...

okay then . I had the misfortune to study this question of land and basic resource for a few years in an alternate economics group. I say misfortune because it left me with bursts of despair at the inability of the human mind to break through it's own preconceptions .. yes, and my own preconceptions.
It's not so much that we can be wrong about things, it is that we can cling to the right we do perceive, and become blind or unable to respond to all else.

It was not until, with considerable emotion, I found myself in NEED of the theory of this alternate economics that I was driven to connect it together, see what it implied in practice. Then I found that if i tried to explain to others, they often had a large body of popular economics theory which has to be negotiated or even destroyed to look at an alternative. This is next to impossible, ( especially given my lack of skill) unless they have an emotional need or dissatisfaction with the way things are.

I had also assumed that once you did manage to connect and get the point across, everyone would say ' of course .. lets do it that way. Its best for everyone long term."
I was a fool yet again.
It may be that in the end various people do have different, ingrained approaches to property rights in land and natural resource. It certainly doesn't seem subject to arguement anyway. Perhaps some territorial imperative in the male. It is defended by logic and if that fails, force. End of story ?

It could be supported in modern times too, by historical process. The right to land in england became with towns, the means of freedom from a feudal lord, or whoever had in the first instance acquired 'right' by force. A re-defining of property rights in land can therefore be seen as a disastrous loss of hard won freedom.

You would think it would do some good if I was to explain about what i see as simple and self evident economic truths here. It is very unlikely. Not only would there be a string of objections that would take FOREVER to respond to , I believe that most minds don't work like that.
In the class for example, it was all carefully set up so that us students, one step at a time, ( over a while too) were forced by question and historical (and 'mind picture') example to acknowledge a simple obvious truth about property in land. Part of that being, as Richard has explained, that it is a monopoly so that if you have the exclusive use, no one else has. Others are excluded.
This led to the way in which 'rights' to land (absolute), as the community grows, enables claim upon wealth to which one is not entitled.
But is also let one see what WAS your own by right. It was not about denying rights but clarifying, what is yours and what the communities.
It led one to see what set the true market value of your own labour, and the value given by the community as whole to that value.

What struck me particularly later was how far reaching it was .. how ingrained in popular thought anyway, NOT to think that way. And how astonishing it is to walk the streets of a city and see the theory happening "live" around one while others don't apparently see it.
This all led to deeper questions about self and human nature.

Probably no one will care for what are only vague indications here, but if someone can just agree quietly that there is a problem with human understanding of things it might help a little.

oh well. good will to all.

6/26/2005 11:52:00 am  

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