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
. 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…” Liberty
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
– 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. Australia
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 existed – as 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.