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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Property Rights Are What Separate Humans from the Animal Kingdom

As Adam Smith noted, dogs do not have property rights, as do humans.

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

As someone who has studied public policy for decades, I have frequently been struck by how many people are so committed to their favorite ism or “answer” on an issue that they will ignore powerful contradictory analysis and evidence that is only a couple easy keystrokes away, or even when it is right in front of them.

A good example of this willful ignorance is the frequency with which opponents of capitalism reiterate dog-eat-dog, “survival of the fittest,” and jungle as descriptors when they open their cornucopia of calumny.

Property Rights

The rebuttal to such assertions is available in the most famous book in the history of economics, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in print since the year Americans issued the Declaration of Independence. It is in Book 1, Chapter 2, so even a very small investment in effort would get a reader that far. Further, one of the most famous quotes from the person many call “the father of economics” (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages”) sits as a lure to attention in the middle of the discussion.

The central problem arises from a risk facing any analogy or metaphor. Two different things are equated, but when there are important differences in the underlying circumstances, leading to substantial differences in predictable behavior and effects, it can be misused to lead people to conclude they are the same in ways they are in fact vastly different. That is the case when describing voluntary market relationships as a dog-eat-dog jungle.

As Adam Smith noted, dogs do not have property rights, as do humans.

Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that is yours.

They do not have “the facilities of reason and speech” that would enable them to negotiate and make contracts. They do not exchange with one another.

Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange…with another dog.

And dogs, consequently, do not produce for one another, benefitting each other based on their different talents and specialization. “[F]or want of the power or disposition to barter or exchange,” they “do not in the least contribute to the better accommodation and conveniency of the species,” and so each “derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows.”

Massive Expansion of Output

Animals’ absence of any rights beyond their own ability to deter others’ invasions means they do not have private property rights protections that Herbert Spencer described as “an insistence that the weak shall be guarded against the strong,” and John Locke called the reason “man…is willing to join in society.” Ignoring why people unite in society is a pretty big difference to ignore in equating capitalism to the jungle.

Animals’ absence of exchange and the production for others creates a zero-sum world in which what one wins, the other loses. Competition restricted to such circumstances can indeed be a vicious, do-or-die struggle. But that is not the competition of markets. That is the competition of war, in which governments compete to override the rights that other governments try to guarantee for their citizens against invasion.

Provided that people are respected, relying on solely voluntary arrangements, production and exchange is the process by which all gain.

People, however, who are protected by private property rights and the derivative right to contract, are united by the vast mutual benefits production and exchange with one another can make of our dramatic differences in interests and abilities. Instead of a zero-sum game, under capitalism, market competition produces an incredibly positive-sum “game” in which each benefits him- or herself by finding more and better ways to benefit others, which George Reisman accurately described as producing a situation where “one man’s gain is positively other men’s gain.”

And it comes through the ability to create and exchange with others, which Smith noted is “common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals,” which is why for man, “the greater part of his occasional wants are supplied by…treaty, by barter, and by purchase,” which, in turn, “gives occasion to the division of labor” and the massive expansion of output that makes massive expansions of consumption possible.

Voluntary Cooperation

It makes no sense to portray voluntary cooperation, which must respect participants’ rights, as creating a desperate battle for survival where “anything goes.” Such “I win, you lose” behavior traces back to given, limited resources, which is not the situation people face under capitalism, which has done more than any other social “discovery” to replace such behavior with win-win possibilities. In Smith’s words,

Among men,…the most dissimilar geniuses are of use to one another…where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men’ talents he has occasion for.

Provided that people’s ownership of themselves and their production is respected, by relying on solely voluntary arrangements, production and exchange is the process by which all gain. And that man-serve-man world is a far cry from a dog-eat-dog world.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).