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Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Property Rights

A Serious and Disciplined Study of Ownership Philosophies

Most of us turn to philosophy only when problems arise with using our common sense. For instance, we are seldom troubled about determining what belongs to whom as we go through a normal day in our lives, but there are those occasions when just trusting our customary beliefs won’t suffice. I know pretty well that the car parked in my garage, the flower growing in my garden, or the furniture on my porch is mine. But what about the sidewalk in front of my house, the land Indians claim is theirs because their ancestors are buried there, or the portion of earnings declared as tax by officials of the Internal Revenue Service? Are they mine? If not, why not? Then again, in what sense would my arm, my heart, my lungs, my body, even my self be my property, if any? After all, I can speak of my height, my weight, my age, and my hair color and in none of these cases am I talking about items that belong to me. What about my team? My child? Your share in a company’s stocks? What about the public park—in what sense is it both yours and mine?

Political theorists have addressed these issues for centuries and they will probably continue to do so for as long as human beings inhabit the universe. Some have blamed all the troubles of the world on the emergence of private property, while others see property rights as the solution to many problems. Others have defended a view of ownership that precludes any reference to rights or wrongs, to matters of justice or virtue, and concerns only who has power to do what–roughly the legal-positivist position. Still others think ownership cannot even be conceived of without considering rightfulness versus wrongfulness—the natural rights approach. And there are always those who want a bit of both–for example, limited ownership rights, limited powers to use and dispose of various goods and services. Finally, there are some who see ownership falling on very hard times when it comes to certain very pressing issues, usually related to the ecosystem (water or air masses) or the intellectual products or creations (inventions, novels, musical arrangements, computer programs, etc.).

In each age some have also argued, more or less successfully, for excluding some types of prospective property on grounds that these do not qualify or meet the proper standards for rightful, valid ownership. Slavery was overthrown, in part, because ownership of blacks was successfully excluded, whereas the argument that cows or chickens cannot be rightfully owned is advanced less successfully in our time by animal rights advocates.

The book before us is invaluable as a contribution to the ongoing debate. Paul, Miller, and Paul have been collecting into separate volumes discussions on various topics in political economy, usually derived from conferences they have held at their increasingly prestigious Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. This particular product is especially valuable to classical liberal theorists. It presents for them a wide variety of both champions and critics of proper rights. Nearly every position is, if not fully developed and defended, at least touched upon. And in each case there is reasonable thoroughness, with only minor omissions of significant contributions to the debate. (For example, none of the contributors seemed to find the Randian and neo-Randian doctrines worth examination.) Some treatments are a bit too didactic, paying little attention to possible or extant objections, (For example, David Friedman’s presentation of the positivist position takes little notice of arguments which maintain that his stance is untenable.) Yet in each case the exposition is rich in nuance and very informative, even if incomplete.

Beware, however, for this work is not bedside reading material for those who like their philosophy in a breezy and easy style. Every essay is loaded with complex vocabulary and complex sentence construction. Nonetheless, if one is serious about figuring out how the topic of property rights might be best thought about, what the most sensible approach is to dealing with the ordinary phenomenon of ownership–especially when it confronts hard cases with legal, moral, and historical muddles surrounding property–one must dip into this book. There is a wealth of insight here, providing much food for thought and creative development in the area of property rights theorizing.

The one lapse in this work is a paper by Alan Ryan, whose glib treatment of many theories of ownership, specifically Rothbard’s and Nozick’s, does not deserve to be included in a serious volume. There is a principle in scholarship that every contributor to a discussion ought to practice conscientiously. It is the principle of charity, giving the strongest representation to the views which one criticizes. Ryan seems not to have heard of that principle. Of course, there are many others who have not, but fortunately in this book no other contributor gets a chance to engage in scholarly malpractice along such uncivil lines.

This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who is serious and disciplined about the study of property rights. Even lay persons will benefit from studying some of the essays—e.g., by Richard Epstein, David Schmidtz, and Gary Lawson—if only by way of the lessons they learn about how complicated problems of political economy can be and how intensely those who want to address them successfully need to work in order to approach some measure of success. After studying these essays, no one will walk away making glib declarations about property rights or, indeed, about political philosophy in general. []

Dr. Machan is Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. He is a contributing editor of The Freeman.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.