Baboon Pirates

Scribbles and Scrawls from an unrepentant swashbuckling primate.

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Location: Texas, United States

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Yours, Mine & Ours

Well, I tried to ignore Andy's post on private property.

I even ventured into the forbidden realm of catblogging last night just 'cause I'd been futzing around on the keyboard all day at work, and I just didn't have the energy to toss my friend into the Rotiss-O-Matt.

However, here I am, up at 5:30 a.m., to do just that. I just couldn't let it go. It wasn't the urge to pull a John McLaughlin and holler "WRONG!!" before pontificating on the proper course of human affairs. It wasn't even a need to respond to Andy's slight goading. He obviously expected a response, and what kind of friend would I be to not oblige him?

Nope, I had to say something because IMHO, private property rights are the wellspring from which all human relations flow. While I can't deny that hyperefficient communistic societies exist, generally you need to be a termite, bee or ant to participate.

Andy opines that "private property/ownership is one of the all time worst ideas of mankind, ever." Personally, I think it's a tossup between organized religion and the divine right of kings (and the associated noble/commoner meme) but I'm open to debate on that. He goes on to state that he's in the extreme minority in his beliefs, that society will never adopt his ideas, and that since he can't beat 'em, he's gonna join 'em, albeit reluctantly. I applaud him for that. Tilting at windmills is awfully hard work that goes nowhere fast. Just ask Ralph Nader.

Andy first gives a definition:

First of all, I should define what I am talking about.  Ownership is the act of having and controlling property with the right to transfer possession to others.  Property here is defined as the right to use or possess a specific physical thing, and the right to exclude others from doing the same.

No argument here. I'm no economist, nor do I play one on TV, but it seems like a workable definition.

He continues:

I am not articulate enough to really express what I feel about private property other than the fact that by its very existence it excludes.  If I have x, you don't have x.

And here's where I had my first "Waitaminnit!" moment... Here, in a nutshell, is the difference between the conservative and liberal positions concerning the "Haves", and the "Have-Nots". Andy seems to be saying "If we all own everything, no one is excluded, and all will benefit." There are two problems here. One is efficiency, and the other utility.

Let's take a little time-travel trip to illustrate the first concept of efficiency. (rapidly wiggle your hands in front of your face and make "deedledoo-deedledoo-deedledoo" sounds to join in)

Grog & Org, two fine upstanding hominid types, are sitting outside their cave eating a dead yak. Grog is tired of running down yaks and bashing them on the head with a rock. It's quite exhausting. Org is also not a good runner, and Grog ends up doing most of the killing. That's OK, though, because Org's pretty handy with the firestarting. (Grog knows instinctively that an efficient division of labor is beneficial to expanding society.) After they skewer some Yak-itori on a few hickory twigs for roasting, Grog notices that the used roasting sticks seem to poke through the yak meat better than the ones just plucked off the tree. Sure, they're burnt a bit, but they sure go through that yak easier. Grog keeps seeing burned sticks going into yaks, and eventually makes the connection. He finds a good long stick, grinds an end down to a point, fire hardens it, and spends the rest of his days stabbing yaks to death instead of knocking them on the head with a rock. Efficient, no?

No. That's not the efficiency I'm talking about, but I had to tell you that story to tell you this one. Org sees Grog's new yak-poker, and he wants to use it. He can't aim worth a damn, and keeps poking yaks in the butt which causes them to run away, but he keeps using Grog's yak-poker. Soon, in spite of his inability to use it, he sees himself as part owner of the yak-poker. When a huge bear shows up in their cave to see what smells so good, Grog and Org fight over who gets to poke the bear with the yak-poker. This goes on for too long, and the bear smacks them both, and he eats them. We don't see another yak-poker for 10,000 years. That's inefficiency!

It's sometimes best to leave tool ownership in the hands of those that can use them most efficiently. Letting Andy or I have ownership and control over... let's say a jacquard loom, or a catalytic petroleum cracking plant, does neither us nor society as a whole any good. We don't know how they work, and would quite likely either turn out unusable items, or blow up the county.

Similarly, even two people in a similar trade need to be efficient in their assets. Both John and Joe are farmers, and both are very good at what they do. However, John likes growing cotton, and Joe likes growing wheat. No one owns any of the land, so they both plant their crops on the same ground. Both crops fail, and Joe and John starve to death, just before they freeze to death.

The way we as a society have learned to avoid these inefficiencies is to recognize that compromises have to be made. I'll keep my hands off your tools, and you'll have more time to make pots and jugs because you don't need to hunt down your clay-scraper. You keep your sheep off my berry patch, and I'll be able to trade you more jam in return for wool. It's when these compromises break down that the yak-pokers come out of the closet, not just because private ownership exists.

Andy mentioned the exclusion factor. Does not owning an item somehow exclude an individual from society and the pursuit of happiness?

Personally, I think not. There are billions of unique items on the face of the Earth that I have no interest in owning, and the fact that others own them and exclude me from their use bothers me not a whit. Am I deprived because some kid in Japan owns a Pokemon hat? How about some Norwegian kid's skis? Or the blowgun of a Jivaro hunter in the Amazon?

This is where utility comes into play. This may be me being too rationalist, but if you receive no utility from an item, why is there a need to own it? I'm not referring to all the useless knick-knacks that crowd our houses. We received utility from those through the satisfaction (fleeting though it may be) of the acquisition.

Andy further says:

If I have x, you don't have x.  By what basis can I justify depriving you of x?  By my labor?  Don't you labor as well?

My answer? "x" is not a zero-sum game. Because I own something does not necessarily deprive you of owning something similar. Org could have watched Grog make the yak-poker, and made one of his own. Grog probably would have helped if Org had asked nicely. The problem is, most collectivists DON'T ask nicely. They seize and appropriate as they see fit. By what basis do they have in depriving me of "x"? Didn't I labor hard to achieve "x"? Envy is no reason for redistribution. If you want it, work for it.

How about unique items, where there is no similar subsitute? The first thing that comes to mind in that category is people.
Obviously, people are not property (at least, not anymore...) but the concept of private property ultimately starts with the individual. We all own our own bodies, and how we use them should always be our business entirely.

Let's say collectivism takes an eerie turn for the worse... What happens when you want to share my body? Let's say you abuse your body until it breaks down. Does this entitle you to one of my kidneys? Am I depriving you by choosing to keep my liver? ("But sir... you signed the Liver Donor's card!")

How about if we have to share our relationships? Andy, there's a girl in Idaho that saw your picture of your wife's cat Thelma. She's always wanted a cat just like that. She'll be by tomorrow to pick her up. What right do you have to deprive her of happiness?

(Speaking of relationships... I know relationships ought to be entered into freely. Men and women do not "own" each other. From my POV, though, if I'm married or in a monogamous relationship, for the duration of the lease, however long that may be, I may not own the property, but I've certainly got exclusive license on the drilling rights!)

I agree with Andy that plenty of wars have been fought over arbitrary lines on a map. One way or another, though, they were ALL about resources, be it oil, gold, fishing rights or peasant labor. This will likely continue until we can achieve a society free from need. (which would be sped up if the Greens would just lighten up on nuclear power! But I digress...)

As for private ownership? It's both necessary and proper. We own things in common that are efficient to own in common, and these things generally have utility for all of society. I speak of national parks and the like. Things that are better off being privately owned already are. And so they should remain.