The Extent of Private Property Rights

In some ways, a right to private property is similar to a right to privacy: a private property right is a right to control access to certain goods that you – as an individual or as a group of individuals – mark as “yours”, and access is of course also fundamental to privacy rights. Stated differently, a private property right is a right to make independent decisions about your goods (sell, keep, use, destroy, consume or transfer as you please) and to exclude interference with those decisions by other would-be users of those goods. If others attempt, without your permission, to use, transfer or modify goods that are “yours”, your right to property gives you the power to repel this kind of interference, with the help of the state as the enforcer of social rules (we don’t want people to rely on their own strength to enforce their property rights, because we don’t want to jeopardize security rights such as physical integrity).

Access control and the power to exclude are central to both property and privacy rights. One could even make the case that private property rights are a subset of privacy rights (no privacy without your own house for example). This link is probably why in the modern capitalist economy the words “property” and “private property” are usually synonymous. There are of course other types of property but, rightly or wrongly, those have lower status in modern economies. Interestingly, although other types of property such as common or collective property have their own logic and problems, issues of access, control and exclusion may also be relevant to them, as is evident from the “tragedy of the commons“.

Let’s leave the relative status of different kinds of property to the side for now, and focus on private property. There are two major problems with the claim that people generally have a right to private property: why is it a good thing to have private property over certain goods, and which goods can you claim as “yours”.

Possible and reasonable answers to the first question include:

  • “private property is necessary for privacy or some other value”
  • “it’s necessary for production, commerce, exchange and hence prosperity”
  • “it encourages responsible use of resources”
  • etc.

Possible answers to the second question:

  • “first come, first take” (so-called first occupancy theory)
  • “all existing distributions of property are just”
  • “take but leave enough for others” (Lockean proviso)
  • “equal shares”
  • “goods to which you have added value by way of your labor”
  • “none”, meaning there can only be common ownership, collective ownership or some other none-private form of property
  • plus a load of other possible answers.

However, let’s also leave these questions to the side for a moment. What I do want to look at now is the extent of property rights. A right to exclude others from the use of your property or a right to decide to use that property in a certain manner, may, in some cases, leave others worse off, or may even lead to their death. In general, and depending on the strength of the arguments in favor of private property (see above), you have a right to private property even if others have a greater need for the resources you own. If the needs of others would always trump property rights, then those rights wouldn’t be rights at all. It’s only when some threshold level of need is reached that the needs of others should be allowed to trump your right. Your right to property should not result in the physical suffering or death of others. Especially in the case of scarce and necessary goods, we need limits on the extent of property rights, even though property rights may perhaps only make sense when we’re dealing with such goods (why limit access to goods that aren’t scarce or necessary?). These limits are justified because we’re dealing here with a conflict of rights: property rights versus the right to life or the right not to suffer extreme poverty. As in all cases of conflicting rights, there needs to be a trade-off, and the one I’m defending here seems reasonable.

Hence, a justification of private property should never be limited to arguments about the benefits of private property but should instead find its place in a justification of rights in general, including the rights of those who are excluded, by the property rights of others, from the use of scarce and necessary resources. And any justification of rights in general needs to address possible conflicts between rights.

Access control and the power to decide and exclude are inherent in the right to private property but are not absolute powers. In this respect, the right to property is not much different from other human rights. As a society, we have to balance each and everyone’s property rights with each and everyone’s other rights, and individuals can’t demand that the state enforces their property rights – or that they themselves can enforce their property rights – when we all, as a society, have decided that in a particular case the balancing of rights has resulted in a priority of non-property rights.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (44): Corruption

Corruption, or “the misuse of public office for private gain”, is immoral and bad in numerous ways, but it’s not a human rights violation. At least not as such. To my knowledge, human rights law doesn’t contain an explicit right not to suffer the consequences of corruption. However, it is the case that corruption causes various rights violations. For example, it can often be viewed as a form of theft and hence a violation of the right to private property. And in the case of corruption in the justice system, the right to a fair trial is violated.

Moreover, corruption has a negative impact on GDP – mainly because it’s a tax on investment – and hence also on poverty reduction (given the correlation between GDP and poverty reduction). And there is a right not to suffer poverty. Corruption also has an impact on poverty on the level of individuals rather than countries. It’s obvious that individuals – especially those who are poor or near the poverty line – can make better use of the funds that they have to spend on bribes.

Furthermore, corruption eats away at the rule of law. Even in the most corrupt countries, corruption is usually illegal. If illegal activity becomes normal practice, the rule of law is obviously undermined, with possible consequences for judicial protection in general, including protection of human rights. The rule of law is also harmed directly by corruption, namely by corruption inside the judiciary and the police force, and this has an immediate impact on human rights. Even more seriously, corruption is associated with political instability since it tends to reduce citizens’ trust and faith in institutions. It can therefore destroy democracy, and democracy is both a human right and a means to protect human rights in general.

So, if we can agree that corruption is a cause of various human rights violations, then the question is: who is responsible for corruption and hence for the rights violations occurring because of it? I would say that it’s the government officials taking bribes (and possibly the banks safeguarding the proceeds) rather than the private persons or companies paying the bribes, at least in general. The latter would presumably prefer not to pay bribes and often find themselves in situations in which they have no choice.

Now, you could say that some corrupt officials, especially those at the lower levels of government, don’t have a choice either: without the proceeds of corruption they may well end up in poverty. Demanding bribes is then the alternative for a failed economy and a failed state. However, I think it’s fair to claim that they still have, in general, a wider set of options than many of those having to pay bribes. If you’re stopped by the police and they ask you for a bribe, it seems that your options are more constrained than the options of the police asking for the bribe. It seems easier for the police to find additional non-corrupt sources of income than it is for you to escape the demands of the police. Of course, this isn’t the case in all types of corruption. For example, a large multinational company may find it relatively easy to pay a bribe, and may have more options than the official who’s asking the bribe (and it may very well solicit the payment of the bribe in the first place as a way to outsmart competitor companies).

Next question: what to do about it? Everyone agrees that corruption is bad, and many believe that it’s bad for human rights, but almost no one seems to know how to stop it. And it is, indeed, a problem that is as old as history. One thing we could do is spell out the issue of corruption more clearly in terms of human rights. However, human rights claims by the victims of corruption are probably not very effective, since one consequence of corruption is the weakening or destruction of the judicial institutions necessary for the enforcement of human rights. In that sense, linking corruption and human rights may seem futile or at least of limited practical use.

However, human rights claims aren’t just legal claims that depend on functioning and non-corrupt institutions to be enforced. They are also moral claims and they can have some effect as such. They can be used to denounce widespread systems of corruption and thereby help to change a culture and a mentality, especially over the long run. But moral claims will not destroy endemic corruption by themselves. Countries that suffer high degrees of corruption probably need external help in institution building. Also, economic development will probably reduce corruption, given the correlation cited above between low levels of GDP and high levels of corruption. Helping countries to develop will then also help them to fight corruption.

This is an interesting talk about ways to fight corruption (the relevant part starts around the 5th minute):

More on corruption. More posts in this series.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (23): Privacy, Justifications and Objections

The right to privacy has become increasingly important and contested. Here are just a few examples of areas in which violations of privacy have become more common over the last decades:

Since it’s always good to cite the Universal Declaration when talking about human rights, here’s the article about privacy (#12):

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Types of privacy

Privacy is what is called a cluster concept: it covers many different things, things which may seem unrelated at first sight. So, before I go on, here’s a short and tentative typology of different kinds of “privacies” (I’ll mention later what they have in common):

  • Domestic privacy. People have a right to remain secluded and alone in their homes, to keep what happens in their homes and houses to themselves, and to repel intrusion. That’s mostly what is protected by the Fourth Amendment in the US. Issues related to obscenity or pornography laws for example also fall under this type of privacy.
  • Personal privacy. People have a right to keep their thoughts, opinions, or feelings to themselves. The secrecy of postal communication for example falls under this type, as does the secret ballot.
  • Physical (or intimate) privacy. People have a right not to expose their bodies, as well as a right to repel physical intrusion into their bodies. Abortion and some security checks belong here.
  • Informational privacy. People have a right to control what happens to information about themselves (or their families), and to limit involuntary distribution or disclosure of such information. Information here means facts, whether embarrassing or not, rather than opinions. The latter are part of libel law. Information about sexual orientation or salaries is an example of informational privacy.
  • Relational privacy. People have a right to keep some of the details about their relationships to themselves. This includes whom they have what type of sexual intercourse with. Sodomy laws violate this kind of privacy, as do laws regulating the use of contraceptives. People also have a right to decide without interference on the type of relationship that suites them best. This covers laws regulating interracial marriages, same-sex marriages etc.

(There’s also the concept of private property, but I think this can be separated from privacy issues, although private property of a home is obviously a necessary condition for domestic privacy, for example).

All these types of privacy have something in common: they are all about independence. Privacy protects an individual’s interest in making independent decisions about her life, family, home, lifestyle, relationships, behavior and communication. All these types of privacy are also about the restriction of access or intrusion. Privacy gives an individual the right to deny access or intrusion by others, more specifically access to or intrusion in her body, her home, her relationships, her mind and certain facts about her life. It’s a right to be let alone.

Justification of privacy

Privacy is justified because it restricts access. Some restrictions of access are necessary for personal identity. There is no “I”, no person, no individual without a border between me and the rest of the world. Such a border is an absolute requirement for the basic human need of personhood and individuality. If people have unlimited access to each other, then there simply won’t be any separate people left. People understood as separate entities require some level of privacy protection. The exact level of privacy and the justified intrusions into people’s private lives are not yet determined by this argument, but the need for some level of privacy and some limitations of intrusions is clear. Other justifications of privacy could be based on the interest people have in intimacy, close personal relationships etc. It’s clear that a world without privacy or even without strong privacy rights would be a horrible world indeed.

Objections to privacy

Some argue that there’s nothing special about privacy and that the concept doesn’t merit an independent existence, let alone legal protection. The many different interests protected by privacy can indeed be protected by other means, such as a right to private property, liberty, bodily security and integrity, or independence.

However, I’m not sure that this is true for all the interests protected by a right to privacy. And an independent notion of privacy gives at least an added protection, partly because of the strong roots of the notion in common language and belief.

Some go even a step further and consider privacy to be detrimental rather than merely superfluous. Marx, for example, viewed privacy as a symptom of an atomized and selfish society, intent on protecting the material self-interest of the haves faced with a possible revolt of the have-nots.

Some feminists as well have forcefully argued that privacy is detrimental to women because of its use as a shield to protect male domination, superiority and abuse. However, it’s not because a right can be abused that it loses all meaning. There wouldn’t be any rights left if that were the case. The challenge is to avoid intrusion in people’s private lives that go too far, while at the same time allowing intrusion that counters abusive private actions. The right to privacy is therefore not an absolute right. But it is a right, and feminists should remember that intrusions into the private sphere can also be detrimental to women (e.g. abortion legislation, forced sterilization etc.).

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (22): Private Property Rights, Justifications Based Not On Their Origins But On Their Purpose

Property is the set of rules governing people’s access to and control of things. Three types are traditionally distinguished: private property, common property and collective property.

Types of property

1. Private property

In the case of private property, an individual agent (usually persons, but also families, businesses etc.) has a right to private property if he or she has a right to control the object and to regulate access. Control means sole decisional authority: the individual agent is the only one who has a right to decide what should be done with the object or what should happen to it.

This right allows the owner to decide, to some extent, to do things with the object that affect other people. Private property rights include the right to use property in ways that disadvantage other people, as long as these disadvantages do not include violations of the rights of other people. For example, a factory owner can decide to close her factory. A rich person can decide to buy and own a large house even if some other families would benefit more from living there.

However, a factory owner deciding to use his factory in such a way that it harms the health of workers or of neighboring families violates the rights of these people, and her property rights do not include a right to violate the rights of others. In such cases, rights have to be balanced and the more important right (depending on the circumstances) should prevail.

2. Common property

In the case of common property, the purpose is not individual control and exclusive access, but, on the contrary, equal access to all. Common property of a park or a common grazing field, for instance, is meant to stop certain people using it as if it was private property and as if others were precluded from using or accessing it. If farmers are allowed to use a common field for their cattle, common ownership would imply that no farmer overuses the field and brings so many cattle that there’s no grass left for the cattle of other farmers. Farmers who violate this rule of common property act like the field is their private property because they exclude others from using it. (That’s also called the tragedy of the commons, to which I will return below).

3. Collective property

In the case of collective property (sometimes also called joint property), the purpose is not only equal access to all but also equal control and decisional power. The community as a whole determines, through systems of collective decision making, how the resource is to be used. Each individual’s use is subject to a decision process to be concluded to the satisfaction of each of the co-owners – or of a majority, depending on the type of collective decision procedure. Collective ownership of a farm, for instance, means not only that all farmers belonging to the collective have an equal right to access the farm (as in common property), but also that all farmers have an equal say in the management of the farm. The latter is not (always) the case in common ownership: equal access to a commonly owned park does not (necessarily) imply an equal say in the management of the park.

When does property make sense?

In many cases, talk of property only makes sense under conditions of scarcity. In the case of private property, there would be no reason to demand exclusive control over and access to things if these things were so numerous and abundant that no one else would want to control or access what you want to control or access.

And yet, in the case of intellectual property for example, which is by definition, in our age at least, anything but scarce given the means of reproduction, we still talk about private intellectual property in the sense of exclusive control of access. But in general, it makes sense to view private property as meaningful only in circumstances of scarcity. (Perhaps that’s a good reason not to talk about “intellectual property” at all). The same is true of common property: if the whole wide world were a park, there would be no risk of some people excluding others from accessing it, and hence no need to talk about the common property of the “park”. And the same is true for collective property.

What does property require?

First, it requires rules. It only makes sense to view types of ownership as rule based. Property is in essence a rule. You can’t say that something is your property simply because you have it, hold it, exclude others from it etc. You have property because there are social rules granting you property of something and granting you rights to defend it. People should not rely on their own strength or willingness to cooperate in order to defend their holdings.

Because the state intervenes in the enforcement of property rules and rights, it’s important to have a morally sound justification of those rights. Hence, property also requires a justification. We wouldn’t want the state to use its power for immoral or unjustified ends. I’ll focus on the justification of private property in the remainder of this post because that’s arguably the most common type and the one that most often raises moral issues.

Some of those issues are the morality of taxation and eminent domain, the needs of the poor, the justification of redistribution, the property we’re allowed to own (guns?) or sell (organs?), the things we’re allowed to do with our property (shoot our gun at people? suicide?) etc.

Justifications of private property

What is the point of private property? It must have some moral value, otherwise the moral issues just cited wouldn’t arise in the first place and private property wouldn’t receive legal protection. From the discussion above, we know what private property is, which other types of property there are, which rights property entails, when it is likely to make sense, and what it requires. But we don’t yet know why there should be private property. Some would say that there’s no way for property rights to come about or to be justified because if you go back far enough in time – and sometimes that’s not very far – all “property” is in fact the result of theft of commonly owned resources.

John Locke is famous for his attempted justification of private property. My body is my own and my property, and hence I also own the power of my body. Through labor I incorporate the power of my body in the goods I produce. By working on an object, I mix my labor with the object. If someone wants to take this object away from me, he also takes away my labor, which means that he takes away the power of my body. He therefore uses my body, which is incompatible with my right to possess my own body.

However, justifications like these tend to be very shaky. Hence, I think it’s better not to focus too much on the ways in which, historically or theoretically, a right to private property has/can come about in a world that’s originally equally owned by all. We should rather think about what would happen when a right to private property, taken as a given, would disappear, and distill a justification from that (in other words, trying to look for a consequentialist justification).

We can, in fact, without much trouble, list a number of harms that would result from the elimination of a right to private property. Kant defined property as “that with which I am so connected that another’s use of it without my consent would wrong me”. What wrongs would that be? Here’s a tentative list:

  • Private property is a means to protect the private space. Without private property, without your own house or your own place in the world, and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public. Without private property, there is no private world (another example of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights).
  • Just as there is no light without darkness, there is nothing common to all people and no public space without private property. So private property protects publicity, commonality etc. Freedom of speech, one of the most public acts, is difficult to imagine without privacy and secrecy, and hence without private property.
  • Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore also freedom, are important values, and these values rely heavily on private property.
  • Private property is also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. You have your own house and your own place in the world, but not in the world in general. You live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community, even if you have to transcend this community now and again. And it’s difficult to imagine a place in a particular community without you own home and hence without private property.
  • Private property is an important tool in the creative design of your personality, especially, but not exclusively, when you are an artist.
  • It is obvious that without private property there can be no help or generosity. Generosity and the absence of egoism are important for the preservation of a community.
  • Private property prevents the tragedy of the commons, referred to above. If everyone has free access to a piece of land for example, then no one has an incentive to avoid over-usage. Every additional cow an individual introduces for grazing brings full benefits to the individual, whereas the costs of overuse resulting from the additional cows are shared among all individual users of the land. Conversely, the benefits of any individual’s self-restraint will accrue to all the other individuals whether or not they also exercise self-restraint. Individual self-restraint is ultimately useless unless all cooperate, which is unlikely because the benefits of self-restraint for each individual are outweighed by the benefits of overuse. Only private property allows people to reap the benefits of self-restraint.
  • The right to private property, and in particular, the right to your own house, is linked to the freedom to choose a residence, which again is linked to the freedom of movement (again another example of the indivisibility of human rights).
  • As already mentioned above, you also own your own body. Your body is part of your private property. It is something that is yours; it is the thing par excellence that is your own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning your body means that you are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of your body; they should not use it, access it, hurt it or force you to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. It also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. You carry prime responsibility over your own body and life.

Property is therefore an instrumental value, one which serves the realization of other values.

All these advantages of private property are advantages for everyone. Hence, everyone should have a right to private property, which may imply the need for some kind of redistribution benefiting those people who don’t have enough private property to realize all the benefits of private property (for example the homeless). Hence, the right to private property can be an argument against redistribution, but also one in favor of redistribution.

Private property as it is described and justified here is of course an ideal. The real existence of private property, and its actual distribution in the real world never matches this ideal, as is the case for all human rights. Property is often used to oppress others, and many people can never reap the full benefits of property. In the words of John Stuart Mill, the laws of property and the actual distribution of property have never yet conformed to the principles on which the justification of property rests.

But even in the ideal world, a right to private property is not absolute, nor is it absolutely beneficial, as I stated in the definition in the beginning of this post. Property can conflict with other values. There’s no way to escape value pluralism.

Communism and Corporate Democracy

In an effort to convince you that my new $19.95 book is actually worth a lot more than that, I’m blogging some excerpts. Today, the importance of corporate democracy.

What can we learn from communism? I realize that, for many people, learning from communism is like listening to the devil. But that’s intellectual laziness, dismissing something without fully understanding it. So bear with me.

For example, our capitalist systems have shed many of the extreme injustices that characterized them in the time of Marx. But it’s still the case today that ownership of the means of production yields a kind of economic power over the workers who depend on the owners and who are forced to sell their labor power because they don’t have means of production of their own.

This dependence results in economic uncertainty and possibly poverty, because of the competition between workers trying to offer the best deal to employers. The fact that no modern economy has full employment makes this competition inevitable, even though today it’s more an international than a national competition. The “reserve army” now seems to be stationed abroad. International outsourcing (or the threat of it) pushes wages down.

We should also acknowledge that economic dependence in a system of private ownership of the means of production can be psychologically detrimental in the sense that it makes creative productive activity, self-expression and self-development (which require the free use of means of production) very difficult if not impossible. Moreover, it means that people are forced to work in systems based on discipline, supervision and control. Corporations have become islands of authoritarianism in a democratic world. If democracy and self-government are important in politics, why not in business?

Given the importance of work and production in the life of an individual and their potentially beneficial role in personal self-development, and given the importance of democracy and self-government, it is justified to give people a say in the way in which the means of production are used. The owners of the means of production should not be entitled to decide unilaterally on the conditions, organization, purposes, processes and meaning of production. Production is an important part of human life and people should have a say in it.

Concretely, this means a kind of corporate democracy and corporate participation. Participation, not by the shareholders (corporate democracy is today mostly viewed as a right of shareholders), but by the people directly involved in production, i.e. the “workers”.

Communism traditionally proposes the end of the employment relationship (or the right to rent people) and the common ownership of the means of production as the ways to achieve this participation and to abolish so-called alienation (which means working for a wage, or working in an obscure system of division of labor, rather than working for a product). The workers in the factory, rather than the capitalists or the shareholders, would own the factory and all the assets in common. Or, more correctly, society as a whole, which in communism means the class of workers, would own the totality of all means of production, because otherwise the workers would be tied to one specific means of production and wouldn’t be able to switch freely to another one.

This would obviously spell the end of private property, not necessarily private property as such, but in any case private property of the means of production.

This is unacceptable because private property is an important value. It’s unequal distribution should be criticized, as well as the exclusive right of decision of the owners of the means of production, but there are good reasons to keep the right to private property more or less intact.

Common ownership of the means of production, as proposed by traditional communists, is not the only means to create corporate participation and worker control over production. Communism should simply mean the community of workers in a factory or corporation deciding more or less democratically on their work. Modern-day capitalism has in some cases reconciled private ownership with large measures of worker participation. Many decisions in companies are now taken by the owners and the workers together. (This participation is not incompatible with the free market either. A free market is a system between economic agents, not within them). But we should try to go further and extend and deepen this participation in order to make production and work more meaningful.

Private property of the means of production should not be understood as an absolute right to govern the workplace dictatorially. And the abolition of private property is not a prerequisite for corporate democracy. This is evident if we take a look at historical cases of communist rule, where private property was abolished (to some extent) but corporate governance continued much along the same lines as in capitalism. The bosses changed – autocratic party members and government bureaucracy instead of capitalists – but the workers didn’t have more influence.

This proves that corporate democracy requires something more than or different from common ownership. Private ownership, strictly speaking, gives the employer only the right to label someone a trespasser.  So abolishing ownership will not, of itself, change how production takes place. Changes have to occur, not on the level of the ownership of the means of production, but on the level of the organization of production.

You can buy the book here. More about Marx here.

Migration and Human Rights (32): A Human Right to Free Movement and the Common Ownership of the Earth

I’m consistently in favor of increased immigration, and skeptical of the arguments against (such as those based on notions like “importing crime”, “importing poverty” or “watering down culture”).

However, if the arguments against immigration fail, how about the quality of the arguments in favor? Poverty reduction is a strong one: the prosperity of immigrants obviously increases when they are allowed to immigrate, but so does the prosperity of the families left behind (as a result of remittances). But a more interesting argument is based on the concept of the common ownership of the earth. Humanity collectively owns the earth and its resources because the earth is simply there. No one has created it and no one therefore deserves credit for it. Consequently, all individuals have an equal claim to every part of it and collectively own every part of it. (That’s an old idea, going back at least to Kant and Grotius).

Accidents of birth do not destroy this common ownership. They don’t yield private ownership rights to those parts of the earth where they take place. Hence, these accidents should not determine who gets the exclusive usage rights over parts of the earth. Immigration restrictions are morally arbitrary since they differentiate between people based on the lottery of birth. They take the accident of being born somewhere and turn it into a rule to stay there. They are equivalent to other morally arbitrary differentiations, such as those based on race or gender. However, contrary to what happened to those other differentiations, a majority of public opinion has yet to be convinced of the morally arbitrary nature of immigration restrictions.

From the notion of the common ownership of the earth follows that every kind of private property, not only the state as the exclusive property of a part of the earth claimed by the citizens who happen to live in that state, is a privatization of common resources. I think any justification of such a privatization, and therefore any justification of any type of private property, is bound to be difficult.

If the justification of privatization – whether of territory or commodities – does not succeed, then private property and the state are by definition illegitimate. So there’s a lot at stake here. The reason why such a justification is difficult, is that private property is necessarily based on an original theft of common ownership. Even if you cultivate the land you appropriate or privatize (or better steal from the collective of humanity), and even if you incorporate your labor in the product you make based on natural resources (Locke’s justification for private property) and thereby create added value, that doesn’t change the original sin: you’ll still be like the thief who takes care of the car he’s stolen and gives it a new color.

The same is true for a farmer fencing a part of the earth, a state imposing a border and restricting immigration, an oil company extracting the oil and refining and selling it, and a primitive tribe settling down in the jungle somewhere and keeping strangers out. Even nomadic tribes are guilty of the same sin by letting their cattle graze the land and keeping other tribes away.

So this reasoning a priori invalidates all talk about immigration restrictions. But it seems that I have proven too much: all private property, not just private property of land or a country, is, in the words of Proudhon, theft. Yet, private property is extremely important from the point of view of human rights. Private property also seems to be fueling economic efficiency, as the communist experiments have shown, a contrario. Especially private property of land – important in the context of immigration – is important for prosperity. I don’t want a justification of policies removing immigration restrictions that destroys all possible justifications of all forms of private property. Moreover, while I consider existing immigration restrictions unjust, I do recognize the value of some types of restrictions. Some restrictions used by citizens to limit access to a territory that they claim is theirs are legitimate. A state is necessary for democratic self-government and for the legal and judicial protection of human rights, and it would seem impossible to imagine the concept of a state without some immigration restrictions.

These are moral goals – rights, democracy – that are at least equivalent to the moral goal of not stealing and to the moral rights of immigrants. The problem is that stealing – namely stealing a part of the earth from humanity – is precisely what seems to be necessary to achieve these moral goals. So we have a conflict between moral goals. The fact that these moral goals all seem to be equivalent – it’s not obvious that stealing is always more wrong than protecting human rights for instance – indicates that it should be conceivable to violate – or limit the force of – the principle of the common ownership of the earth in order to create private property, both of commodities and land/territory. Hence, immigration restrictions are not necessarily morally wrong, although I would still claim that the existing restrictions of all countries in the world go much too far: they don’t take the moral claim of the common ownership of the earth seriously enough, and they overemphasize the goals of residents over those of immigrants.

So how exactly do we balance these different and equivalent moral goals? For example, a country violating human rights has less rights to impose immigration restrictions because such restrictions will not serve the goal of rights. (Unfortunately, this won’t promote migration since such a country will not attract many immigrants if it winds down its immigration restrictions). A wealthy country – like wealthy people – have less rights to exclude others from a share of their wealth, since their wealth is based on the use of common property. In that case, immigrants can demand entry rights based on common property.

While national borders are drawn in a morally arbitrary way, as argued above, and while immigration restrictions that go together with the drawing of such border are therefore equally arbitrary, they are not morally meaningless. They are a morally arbitrary fact that has acquired moral significance: they have resulted in a tool – the state – that can do morally good, e.g. protect human rights and democracy.

Marx, Substructure, Superstructure and Human Rights

The substructure, according to communism, is the mode of production or the nature of productive activity. Productive activity means the production, in interaction with nature, of goods necessary to survive. This production requires, on the one hand, means of production (materials, machines, land, tools, labor etc.) and, on the other hand, relations in which production takes place (relations of co-operation or ways of organization such as relations between masters and slaves, employers and employees, landowners and farmers etc.). The combination of means (or forces) of production and relations of production is the mode of production.

The available means of production determine the relations of production. A certain degree of development in the former necessarily produces a certain degree of development in the latter. This idea is the basis of the historical evolution of society that is so important in communism.

In production, men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations does their action on nature, does production, take place. These social relations into which the producers enter with one another, the conditions under which they exchange their activities and participate in the whole act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production. With the invention of a new instrument of warfare, firearms, the whole internal organization of the army necessarily changed: the relationships within which individuals can constitute an army and act as an army were transformed … Thus the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, change, are transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, the productive forces. K. Marx, Wage Labor and Capital

These social relations are therefore independent of the will of the participants. They depend on technology, the availability of land etc. Each major change in the relations of production and the organization of production, caused by changes in the means of production, leads to a major change in the type of society we live in.

The combination of means of production or productive forces on the one hand, and relations of production on the other, is the substructure and determines the superstructure or the collection of different forms of consciousness, such as law, morality, religion, philosophy, politics etc.

The substructure is “the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”. “Economic production and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch”.

Politics and law are parts of the superstructure which are determined by the substructure. They are formed by the interests of those who have economic power and they serve to defend these interests. “Political power … is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another”. “Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones?” The quintessential example is the right to private property. Owners can use this right to defend their interests against the poor. They can appeal to the judiciary and the police force to defend their property and hence to maintain existing class relations and modes of production.

The right to private property makes it impossible for large groups of people to have their own means of production and hence to be economically independent and self-sufficient. In other words, it makes it impossible for people to be free.

However, the law is not only something that can be used to justify the use of force for the maintenance of the status quo. The use of force by the state for the defense of the right to property is not necessary when the poor can be convinced that this right is in their interest, that it is a human right rather than a right of the wealthy. The economic relationships and structures are maintained with political and legal force but also with legal ideology.

All ideologies are similar. Christianity can convince people to accept their situation by promising salvation in a future life, and the ideology of human rights does the same by convincing people, all people, that they have the same rights and that they are therefore equal. When this universality and equality of rights is accentuated, people do not see that others who have the same equal rights profit more from these rights. Human rights give the impression of guaranteeing freedom and equality but in reality give those who are better off tools to improve their situation even more, and at the expense of the poor. Instead of real equality there is only legal and formal equality, and the latter takes us further away from the former because the rich can use their equal rights to promote their interests. Rights give us the freedom to oppress rather than freedom from oppression.

Human rights, according to communism, are “an illusory sense of community serving as a screen for the real struggles waged by classes against each other”, an ideological veil on reality, a set of false ideas that has to cover up class rule and make it acceptable. The continuation of inequality by political and legal means is based on the combination of coercion and false consciousness. Christians are equal in heaven and thereby maintain inequality on earth, and believers in human rights are equal in the heaven of their political ideals and thereby forget the inequality that these ideals help to maintain. Again we see how the ruling class uses ideology rather than mere force to maintain its rule. It tries to instill certain beliefs in its victims and to use these beliefs as a drug, an opium to pacify them.

Like the protest inherent in the Christian ideology of a future paradise must be maintained but stripped of its ideological content, so the ideal of equality inherent in human rights must be maintained but in such a way that it becomes real equality in a real and worldly paradise, and not some kind of formal equality of rights that only aggravates real inequality and postpones paradise to the afterlife. The poor must become conscious of the fact that their formal equality only covers up their real inequality. This consciousness will be an important step in their liberation. However, as we will see later, this consciousness is conditioned by and can only come about at a certain time in the evolution of exploitation. It cannot result from education or political agitation alone.

Is Taxation Akin to Theft and Slavery?

The notion that taxation is theft and a violation of property rights is quite common, especially in libertarian circles. (A less extreme version of the argument claims that taxation may be a justified limitation of property rights but its level should be kept as low as possible because of concerns for economic incentives).

The classic justification of this rejection of taxation is a reduction ad absurdum: if a state can tax its citizens, how much can we reduce the group of people and still hold that this group can impose taxes on its members?

There are many variations of [this argument], but one begins, for instance, with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the story, with the identity of the thief gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; … to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft becomes the alleged morality of taxation. (source)

Taxation is not only rejected because it’s viewed as a form of official and legalized theft. It’s also viewed as a form of slavery. Robert Nozick, a famous libertarian, has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.

Nozick starts from the reasonable assumption that people own themselves. Self-ownership also means that people own their talents and labor power. He then continues with the Lockean argument for private property: we produce goods by mixing our labor power and talents with elements of the material world, and by this mixing we generate ownership of those modified elements of the world. If the government taxes our income, it takes away – or steals – parts of what we own through our labor. But the government doesn’t just steal things from us. Because our labor and talents have been incorporated in the things we own – and we own them because of this incorporation – taking them from us means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor, and hence owns us. Taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership. And that’s slavery. It also means that the government uses people as means rather than ends, violating Kant’s maxim.

If you’re convinced by this kind of reasoning and agree that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft, then you’re morally allowed or even obliged to resist taxation and rebel against government. And you’re likely to be a libertarian.

However, you may also want to consider a few counter-arguments.

1. There’s first the issue of value pluralism. Private property and self-ownership are undoubtedly important, but not so important that they trump all other values. Hence, they can be limited to accommodate a balancing with other concerns.

2. The rejection of taxation becomes morally difficult when we consider the purpose of taxation, or better the – substantial – part of taxation which serves the welfare state and the realization of economic rights. Economic rights are primarily a duty of charity, as I’ve argued here. The state, with its welfare mechanisms, should only intervene when citizens don’t (sufficiently) help each other. And it needs taxes to do that. Taxes are the enforcement of the duty to charity. Which is why tax fraud, tax evasion and certainly the principled refusal to pay taxes are particularly reprehensible: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities. Denying the duty to pay taxes is a double moral failure.

However, some libertarians go along with the first part of this argument and accept that people have a moral duty to help others (others who are starving for example). However, they deny that this creates a right. So, ideally, these libertarians would not commit the first prong of this double moral failure, in which case the second prong could not occur. And yet, in the non-ideal world, libertarians – and others – do commit the first moral failure, i.e. do not live up to their responsibilities to help others. Subsequently, libertarians and others who follow Nozick, are doomed to commit the second moral failure as well. What’s more, they can’t even call it a moral failure because according to them starving people don’t have a right to demand our help (the fact that we have a duty to help doesn’t necessarily give them a right to our help). Such a right would be incompatible with self-ownership. It would mean stealing our goods and our labor power and talents. It would mean using us as a means for their survival. In my view, the claim that the duty of generosity doesn’t create a right to generosity is a simple artifact invented to guarantee the supremacy of property rights.

3. Nozicks reasoning about self-ownership and property is shaky, as he himself admitted:

why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules… mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? (source)

4. Given the importance of talents in the libertarian argument, and the refusal to have people’s talents “harvested” for the sake of the minimal welfare of those without talents or otherwise unable to fend for themselves: is it not evident that there’s an injustice involved in the distribution of talents? Nobody decides freely to be born without talents, so the absence of talents is nobody’s fault. Should you be forced to suffer for something that is not your fault? In addition, is there not a small possibility that people are rewarded for the wrong talents and that some talents are not sufficiently rewarded? If all that’s the case, then the claim that the state can’t use the proceeds of your talents for the benefit of others becomes a lot weaker: if those proceeds could just as well have gone to other talents or the talents of others (in part at least), and if your talents are just a matter of luck, why should you have a right to keep those proceeds?

5. And finally, is it not somewhat gross to compare the fate of a taxpayer to the fate of a slave? A taxpayer retains many of the freedoms a slave can only dream of.

Discrimination (4): Private Discrimination, Freedom of Association and Property Rights

To what extent should anti-discrimination laws apply to private associations, to voluntary employment contracts and in private property? Let’s have a look at a number of recent news stories:

  • There was the controversy over Rand Paul’s opposition (shared by many other libertarians) to the application of the Civil Rights Act to private enterprises, which implies that a restaurant owner for example should be able to segregate his restaurant or even refuse black customers for example. (This view is based on the libertarian opposition to government regulation of the private sector).
  • Then there was the case of the Christian student’s union refusing gay members.
  • A teacher in a Christian school got herself fired because of premarital sex.
  • There’s the famous case of the Boy Scouts’ refusal to allow gay members (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale).
  • The D.C. police department recently decided to no longer intervene in an ongoing protest by Muslim women over their place in area mosques. These women have provoked confrontations in mosques by claiming the right to worship next to men, a right refused by conservative Muslim men. The police initially escorted the women out of the mosques, as requested by the men, but won’t do that anymore. The men claim that the mosques are private institutions, and private property rights should prevail. The women, they say, are trespassers.
  • And some time ago the British BNP, a racist political party, was forced to accept black members.

A similar but different case – because not based on prejudice or discrimination (except if you count PC as discriminating between views) – was the firing/quitting of journalist Helen Thomas following a politically incorrect and possibly antisemitic comment on Israel.

We can, of course, imagine an infinite number of similar cases:

  • Can a gym be held liable for dismissing a fat fitness trainer?
  • Should a business be able to offer a gays-only retirement home?
  • Can a landlord invoke religious objections to renting to an unmarried or gay couple?
  • Etc.

What all such real and imaginary cases have in common (even the Thomas case, which I’ll exclude from the current discussion because it’s slightly different and doesn’t – necessarily – involve discrimination) is that different values clash. Equality, equal treatment and the absence of discrimination on the one hand clashes with the freedom of association, the right to property and the freedom of contract on the other hand. (In the Thomas case, free speech clashes with freedom of employment contract).

If you’re a value pluralist – as I am – then these are hard cases. Property rights, freedom of association, freedom of contract (including in employment), equality and non-discrimination are all important values. It’s a right to hire or fire employees, accept or reject members of associations and serve or fail to serve customers on whatever basis you wish, even if this means discriminating certain employees, members or customers. But it’s also a right not to suffer discrimination. None of these values is by definition or a priori more important than the others. (If you think only freedom and property count, then you can wrap this up in a minute. Likewise if you think equality does count but is the automatic result of freedom. Don’t laugh, some actually think like that. Remember trickle down and the invisible hand).

All those rights are important, and when they clash, as in our examples, we’ll have to make a hard choice: which right in which case will receive priority? That will be, by definition, a case by case trade-off. You can’t use a general rule, since all these rights are – in the abstract – equally important. You can’t use a rule that says, for example, “property rights are equally important as equal treatment, except for bigots”. It’s not because you’re a bigot that you lose your property rights, your freedom of association or your freedom of contract. Those rights are human rights and intrinsically valuable.

So let’s assume that we will find many cases in which equal treatment is more important than property, contract or association rights. Pre-Civil-Rights-Act-America would be such a case. We will then engage in some justified anti-discrimination efforts that limit these other rights. And we will acknowledge that there is a limitation of rights going on. That there is a trade-off between rights and that the limitations of certain rights don’t mean that those rights are no longer important. It’s a necessary evil and an unfortunate consequence of clashing rights.

We’ll also find numerous cases in which property, contract or association rights will outweigh discrimination concerns. The example of the fitness teacher given above (who doesn’t have a right to employment in the business of his choice), or the gay retirement home (non-gay pensioners have ample opportunities elsewhere) would be cases like this. The same goes for the case of the guy protesting ladies’ night. Not all consequences of discrimination are equally harmful.

Consequently, anti-discrimination efforts can’t be an absolute concern and can’t become the only preoccupation. Otherwise, other rights would suffer needlessly. A balance has to be found. We have to decide how far our anti-discrimination measures can go without weighing too heavily on other rights, and how far bigots can be allowed to use their rights without harming the targets of their bigotry. (Or how far non-bigots can discriminate for non-bigoted reasons).

And when attempting to make this balance, we have to look at the specific circumstances and the relative harm that we can do on both sides. Small scale bigotry against a single individual who has numerous outside options – another employer, another restaurant, another organization etc. – won’t initiate anti-discrimination action, certainly not by the government. Jim Crow, on the other hand, inflicted enormous harm on large groups of people during many decades. And it would not have been abolished by a few activists, boycotts or sit-ins. Nor, for that matter, by the government ending its own discrimination. Active government action against private – and public – discrimination was required. And did happen in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later decisions which banned private actors from withholding services or denying employment on the basis of race (or of religion, sex, or national origin). Those anti-discrimination efforts did harm property and other rights but it’s clear that a failure to intervene would have meant perpetuating the greater harm of Jim Crow. I’ll come back to the topic of government vs private intervention against discrimination in a moment.

A parenthesis: some cases fall outside the current discussion. Government mandated discrimination in public places – trains, buses, public schools etc. – is completely and utterly unacceptable in all cases since the government can never be allowed to discriminate. Government discrimination also doesn’t cause a conflict of rights. The topic here is strictly private discrimination.

Take a look at this quote:

Wasn’t racial discrimination basically a private affair? Did we really have to enact federal laws and regulations to end it? Many of these laws dictate how people run their businesses and associations, and these restrictions are problematic to say the least. Even if we do find discrimination wrong, isn’t it a private wrong? (source)

In fairness to the author, he doesn’t seem to answer completely in the affirmative. And yet, why would you even ask those questions? Well, you should if you’re a libertarian and if liberty – including the liberty to do with your private property as you like and to freely engage in contracts and associations as you please without limitations – is the supreme value in life. However, if we accept the logic of this quote, then domestic violence and a whole bunch of other crimes are “private affairs” that shouldn’t be governed by “problematic” laws. And yet they are governed by laws, and hence we have laws “dictating how people run their associations”, and that’s a “problematic restriction”. We may think domestic violence or marital rape is wrong, but it’s a “private wrong” and hence none of our business. Domestic violence or marital rape take place within “private property” and can be seen, with a stretch of the imagination, as part of the freedom of contract (if a wife doesn’t want to be beaten or raped she should cancel the marriage contract, just like a pre-1964 African American who didn’t want to be discriminated by a restaurant owner should have gone elsewhere).

Of course, no one in his right mind would view domestic violence or marital rape like this, and no libertarian does. But the fact that libertarians – as well as many conservatives for that matter – never spill a drop of ink defending these crimes and yet fill libraries with defenses of private discrimination (and have even run a presidential campaign on the basis of this defense) just goes to show that equality and non-discrimination aren’t very important concerns for them, or at least not as important as violence and rape.

Do we really need government intervention to harmonize the two legitimate concerns? The concern for private freedom to discriminate within your property or associations, and the fight against discrimination? Some say that the fight against discrimination shouldn’t necessarily entail government coercion against private discrimination and should focus on private activism. That’s possible of course. Boycotts may help, just as minority organization, lobbying, education etc. (Another proof that free association is an important right. Minorities often depend on freedom of association and on strong property rights for their activism, and free commerce and freedom of contract tend to lower prejudice). There are also market mechanisms that counteract discrimination and fostering those mechanism might reduce discrimination without government coercion.

But that effort is certainly naive in many settings, especially when discrimination is widespread and group conformity counteracts market incentives (for example when customers are willing to pay a premium to visit segregated businesses, in which case the business owners will not be pressured by the profit motive to accept all customers; or when businesses are threatened into respect for segregation). Likewise when discrimination is government mandated. Hence the need, in many cases, for government coercion to break widespread patterns of discrimination that seriously reduce the options and opportunities of those who are discriminated against.

Why specifically state intervention? Racist business restaurant owners or bigoted employers or organizations can perhaps, sometimes, be persuaded to accept non-whites customers, employees or members through boycotts, social ostracism or the pressures of the market, but state intervention is often necessary in order to force them to do so. And they should be forced when the targets of their discrimination are seriously harmed by this discrimination, don’t have options elsewhere and can’t wait for the slow process of the market and of mentality changes. For example, a black person failing to get hired because of his or her race, after many attempts, suffers more harm than a black person failing to get served in a restaurant but having many more restaurant options close by.

It can be, in some settings, immoral to say that government shouldn’t intervene and that only social activists should struggle against racism and discrimination. In many cases, such as the southern parts of the US under Jim Crow, a struggle that isn’t backed by government often means risking life and limb. Discrimination in the US was underpinned by private terrorism (KKK) and actively supported or condoned by government law enforcement officers. Insisting that discrimination should be combated solely by private actors means exposing them to serious risks.

A final consideration: what if property is the direct result of discrimination? Can the descendants of slave owners really claim that their property rights should be a justification of their discriminatory actions? Or is their property illegitimate given the fact that it wouldn’t have existed without slavery? That would be an additional reason to favor equal treatment over property rights, when these two values clash.