Debate Magazine

Defining Property Rights.

Posted on the 28 December 2016 by Markwadsworth @Mark_Wadsworth
Property rights are the foundation upon which we build a peaceful and prosperous society. They are thus human rights (perhaps the only ones).
Given their importance, it's somewhat surprising how little most people, especially economists,  think about how they are defined and whether they are correct as they currently stand. After all, efficient resource allocation is entirely dependent upon incentives.
When I ask people how they can tell if something rightfully belongs to them, these are the answers they most often give.
  1. I paid for it.
  2. Legal title.
  3. I discovered it.
  4. I used it first.

None of the above confers moral ownership of something because, for example-
  1. We can pay for stolen goods.
  2. We can pay for stolen goods that society deems acceptable. Like slaves once were.
  3. I can discover something of value on your property. Like a gold watch in your attic you never knew you had.
  4. I can intercept something in the post you bought from Amazon and use it first.

Therefore none of 1-4 provides an ethical basis for assigning property rights. I believe the only way by which a property right can be claimed is the creation of a good or service and its provenance.
Which means the following are an infringement of property rights.
  1. Taxation of factors produced by human effort.
  2. Uncompensated exclusion from scarce natural resources.
  3. Exclusion from the ability to use any idea.

I would therefore postulate that if property rights are fundamental, then the fact that every Country in the World is guilty of doing a,b and c, then this is the root cause of much, if not all, social and economic dysfunction.


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