Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On property.

This is somewhat incoherent, I know. But it's what's been running through my mind today.

On the one hand, we can view property in a historical way. That is, something becomes my property because of something that has happened to it in my past. Either I have legitimately acquired it originally (such as by making it from unowned raw materials) or I have legitimately acquired it from the original owner, possibly at some remove.

On the other hand, we can view property in a non-historical way. That is, something becomes my property because of something that is happening now. This is very often cashed out in terms of need (think Marxist analyses), but could, in principle, be unpacked in terms of anything that admits of a current time-slice sort of conception.

I'm not sympathetic to the former views, as they lead inevitably to massive inequality on very thin justification. We override historical considerations all the time in other areas -- for example, where I was born is not usually taken to be a justificatory basis for limiting where I am now or will be in the future. So, a purely historical analysis of property seems to provide at best only weak reason to allow people to maintain their property. I find this troubling as I take property to be more important. That something is mine is not merely weak reason not to take it from me; it is a very strong (although not undefeatable) reason to allow me to keep it.

However, non-historical analyses have a real problem in that they don't allow for the intuition that drives the historical view: namely, that what is mine is mine because of something I did in the past. I bought it, made it, was given it, or some such. Surely that has to matter in any viable understanding of what property is.

I wonder, though, whether there's a way of fitting both the historical and non-historical intuitions together. That is, a way of preserving the idea that what happened in the past matters to whether something is mine, without saying that only what happened in the past matters to whether something is mine. And this led me to think about a possible family resemblance between another sense of "mine", one which isn't obviously relevant to property but, I think, could be.

This is the sense of "mine" in which something is my thought or my dream or my ambition. That is, self-identification rather than ownership as such. My beliefs are mine not because they are bits of property that I have made -- that's a very artificial (literally as well as figuratively) way of thinking of beliefs. Instead, beliefs are mine because they are part of me. My beliefs are my beliefs -- rather than yours or his or theirs -- because they partially constitute me (whatever "me" is, which is a whole 'nother thing).

Now, property partially constitutes me, too. Psychologists have noticed this one -- Ulric Neisser is the name that comes to mind -- and it does seem to make sense. After all, part of who I am seems to be defined by the sorts of things I wear, the objects I wield on a regular basis (a beloved pet, a favourite book, and so on), and the like. So, there does seem to be a connection between "mine" as in part of me and "mine" as in property.

I don't want to overemphasize this connection, though. I think it's a family resemblance rather than exactly the same concept in both contexts. But the family resemblance does strike me as instructive. For part of what gives rise to the strong reason for allowing people to keep their own property is just that property forms part of their selves. There's something immediately plausible about the claim that we should, as much as possible, respect the autonomy of a person; given that, we should allow the person to have some sphere of self-control; and, reading "self-control" literally gets us to the claim that we leave the self, and its constituent parts, largely alone. If property is one of those parts, then we should, largely, leave it alone.

This is only a historical claim about property insofar as the self is historical, though. And the self is clearly not entirely historical. The claim that it is is subject to an obvious reductio ad absurdum: since everyone accepts the self begins at some time, at that time (call it t1) the self has no history, and thus does not exist. But, therefore, at the next moment, t2, the self has no history -- for it did not exist at t1 -- and thus the self does not exist at t2. And thus, for any tn, the self does not exist. Now, the self clearly does have a history, and this history partially defines the self, but a self has to be allowed to exist even if there is no historical component. So, if property is part of the self, it seems to follow that property is not fully captured by a historical analysis.

As said, though, I don't want to oversell the idea that property is part of the self -- that tends to run together the sense of "mine" as part of me and the sense of "mine" as ownership, and that's a clear error. I can't sell my beliefs, but I can sell my cat. (Not that I would; it's just an example.) Property clearly depends on a certain set of external factors as well: markets, legal rights of ownership, trade, and so on, rectification procedures in cases of theft or fraud, etc. But there does seem to be a part of property which is best understood in terms of the way property forms part of the self.

So, to summarize: property, at least in part, is part of the self; the self is largely inviolable because of intuitively plausible claims about autonomy of persons; and thus we have strong reason not to interfere with private property. There are also external connections which need to be traced with regard to broader social institutions and practices, especially law (and proto-law.)

This also has some nice consequences for intellectual property, for intellectual property -- as it consists largely of ideas -- is clearly mine in a sense much closer to the "part of me" sense than the "ownership" sense. But it is also clearly dependent on the social order: it's entirely conceivable that "intellectual property" is mine only in the sense of being part of me, and not in the sense of being owned. Which would imply that it is an open question whether intellectual property is something that anyone deserves compensation for. If I own something and someone else wants it, I can clearly demand compensation -- I can even refuse if the compensation is not sufficient. If something is part of me, though, then there really is no sense in which anyone can take it; and if someone tries to obliterate it, then they are culpable not for any kind of theft, but instead for a kind of assault (think brainwashing as an extreme case).

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