Property Rights, Revisited

Kevin Drum had an amazing post the other day:

[T]here’s a distinction between “rational” and “good,” and most of us know it when we see it. Thomas Jefferson, for example, kept slaves because it was, after all, a rational thing to do. He needed the money his slaves brought in and he was too weak-willed to forego that money and free them. However, he also argued that slavery was wrong and should be banned — a position that’s usually presented as an unfathomable paradox. But it’s not. Jefferson wanted slavery banned because he understood that individuals often lack the willpower to do individually what they know is right. Sometimes it takes the power of community action to force ourselves to do good things that we can’t (or won’t) do on our own.

In the marketplace we are competitive, selfish, meanspirited, and xenophobic, so it’s no surprise that left to its own devices that’s the kind of society a free market will produce — in fact, has produced at various points in history. But although we’re seldom strong enough to personally sacrifice our own immediate economic self-interests (yes, that means you too), we often recognize as a society that we ought to do better. And so, as long as the rules apply to all of us, we occasionally allow our better natures to be shamed, cajoled, or inspired into insisting on it. And civilization slowly progresses because of it.

I would note… that’s not just a ballot box issue. that’s the way civilization as a whole works. As I’m writing this, my neighbor is out of town. Now, it occurs to me that it would make me better off in the short term to enter his apartment and, well, relieve him of items that I can use. No doubt there are a few million people in Los Angeles that can look at their neighbor’s stuff and state something very similar.

And in the short term, that’s true. But in the long run, society breaks down if we don’t accept some limits on our freedom. The only reason I feel its safe to leave the house most days in the knowledge that my stuff will be here when I get back is that I feel it is a bad idea to enter my neighbor’s place while he is away. The former cannot be true without the latter being true. (Though, the latter being true doesn’t always make the latter true.) So we choose to put limits on our freedom, to accept concepts like property rights.

But I have a few more thoughts. The line is drawn in an arbitrary place. It would probably disturb most Americans of others trekked through their turf simply because its inconvenient not to do so. (I understand that in the English country-side, you can go through someone else’s property to get to the other side under some circumstances.)

Closer to home, how many people in LA would think nothing of breaking into a refinery in Torrance and taking stuff we wanted away? Or using that refinery’s logo or trademarks. But is vice versa true? How much thought does the refinery in Torrance put into not taking away some of the clean air of the residents of LA, the same residents that wouldn’t dream of breaking into the refinery. What’s the difference?

I think the difference is this… we, as a society choose not to enforce property rights associated with physical or tangible things if the boundaries in which those things exist are not fixed. The refinery in Torrance kills fresh air first above its own property, than above everyone else’s. The @$$hole that drives down the street on a Harley which can be heard six blocks away every morning at 3AM first abuses his own eardrums, then everyone else’s.

Now, one might argue convenience. Its not convenient for the refinery to do something about its emissions, or for the guy on the Harley to do something about the noise he generates. But then, its not particularly convenient for people to have to purchase stuff when equivalent stuff is just lying around in their neighbor’s home, ripe for the taking.

Have we drawn the line in the right place?