How can property rights be justified without appealing to capitalist culture?

This is a pretty squirrelly topic, because so many assumptions have been made over time that have no “universal” basis or ground; in other words, they don’t have empirical validity that is replicable across all cultures around the globe, or throughout all of history…and sometimes they don’t have a clear logical basis either. For example:

Theory of labor appropriation: Based on the faulty assumption that primitive peoples throughout history claimed “ownership” when they applied their labor to land, objects they created, etc. This is actually a pretty modern idea (in terms of the total span of human culture and civilization). Locke actually used the Native Americans for his example - and he was just wrong. In actuality most Native American tribes either had no conception of “ownership” at all, or a collective (tribal) view of ownership or use — especially regarding land, hunting rights, etc. Locke was, well, just mistaken — as countless others have been who haven’t actually studied cultural anthropology when making assertions about primitive cultures.

The tragedy of the commons: A thought experiment that was repeated and amplified over decades to justify ownership and private control of resources. The irony, however, is that Elinor Ostrom documented dozens of instances of “common pool resource management” in cultures all around the globe that shared a non-depleting egalitarian access to the commons without mishap…and without either government ownership or private ownership.

Property rights as “natural rights” extending from sovereignty over one’s own person for one’s survival via mixing with labor: As the Austrian School (Rothbard, Hoppe) philosophically argued variation of Locke’s labor appropriation, this really just becomes an absurd extension of individualistic economic materialism, assuming (completely without rational or empirical basis) that social agreements, cultural preconditions, cooperative prosociality and all the other hallmarks of human civilization aren’t necessary or required for human survival; that instead they can be replaced with 100% self-sufficiency. In essence, it is an article of faith grounded in individualistic (atomistic) beliefs that are not supported by empirical research on how homo sapiens has actually survived and thrived as a species. This thesis becomes even more absurd when it extends beyond “personal” possessions (a knife, a jacket, a blanket, wild-harvested food or anything used for survival in a given moment) to things that will be utilized by everyone (i.e common resources) just because the “rightful owner” was “the first to show up and claim it.” Here there is an even greater leap of faith. It’s all very silly, and Hoppe and Rothbard can never really justify their positions other than to say, well…it makes sense to them (i.e. using statements like “how could it be otherwise?”).

So we can conclude fairly easily that conceptions of private property are a faith-based enterprise that contradicts both sound reasoning and empirical facts. What we do know, however, is that private property (as either a universally accepted principle or as a feature of law) is most certainly necessary for capitalism to function, so much so that anarcho-capitalists, laissez-faire neoliberals, Randian objectivists and other market fundamentalists will scrabble tooth-and-nail to justify the concept. The irony, however, is that liberty is greatly impeded by the concept of private property; in fact we could say that private property is itself one of the most profound sources of interference to freedom that humanity has every invented. To appreciate why this is the case, I recommend this essay: The Goldilocks Zone of Integral Liberty (scroll down linked page to read it - no need to sign into Academia)

Ultimately, then, the answer to the OP’s question is: No, property rights can’t be justified in a rational or empirical way that promotes either liberty or personal sovereignty, and are actually intrinsically antagonistic to both. Private property is a very handy concept for the haves to exploit the have-nots, however…and so it evokes religious conviction among the pro-capitalist crowd.

My 2 cents.

Comment from Steeve Chaboussie: "And yet, I’m pretty sure you lock your door. I am genuinely interested with how you reconcile that with “So we can conclude fairly easily that conceptions of private property are a faith-based enterprise that contradicts both sound reasoning and empirical facts.”

There was a time when everyone in a given culture would “cross themselves” whenever someone looked at them in a strange way, o perhaps pointed at them with an index finger. There was a time when various cultures felt compelled to sacrifice animals on altars to appease their gods. There was a time when it was “common sense” that the Earth was flat and the Sun and Moon revolved around it. Today we have equally irrational beliefs that guide our daily lives. Beliefs about the importance of “knocking on wood,” or that certain numbers are “lucky” for us, or that people of a certain skin color — or accent, country of origin, etc. — should be feared, or that synchronistic events must inherently “mean” something. Our species is, essentially, predisposed to superstition, irrationality and rationalization. Which is where the fear-based reasoning that enshrines private property in law (and fences off yards, and locks doors) comes from. It isn’t rational, it isn’t necessary, and in terms of the evolution of civil society, it isn’t “natural” in the sense it has been argued to be for the last few hundred years. It is instead an invention of our superstitious, fearful, systematizing minds. That was my point.

Now, if your are asking if I participate in this delusion along with everyone else…well of course I do. Because that is currently how we have restricted freedoms in civil society to an immense degree: by cordoning off 99% of the world around us as “privately owned” and inaccessible to non-owners. People who do not respect these artificial, fear-based boundaries are considered to be “breaking the law,” and because those who willfully and knowingly “break the law” in this way generally have nefarious agendas in mind, it would be unwise not to conform to the societal standards as they have evolved — despite the ridiculousness of their underlying premise. In the same way, a nudist who believes wearing clothes is…well…just a silly convention that hides or attempts to shame the natural beauty of all human bodies will also wear clothes in public. We conform — to whatever degree we must — in order to survive.

This is how I reconcile the hypocrisy of many of my own behaviors that I fundamentally despise. I also allow people to pay me for the services I provide — I would prefer they didn’t, as I find it distasteful and undermining of relationship and trust — but there is currently no other means for me to reliably obtain food and shelter for my family. And yes, I have tried some alternatives, and admire planned communities that attempt to do the same, but we are so embedded in a commercialistic, capitalistic society that “stepping outside” of it fully is extremely difficult. In fact, the only folks I know who have done so with ongoing success have had to leave the U.S. altogether…and many of them are still struggling to live according to their principles without external support.

However, these de facto conditions of “private property oppression” are not immutable, and my hope is that more and more inquisitive and thoughtful folks will gradually wake up to the fact that these conditions need to change in order to maximize the promises of democracy and liberty. It’s why I have been working to promote Level 7 proposals. But we shall see….


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