September 20, 2006
Liberal Theories of Property Part I
I'm working on a paper on liberal theories of property, i.e., those theories that link the protection of property to the preservation of individual liberty. As part of this project, I'll be posting a series of excerpts from various scholars' takes on the relationship between property and liberty. In future posts, I'll get to Charles Reich, Milton Friedman, and F.A. Hayek, but I thought I'd start with Charles Lindblom's Politics and Markets (1977). Lindblom is very much skeptical of markets and of private property, which makes the following observation all the more powerful:
One last perspective on liberty in market systems can be had in a view of a hypothetical national society without money and markets. Consider in such a system some characteristic problems in the allocation of housing to the population, for example. How to decide who gets what? Is every individual, regardless of age, to be allocated a room or some standard amount of floor space? Or is the allocation to depend on age and family structure? Is one’s allocated space to be near one’s place of employment, near one’s friends and relatives, within a mixed socioeconomic group or within a stratified one? Or suppose one wishes to make a trip. Who is to be entitled to transportation? For what reasons? How often? By air or bus? Suppose that one wishes to publish a book or pamphlet. Who is to be allowed to call on the services of editors, typesetters, distributors, and shipping services? Who is to be allowed to play the role of artist, musician, publicist, clergyman, union organizer, or party official?
All of these decisions, which the market leaves in the hands of individuals, must now be made by governmental authorities. Nothing we wish to do that requires expensive equipment, other resources, or help from others beyond the favors of family and friendship can be done without a request to and the cooperation of a government official. Call us free or not, in the absence of money and markets our way of living is transformed. For each of the decisions or results that we ourselves are accustomed to achieve through exchange – dozens of decisions in a single day for any one person – we must now ask for an official decision from a bureaucracy.
Talking about "money and markets" in this context is essentially the same thing about private property. Lindblom's hypothetical highlights a core aspect of the connection between property and freedom -- private property allows people to make decisions about their lives, especially those tied to the allocation of resources, independent of the government. I'll elaborate on this idea in a future post.
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I'm not sure I can accept even an academic example of society without money or markets, but one that remains subservient to unseen governmental forces doling out property rights. Those unseen government officials have to come from somewhere, have to have the power to enforce their actions. The effectiveness of governmental power usually comes from the ability to threaten the populace into capitulation, via an army, tax power or even incarceration. But if a society has neither money, nor market, nor property rights where is the motivation to accede to governmental authority? If one in effect has no freedom, one is not likely to view incarceration as an effective deterrent to disobedience. However, to the extent one accepts this gedanken experiment, it seems to me that the example given clearly shows that freedom = property, even though property may not = freedom. Property rights are manifest in the freedom of pure thought and the marriage of thought to action. Even where the players do have money and do have markets, restricting most other property rights or artificially constricting the market that does exist in essence curtails the freedom of choice manifested in that market.
Posted by: Sam Gompers | Sep 21, 2006 7:40:51 AM