Thursday, September 28, 2006

Liberal Theories of Property Part II

My first post on this topic discussed an excerpt from Charles Lindblom's book Politics and Markets.  The basic idea of a liberal theory of property is that property is necessary to, or at the least promotes, individual freedom.  Lindblom discussed one aspect of the connection between property and freedom, suggesting that absent private property we would not be free because we would be beholden to the government for resources needed to live our lives.  This point is similar to the one made by Charles Reich in the following passage from The New Property:

One of [the functions of property] is to draw a boundary between public and private power.  Property draws a circle around the activities of each private individual or organization . . . . Within, [the owner] is master, and the state must explain and justify any interference . . . .

Thus, property performs the function of maintaining independence, dignity and pluralism in society by creating zones within which the majority has to yield to the owner.  Whim, caprice, irrationality and “antisocial” activities are given the protection of law; the owner may do what all or most of his neighbors decry.  The Bill of Rights also serves this function, but while the Bill of Rights comes into play only at extraordinary moments of conflict or crisis, property affords day-to-day protection in the ordinary affairs of life.  Indeed, in the final analysis the Bill of Rights depends upon the existence of private property.  Political rights presuppose that individuals and private groups have the will and the means to act independently.  But so long as individuals are motivated largely by self-interest, their well-being must first be independent.

This is my favorite articulation of a liberal conception of property, and there is a lot here.  The first part of the passage highlights the importance of property in creating a zone of individual autonomy and privacy.  The last two sentences express a different idea, similar to that raised by Lindblom:  that if we are beholden to the government for our everyday wellbeing, then we cannot be politically free.  The point is a simple one:  if I am dependent on the mayor of my town for my food, I am not in a position to exercise any political freedom that I may nominally have.

Next up:  Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.

Ben Barros

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It may be enlightening to read Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, for perhaps the definitive supply-side economic view of capitalism, freedom, and wealth (and the property rights so encountered).

Posted by: Sam Gompers | Sep 29, 2006 8:54:17 AM

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