In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, “the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.””
Here, Jefferson is affirming the principle of individual rights, especially property rights. But don’t property rights sometimes stand in the way of justice? In any such cases, wouldn’t it be a moral imperative for government to violate property rights?
The purpose of this essay is to show that inalienable private property rights are a necessary condition of justice. That is, any violation of property rights implies injustice, to the extent of the violation. Please note that it is not the purpose of this essay to argue that property rights guarantee justice. Objectivism does not hold that property rights are a sufficient condition for justice, only a necessary condition. There is much injustice that can occur without violations of property rights. But no one, including the government, can rectify such injustices by violating property rights. Anyone attempting to do this is in the wrong, morally.
So, what is an inalienable property right? It is a principle specifying that no one else may take or otherwise use the thing a person has a right to, without that person’s permission. (All things properly called “rights” are inalienable–that is, they cannot morally be taken away; otherwise they are not “rights,” but grants of permission by someone else. Note also that one person’s rights can be waived by him, by the act of violating another person’s rights.)
A property right to a certain, distinct thing–call it “X”–is properly acquired by either 1) engaging in a productive process directly involving X, when it is not already owned by someone else, or 2) consensually trading things or services with another person for X, when that person owns X, or 3) receiving X as a gift from another person, when that person owns X. A “productive process” might be farming to produce food, building a home, building a factory, making shoes, writing software, providing services, like air conditioning repair, radio, television, movies, etc.
Property rights, enforced by the government, ensure that people are able to produce valuable things and support their lives, in light of the fact that such production requires the ability to use land and material goods. Property rights are fundamentally individual (“private”) because human judgment is fundamentally individual: an individual can plan his farm or home alone, and any team or group judgment only functions to the extent that there are individuals in the group who are effective in their individual judgment. (Team members do not develop direct contact between their minds and think as one, but must each think for himself and communicate those thoughts verbally with others.)
Now what is justice? An individual is “just” when he judges others objectively and strives to give other individuals as much value in trade (material and spiritual) as he gets from them. Justice means never demanding–as a right–what one hasn’t earned, nor giving others–as a moral duty–what they have not earned. (1) Justice, as a societal condition, means that most individuals typically act–and institutions are set up–so as to reward the sort of actions that promote human life/well-being, and punish the sort of actions that destroy human life.
The John/Wesley Scenario
Let’s say there are two men on a large island, with trees, rivers, animals, etc. One of them (John) exerts himself over an extended period of time to gather food, build himself a hut, farm crops, build a pen to hold animals, makes a cart to haul animals and crops, and generally remakes his immediate surroundings to sustain his life and improve his quality of life. To do all of this, John had to think and plan long-range, exerting a lot of effort and choosing his actions carefully.
The second man, Wesley, doesn’t want to exert the effort to think and plan. He does the minimum to eke out survival: he builds temporary shelters of palm leaves, gathers fruits, kills squirrels with rocks and eats them. He spent about an hour on making a couple of pointy sticks to serve as spears, and tying a rock to a stick to make a club.
Wesley sees what John has built and how well he’s doing and wants the same stuff John has. So, one day, while John is out fishing, Wesley goes to John’s farm and ransacks it: he kills the animals, uproots the crops, takes apart the hut and carts them all away to a hiding spot of his own. He sets up the hut, uses the cart, eats the crops and eats the animals he took from John’s pen.
When John comes back, he finds his farm effectively gone. All the benefits of his planning and thoughtful work are destroyed, and he has to start over again if he wants to enjoy them again. He goes to find Wesley, and, after a few days, he does. But he finds Wesley well armed and ready to defend what’s left of the loot. Rather than risk his life attempting to get his stuff back from a better-armed enemy, John decides to start again and work back up to the level of wealth he had before. But, again Wesley does the same thing, sacking his farm and reaping the benefits of John’s work. As this cycle repeats, John is made chronically poor and Wesley survives at his expense. If done often enough, or at certain times, John may even starve to death.
This kind of scenario shows why societal justice requires the enforcement of private property rights. Without such enforcement, it is easy for those who didn’t produce material wealth to grab it from those who did, damaging the producers and eliminating the incentive to produce beyond the bare minimum for survival. (Why produce lots of wealth when anyone can just take it?)
Socialism and this John/Wesley Scenario
Any socialist will tell you that this scenario is not what happens under socialism. If he is being forthright and honest, a (non-Marxian/non-mystical) socialist will tell you that there is a third alternative that does not allow John to keep everything he made to himself, but also doesn’t allow the horrible actions described of Wesley: Socialism, in the above scenario, would mean that John gets to keep some of the products that he makes, but that he must share any means of production he makes, with Wesley. Similarly, Wesley gets to keep some of the products that he makes, but must share any means of production he makes, with John. The rest of the products will be distributed between John and Wesley, according to their needs. (2)
So, under socialism, John would have to share his farmland, animals, seeds, farming tools and the cart with Wesley. But if John must share his means of production with Wesley, regardless of what Wesley does with them, then Wesley will have little incentive to use them wisely and responsibly: he will feel he can always rely on John to replenish his portion of seeds if he (Wesley) wastes them, or to fix the cart if he breaks it. John meanwhile, will find that, however well he plans and however efficiently he works, he is greatly burdened and hindered by having to share with Wesley. Wesley’s need for more resources in the wake of his screw-ups can always undo John’s hard work and carefully laid plans. “Why work and plan if it’s just going to be disrupted by Wesley’s needs most of the time, anyway,” thinks John. Thus, John finds himself losing the motivation to be responsible, careful and efficient in production.
This situation is manifestly unjust since a productive and responsible person (John) will be punished for an irresponsible and unproductive person’s failures. This chronic injustice, and the consequent loss of motivation, is one reason why socialism, in real life, inevitably involves pervasive government control of people’s economic lives: In order to get people to work productively at all, when they have lost the self-interested incentives of private property, the government finds that it must assign them places in the workforce and force them to work on pain of imprisonment, exile, or the withholding of rations. The “carrot” of the promise of a better life for oneself is largely replaced with the “stick” of government threats, and the dictatorial leadership is empowered to impose privations and sacrifices by force on everyone else. Soviet Russia, North Korea, Cuba, the Communist China of the 1970s, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia are prime examples of this. (Note that the mass murders by Pol Pot’s regime were motivated by egalitarianism.)
Welfare and the John/Wesley Scenario
Of course, included in any socialist system–and in many modern, non-socialist ones–is the forced transfer of property from person to person, commonly known as welfare. This transfer is not limited to the means of production, but generally involves the products themselves. (Of course, in a modern, societal context, this is done through the forced transfer of money.)
So, if welfare were implemented between John and Wesley, John would be forced–on threat of imprisonment–to give some of his meat and harvested crops to Wesley, when Wesley meets some standard of “neediness.” (And “neediness,” for the sake of welfare, is judged according to what the person doesn’t have and has failed to acquire or produce.)
So there are two basic possibilities for why a person might be poor (and “needy”) in a society of private property: 1) He has been irrational, lazy, and/or irresponsible in making choices. 2) He has had something happen that has made him unable to produce wealth, through no fault of his own.
Situation 1 is the one described of Wesley, above. In this case, welfare is unjust, both because it rewards Wesley for being irrational and lazy, and because it punishes John for being responsible and producing wealth.
In the case of Situation 2, welfare is still unjust, not because it rewards the “needy” person, but because it still punishes John for being responsible and producing wealth.
(Now, if John has good reason to value the “needy” person in Situation 2, and wants to donate to him, then this is not unjust, because this is not a punishment of John–whether by himself or anyone else: He is furthering his own rational values–and hence, his own life–with his earnings.)
What About Unearned Wealth?
So, I have covered all the cases in which someone has produced wealth and shown how a violation of his property rights is unjust. But one might still ask about the cases where a particular person did not produce the wealth he holds as property, but receives it from others. What about gifts, lottery winnings, inheritances and the like? Can the forced transfer of this wealth to the “needy” produce justice?
It should at least be clear by now that the transfer of this wealth to people in Situation 1 (the lazy, irrational and irresponsible) would not be just, since it is again rewarding this immoral behavior.
But what about the case where one person is in Situation 2 (rational and diligent, but unfortunate) and another person has wealth that he did not produce? Now, is it just to take the wealth from the second person and give it to the first? Well, assuming the possessor of the wealth truly did nothing to earn it, then the injustice of forced expropriation would not be against the possessor, but against the person(s) who produced it and gave it to him. Justice requires allowing the person who produced the wealth to use it to promote his values, (so long as his values don’t involve coercing other people,) and forcibly taking the wealth from the beneficiary of the gift/winnings/inheritance means not allowing the producer to so use his wealth. (3)
So, in every case, the violation of property rights involves injustice. Violations of property rights prevent individuals from materially exercising justice with their property, instead substituting unjust punishment, to the extent of the violations. The respect for inalienable, individual property rights is in fact a precondition of justice. (Note that, if wealth was obtained by initiatory coercion or fraud, the possessor never had a right to the wealth as property. The victim(s) actually own it.)
The Baselessness of Collectivism as a Rebuttal
I see no reason why the conclusion of this analysis would be changed by adding a third, or a fourth, or a fifth person. But I suspect that some people will read this essay and dismiss it for only analyzing the interactions of two people, and not “a society.”
People who live close to one another, interact, trade, cooperate, etc., may damage each others’ health or property, whether intentionally or inadvertently. In a system of inalienable rights–including property rights–this is a proper basis for a lawsuit and/or governmental prosecution. (See: Laissez-Faire Capitalism Solves “The Tragedy of the Commons” and Deals With Negative Externalities: A Dialogue) People may also indirectly benefit from the activities of others nearby.
But such people, living in close proximity, do not gain a telepathic link, forming a collective mind, like the Borg in Star Trek. This collection of individuals does not become a super-organism with its own needs and interests, apart from the individuals involved.
Many who argue against inalienable individual rights seem to think that you can add interacting individuals together, one by one, and at some point some ineffable magic happens, and then you have “a society.” This “society” is not just a collection of interacting individuals, each with his own rights, but rather a super-organism that has separate rights against its individual members.
But, again, this is clearly absurd. Not only do proximate individuals not form a collective mind–not only do they have different levels of knowledge and disagree about tremendous numbers of things–but they are also not interdependent in any meaningful sense, (unless the government forces them into a sort of interdependence. See: What Interdependence Means and Why Society Isn’t Interdependent) Nor are all people an individual interacts with equally beneficial to his life, and some are positively harmful, (i.e. grossly irresponsible people, manipulators, con men, thieves, mentally or physically abusive spouses, etc.) (4)
So appeals to nebulous “others” and “society” as “needs” of individuals are no refutation to inalienable private property rights and the individualistic conception of justice. What individuals in a society need, first and foremost, is the consistent protection of their individual rights to life, liberty and property.
This is borne out by history and by comparative well-being in different countries: It was precisely when and where individual rights began to be consistently protected that human standards of living started their dramatic rise. In general, it is those countries today that most consistently protect private property rights (economic freedom) that are doing well and maintaining or improving standards of living. (5) (I recommend this video on the correlation between economic freedom and quality of life: Episode One: Economic Freedom & Quality of Life, and of course, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand.) We see that Communist countries, where property rights are systematically violated, have low standards of living even after they are industrialized.
Those who appeal to “society” as a counter to inalienable property rights also tend to replace genuine justice–individuals each getting whatever they earn and deserve–with “social justice”–equal parts of the collective super-organism, “society,” getting equal shares of “society’s products.” But my refutation of the “societal super-organism” refutes “social justice” as well: “Social justice” has no basis in a reality populated by individuals thinking independently, making different choices, exerting different levels of effort, producing different things, and obtaining different levels of benefits and harms from various other individuals.
(1) Note that there is an exception for minor children in relation to their parents or legal guardians. Because the child is a developing person, yet naturally dependent on the parent(s) as a result of the parent(s) own choices, they have a moral obligation, of their own making, to provide basic necessities for the child until he can take care of himself as an adult.
Also, “earning” means taking the sorts of actions, on a fundamental level, that promote one’s own life. The fundamental nature of life-promoting actions is most easily seen if one observes what sort of actions would be necessary to survive, long-term, if an individual were alone on Earth. This essentially means thinking rationally and consistently acting on that thought to produce valuable things and put oneself into situations that are conducive to long-term well-being. The specific actions one should take to do this (create valuable things–“earn”) will differ quite a lot between being alone and in a society, but the basic method is the same: rationality. The opposite of earning things is depending on others to sacrifice their time and effort for your survival, not generating anything of value to give them in return.
Note also that this view of what it means to earn something contrasts with the view of the philosopher John Rawls, in his book, A Theory of Justice. Rawls tries to apply the concept of “earning” to people’s inborn traits, to say that these are not earned, and therefore, nothing achieved by the exercise of these traits is earned. But everything we can possibly achieve involves the exercise of some inborn, “undeserved” trait. So this is a move that would make literally everything undeserved, and thus would destroy any concept of “earning” or “desert.” This would cause “justice” to lose all moral meaning, since it would have nothing to do with anything anyone chooses to do. See “Rawls and Desert” by Fernando Teson.
(2) Socialism, for Marx, is a phenomenon of the mystical super-organisms known as “classes.” Marx’s theories don’t seem to have any application for relations between two people.
(3) One might ask why the government can’t ensure justice for the owners of money by forcing them to spend it on things that are good for themselves. After all, people might be mistaken about what is good for them. The answer is that 1) The government is not really in a position to judge what specific choices are good for any individual, and 2) Even if the government did intensive research and came up with decisions that would be good if an individual chose them, the very fact that the individual’s decision is forced does long-term damage to him by harming his ability to judge what is good for himself on his own. This is discussed further in Objectivism Through Induction in the section on the evil of the initiation of force.
(4) Note that I most definitely do not exclude governments from the fundamental fact of human individuality. At any given time, a government is a definite set of individuals, put in a structured set of relationships to each other. Each of these individuals retains the ability to think for himself and does not merge into an anonymous collective, once he is an official.
(5) There are a lot of confounding factors that make international measurement difficult, such as different cultures, different levels of development, different ways violations of rights occur, etc. But the overall trend should be quite clear.
[Edited: 9-02-19: Added comment on Rawls to Footnote 1.]
On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same
Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought
How Business Executives and Investors Create Wealth and Earn Large Incomes
19th-Century Capitalism Didn’t Create Poverty, But Reduced It
How to Show That Taxation is Robbery
Great text. I am a non-objectivist libertarian and I agree with most of this content.
However, there are situations where violating property rights seem to be the correct action. E.g. I would temporarily steal a car in order to rush a near-death patient to the emergency room. What is the objectivist reply to these emergency situations?
Good question. I have written on this general point elsewhere, so I’ll quote what I’ve written, before directly responding: From Note 10 of The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes:
In the case of property rights, one may find it proper, in a genuine emergency, to violate property rights. This violation is necessitated by an immediate, physical threat to a very high value of one’s own. But, in such a case, one should, at the very least, be prepared to pay the civil consequences of the violation, when the emergency is over (monetary reparations for any damages suffered.) (If one’s violation is of a kind that will cause another person reasonable fear for his safety, then the violator should be prepared to risk being shot or beaten, and possibly to face criminal prosecution after the emergency. (This all assumes you’re not violating property rights to save the person whose property rights you’re violating.))
Emergencies are bad and destructive all around. If they are knowingly or irresponsibly precipitated by an individual’s actions, then those actions are definitely immoral (not in his long-term self-interest.)
Ayn Rand discusses the case of emergencies in the appropriately-named essay, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.
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