Monday, February 25, 2013

How Property Creates Liberty

For the average libertarian, it borders on cliche to argue that property protects liberty. So why do we need Matt Zwolinski's latest argument?

Consider this part of the argument:

For Locke and Nozick, on the other hand, property rights are only justified if they benefit (or at least do not harm) each and every individual. Now, this probably seems like an extremely tough argumentative hurdle for the defender of property to clear. Could it really be the case that each and every individual is better off under a system of private property rights than he would have been without one? Consider the position of the poorest of working-class Americans today and ask what his situation would be like if nobody had ever appropriated anything. What would his life be like if he enjoyed the full bounty of the state of nature, but none of the results of the past appropriations which (in our world) have actually taken place? He could walk or work or live on any land he chose; he could draw gold or oil from the ground, hunt or harvest all the food he could find from the land, and draw all the fish he wished from the sea.

But how would he get to the oil, or the gold? Without a system of private property in place to protect and provide incentives for creative work, who would have built the tools for him to get it? Who, even, would have built the knife or the spear with which he might hunt or fish? Tools such as these require physical resources, time, and effort to create. And unless people can be relatively sure that others will not seize the fruit of their creative efforts, why should we expect them to invest these scarce goods? No property rights means no industry or trade, even in their crudest and most basic forms. And no industry or trade means, in the famous words used by Thomas Hobbes to describe the state of nature, “no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
 But wait -- in this argument, Zwolinski only argues that property creates wealth, not how it creates liberty. But if we understand liberty as the freedom of choice -- of the freedom of choices -- then it is property which has given us increasing liberty. One could argue that this is mere materialist freedom, but this is hardly the case. All of the things Zwolinski identifies create more and more time -- time more and more people can spend doing the things they want, including creating more art and literature, more games and toys, more technology. As a result, property gives us the freedom to do more and to have the time to do it. Those of us who live in countries that more or less have free markets are so wealthy that we can do pretty much what we want when we want. We are incredibly free, and incredibly spoiled by it. We sit around and invent things to worry about, we have it so good.

This would suggest that property not only protect liberty, but creates it. Property makes us more free -- more free over time. So free that, sometimes, we fail to recognize when governments begin (or continue) to infringe on those freedoms.

I have read many pieces that talk about how property is necessary for liberty, and how it protect liberty -- but I have yet to read how it actually creates liberty. This is perhaps an area that needs more investigation.
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