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June 15, 2006

Comments

hilzoy- :) Enjoying this so far. I think there is a significant difference between a system where the rules are mutualy agreed upon and a system where the rules are an artifact of past agreements, but bind people who have not been consulted. But you were probably going to get to that.

Frank: yes; part of the answer to the question 'which rules?', I think has got to be some sort of explanation of how they come to bind us. Here I was just trying to get to that question, but ended up having to do all these preliminaries.

This is a fools discussion. Remember, we Republicans own everything. All three branches. Do you really think we are going to let it go now?

I like your thinking, hilzoy.

One comment - people who do mathematics often say they "discover" things, not create them. If math is not created, but found, it cannot be a human construct.

Perhaps math is tied to this one specific universe - or maybe it is multi-universal, and unlike rules governing property, there actually are foundational rules - rules with a privileged status.

If actions and consequences (cause and effect) are multi-universal, then math, too, applies everywhere equally.

Jake

On reflection, here's something I left out: I argued that in the state of nature, we do not get to assume that a system of unrestricted private property has to be our starting point. I probably should have added: we don't get to assume that in our present circumstances either. After all, it's not as though our present system of property is unrestricted (no taxes, no constraints on what I can own or sell or do with what I own, etc.) Nor is there any other reason that I can see to think that we have to assume a system of unrestricted private property as our baseline.

That's an interesting point, hilzoy, in that any system one is born into can't be completely voluntary. I disagree vehemently with my handful of anarchist friends, who dismiss our political process with the simplistic "Voting is violence" bumper-sticker. It is interesting to note, though, that there are no easy ways for someone in our country to completely opt out -- renounce citizenship, set up a floating delicatessen in international waters, and stop paying taxes, for example.

Jake: this is a very interesting philosophical question. Suppose for the sake of argument that the following things are true:

(1) we created basic mathematical concepts (e.g., numbers, the concept of addition, etc.) for our own purposes; and it would have been possible for us not to do so.

(2) given those concepts, at least some results in math are necessary (e.g., basic arithmetic) in all universes.

Should we say: (a) we created math, since we created the concepts, and without them, no mathematical conclusions could be stated, let alone justified? or (b) we discovered those truths, on the grounds that they are true in all possible universes whether we created the concepts or not?

I suspect that this turns on the answer to the question: suppose a universe in which there are no beings who employ mathematical concepts. Do we want to say (a) that numbers exist in that universe, on the grounds that if there were beings who employed mathematical concepts, they would necessarily reach certain conclusions about numbers, and thus in that universe those conclusions are true of numbers, which therefore exist? Or should we say (b) since there are no such beings, no one has constructed the concept of a number, and since numbers, unlike rocks, do not exist in the absence of people formulating claims about them, in that universe there are no numbers?

I was actually using 'human construction' to cover both cases, since in either case the existence of numbers depends on the formulation of mathematical concepts and the derivation of true claims using them. The difference is just that in the 'discovery' case, we take our having constructed it as giving us reason to talk about mathematical objects even in hypothetical worlds in which (hypothetically) there are no people using mathematical concepts (but we, who are doing the imagining, still do); whereas in the other, we do not, and thus say: if there are no number-users in this imaginary universe, there are no numbers.

I will, however, leave the philosophy of math aside for now; it's not my field.

If Mona takes the antelope you killed in the state of nature, can we say that she is wrong or that she is acting immorally?

Blar: I think so, but her immorality would not consist of stealing, but of selfishness or meanness or something.

Superb. I really, really liked this one.

IIRC, Nozick's (libertarians,conservatives) greatest vulnerability has been on the origin of property rights, and has had to rely on a reification of process and "rights" divorced from history or contingency.

"However, I think it's extremely unlikely that any answer according to which the government actually owns everything will turn out to be the right answer."

I am anticipating Rawls, and maybe will have to run to Will Wilkinson who has been attempting to reconcile Rawls and Nozick/Hayek.

I do think the "government" usually does own everything, but distinguish between "government" and "governed" less often than most. The ancient Egyptians were able to maintain a system considered reasonably just with Pharoah owning or controlling most resources, as far as we know; the Bourbons were eventually less successful.

I have thoughts about the degree to which "unjust" and inequitable distributions are still consensual, but they might be off-topic and controversial.

Forgive my ignorance, but what is this "in the state of nature" refer to?

Slarti: the state of nature is: the state we were in before there were any social rules or institutions. (Chimpanzees are in the state of nature.)

If Mona takes the antelope you killed in the state of nature, can we say that she is wrong or that she is acting immorally?
In a state of 'nature' one can probably say that there is no such thing as 'acting immorally.' That in turn raises the scary boogeyman of relativism.

'Morality' is all about 'mores' -- when you get down to brass tacks, our basis for saying she is wrong or immoral is our conception of property rights. Some form of those ideas go back a long, long time in human history, so there's a lot of traction for the basic idea that someone deserves to keep something if they worked to get it. But the details are terribly varied.

So, the implication here is that even (for example) chimpanzees don't have rules?

I'm kind of skeptical on this point.

Now, if you were to postulate the state of nature as a wholly artificial construct, I can take that as a given.

Thus: in the state of nature, there are no constitutional amendments, since constitutional amendments just cannot, by their nature, exist in the absence of a constitution and recognized amendment procedures. That's an easy case. I'm arguing the same about private property (as distinct from my having and guarding something, the way my cat guards a dead mouse. My cat does not own the mouse. Likewise, I do not own my antelope carcass in the absence of rules defining a system of property, nor does Mona "steal" it.

Oh, I think the concept of mine far predates things like written Constitutions and such.

Not trying to be nit-picky, here, just interested.

In the state of nature, I might have my antelope carcass under my (physical) control. I might guard it, or hide it, or make threatening noises at anyone who tries to take it. But I do not own it in the absence of the sorts of rules that define a system of private property.

As long as you guard it, hide it, or make threatening noises - and this works - you do own it.

The sorts of rules you're talking about that are performed by the State are to relieve us of this burden, and they do exactly the same thing on our behalf - that is to say, guard it (Police) and make threatening noises (Sirens, I guess ;-)).

The idea that Government defined ownership is somehow "real" and state-of-nature de-facto ownership is "not real" requires Government to be some sort of metaphysical force. Government enforced ownership has far more heft behind it in terms of force versus poor Hilzoy in the forest with the antelope, but that's the only difference.

But in the absence of the sorts of rules that define a system of private property, she is not a thief. She has taken my antelope away from me, but she has not stolen it.

Again, now this presumes that the immorality of theft only exists in when a Government exists to provide the moral rules by which you operate. That's pretty damn close to divine powers being dispensed to the State now.

Going a bit further, could not the concept of private property be considered to be state-condoned mine?

And since the state is us, it's pretty much a consensus on what mine means, exactly, and what happens to those who violate it.

So, the implication here is that even (for example) chimpanzees don't have rules?
The State Of Nature, as hilzoy seems to be referring to it, seems to be: "What you have the ability to do, you can do." Rules may evolve from that, especially in pack animals, but it's certainly fair to say that they are built on a baseline of Might Makes Right, rather than Absolute Property Rights or any other system of protected ownership.

Which are all just ways of introducing timewise-correlation into the rules, I'd say.

"(a) we created math, since we created the concepts, and without them, no mathematical conclusions could be stated, let alone justified? or (b) we discovered those truths, on the grounds that they are true in all possible universes whether we created the concepts or not?"

This is a good question and it sheds light on the trouble I have with your antelope example.

I would say that we discover mathematical principles or mathematical relationships between things. Yes math (as a method of describing certain relationships) is a human construct, but the relationships they describe exist independent of human description. Even if you want to say that math is really just a particularly useful tool used often used to describe certain relationships, the accurate description of underlying phenomena is very useful and involves at least as much discovery as contruct.

So back to the antelope. You seem to be saying that Mona can't be engaged in 'theft' because the antelope can't be 'property' in a state of nature. I'm not convinced that is true. Even in a state of nature you will tend to treat it much the way we treat property now. You will try to use it. You will try to protect its use from others. You will feel bad if it is forcibly taken from you. Could it not be that the social construct of "property" is an attempt to describe the interaction? Couldn't it be that Mona is engaged in theft and our legal construct is an attempt to describe it?

Slarti: leave aside the chimps and treat it as an artificial construct, devised for the purpose of separating those things that depend on social agreements from those that don't.

That said, I don't think chimps have rules, though maybe it depends what you mean by a rule. Consider an easier case. My cat Nils does not like it when you stroke him on his lower belly. If you do it, he hisses and (if that doesn't work) bites. Does he have a rule against people stroking him there? I don't think so, since (it seems to me) he can't formulate rules, or think of them as rules (even in the way in which, say, a three year old can. "She doesn't get to use my stuff!", as said by most three year olds, refers to a rule. My cat's hissing does not.)

Whether you think chimps are like children or vastly more complicated cats on this respect is a matter of primate psych. My sense is that they are more like cats -- unlike, say, dogs, who I think do recognize some rules as such. (I do not think that dogs that have been raised well are in the state of nature; they have a sort of society with us that includes e.g. rules about the non-availability of the dinner table as a resting place, but does not include rules about voting rights or intellectual property.)

Slarti,

Going a bit further, could not the concept of private property be considered to be state-condoned mine?

State-regulated mine, is the way I always conceived of it. And ask anyone living in anarchy how much fun that is to do by yourself...

Jeff Eaton,

but it's certainly fair to say that they are built on a baseline of Might Makes Right, rather than Absolute Property Rights or any other system of protected ownership.

Problem is, Might Makes Right can always beat Social Contract Property Rights. Ask a mugger!

"...in that any system one is born into can't be completely voluntary." ...Jeff Eaton

Hmmm... Are there non-consensual or implicit societies? Robinson Crusoe has no rights, but if both Mona and hilzoy both believe that who kills the antelope eats the antelope, does that shared belief create a rule, even tho no political relationship exists?

I am actually think of Kant's and Rawls problems with int'l justice, and the Bush administration's (can't I just use "Bushco"?)current position that terrorists are outside any system of justice.

I didn't see Slarti's comment before I posted (ahem, before I posted mine).

I think it raises an important issue which complements my comment.

Chimpanzees most definitely live within the bounds of social rules. Chimpanzee communities also have institutions.

Homo Sapien is FAR, FAR, FAR from the only species with social customs and rules.

Any system that starts with a requirement that given fair initial conditions and fair rules the outcomes are fair is both true and utterly irrelevant. The initial conditions aren't fair except under a might makes right system. No amount of fairness in the rules can ever produce a just outcome from unjust initial conditions unless the injustice of the initial conditions is recognized and allowed for in the rules. Conservatives (when they acknowledge this problem at all) tend to assume some kind of statute of limitations applying to the proceeds from theft, murder, genocide, slavery and so on. This seems a little sketchy to me, but something like it is required to deal with the initial conditions problem.

Eek! So many interesting comments!

Sebastian: I think there's a distinction between math and property rights here. Math depends on someone coming up with mathematical concepts, but once someone has those concepts, they can be applied to imaginary worlds with and without persons who have those concepts. If mathematical claims are true in worlds without number-users, that's because (a) given (some) mathematical concepts, there is a determinate answer to (some) mathematical questions; and (b) the application of those concepts does not depend on the actual existence, in the world in question, of people with those concepts.

Property is, I think, different. As regards (a), it remains to be seen whether there is a determinate answer to the question which system is best. (There might be some that are clearly unacceptable, but several others that would be OK.) In this case, we couldn't say 'X owns Y' in a given world without stipulating which of those several systems we were using. As regards (b): Again, I think property is unlike math in that it does require that people actually have adopted the rules for them to come into force. If so, then asking who 'really' owns what would be like asking who, in a group of chimps, is 'really' the President. You could use that concept metaphorically or loosely and say, it's the alpha male, but if you were being strict and literal, the answer would have to be: no chimp in a given pack is the President.

Construct it is. I think the example works far better if any context is removed.

Chimps are highly tribal. I can see that you might not think of tribal norms as rules, but if you've ever watched any sort of tribe/pack animal socialize, you'll realize that there are strictures on behavior. I think (but of course haven't an elegant proof at hand that I'll publish lat-)the primary difference between us and primitive tribal societies is a) we codify our rules, and b) said codification introduced (or, probably more correctly, is introducing) previously unrealized concepts of consistency across society and time.

This, by the way, is very similar to my tripping point with Rousseau: that his observations on how things got to be the way they are were based on a highly flawed (and, as it turned out, completely backward) picture of what went before.

Back to our regularly scheduled construct.

Bob,

...but if both Mona and hilzoy both believe that who kills the antelope eats the antelope, does that shared belief create a rule, even tho no political relationship exists?

The shared belief does indeed create a rule, and that in itself is a very simple form of "political" relationship. The difference between a modern state and Mona and Hilzoy is a matter of scale (two people with one rule vs. millions of people with thousands of rules.)

And togolosh: I think you're right that Nozick et al have a huge problem with the question: so what if the initial conditions aren't fair? And it would be nice if that were a hypothetical problem, far removed from our world, but alas no.

My point was just: they also have a different problem, namely a failure to justify their identification of 'historical principles' with 'a system of unrestricted property rights'.

State-regulated mine, is the way I always conceived of it

I think sanctioned was the word I was going for (but missed) but some combination of all of these would have been better.

On the subject of morality:

Jonas, you contend that Mona's taking of the antelope should be considered intrinsic "theft" otherwise this sets the state up as the ultimate arbiter of morality. Ergo viewing Government as Divinity.

However, what should we say of Hilzoy's murderous preceding act? Did the Antelope not of right possess his own life? Can we judge Hilzoy's act as anything other than intrinsic "murder"?

The history of all human civilization comes down to Might Makes Right Indeed, the history of life itself is one long lesson in Might Makes Right.

When discussing morality in situations like this it is important to recognize an overwhelming a priori exception: killing is not morally wrong when conducted by one species upon another.

Of course, most would argue that any killing of a homo sapien is wrong when carried out by any species.

A quite convenient caveat considering homo sapien is the dominant predator on earth.

Here's what I meant, basically.

There are some things we can do in the absence of any sorts of rules. We can throw things, or eat things, or hop up and down, or do any number of things.

There are other things that we cannot do in the absence of some set of rules. For instance, we cannot strike someone out in the absence of the rules of baseball. We can do things that resemble striking someone out. Slarti and I might, in some pre-baseball world, be messing around with a coconut and a stick, and he might throw the coconut at me three consecutive times, and I might swing the stick and miss each time. Then we might decide: OK, that's enough. But I would not have been struck out. I cannot, logically, be struck out in the absence of the rules of baseball.

We might say: strikes are a social construct. While any number of unhit thrown ball-like things might exist absent the rules of baseball, none of them would be strikes.

Likewise, I want to say, in the absence of rules governing property, no one owns anything. At best, they guard those things, and other people leave them alone.

Again, thanks all for the wealth of interesting and meaty comments. I don't think I'm 'arguing' any particular point here, just thinking-and-talking. A dangerous combination, to be sure.

I can see the points Slarti and company make about 'nature' providing examples of tribal and pack norms and rules. Things like who-gets-to-eat-the-best-parts are complex questions, even for a gang of wolves, and 'alpha male' requires the consent of the rest of the pack as much as it requires sharp teeth and fast legs.

When it comes to ownership, though, part of the problem also seems to be the 'initial state.' In that rules-free starting point, does everyone own a little parcel of something? Does no one own anything? At what point does the antelope transition from 'unowned' to 'owned'? When hilzoy kills it? When she singles it out as her target, thus claiming it? Or when she feels hunger?

What if Mona declares that all antelope are hers? hilzoy is welcome to go out and chase down an emu, but antelope are off limits. Is mona's claim legitimate? Or does she have to do some work to make it 'stick?'

This is, I think, one of the questions about property rights that I never hear addressed by libertarians. (This is not to say that they don't address it, I've just never heard it dealt with.) The idea is put forth that property rights are a 'fundamental,' and that people should be allowed to trade and give and receive things without interference. Treating private property as sacrosanct ignores the question of how the antelope (or the tract of land, or the patch of ocean, or the rain water, or the astroid) becomes private property.
At some point in time, however, it was necessary for all 'not-property' to become 'property.' The only way around this is to declare absolutely everything in the universe to be privately owned, without exception -- and divvying up that pie gets us back into questions of what-rules.

"If mathematical claims are true in worlds without number-users, that's because (a) given (some) mathematical concepts, there is a determinate answer to (some) mathematical questions; and (b) the application of those concepts does not depend on the actual existence, in the world in question, of people with those concepts."

True that (b) can't work in a social setting, but I don't think that necessarily means that we aren't 'discovering' things about social relationships.

If you want to say that 'property' is defined as the social rules we use to govern the interaction between mine and what other people want to do with what I see as mine, that is fine. But you are not accurately describing what libertarians are talking about when they talk about "property rights". A libertarian talking about property rights tends to suggest that the idea of mine is legitimate for some set of things. Property laws tend to regulate what that set of things is and how it interacts with other people's idea of theirs. So when you talk about property you are talking about property laws or customs. But "property rights" are about the idea of mine being a legitimate idea (at least for certain things).

hilzoy's "strikes" analogy, and manyoso's noting of the antelope's right to roam around free and unkilled, captured what I was trying to get at far better than the above ramblings. Thanks.

I think everyone is circling around the same point.

The initial conditions are such that whatever property system(s) evolve out of them will necessarily be rendered 'unjust' by applying the self-same rules to the initial conditions. Save anarchy of course.

A "Godel" theorem for property systems if you will ;) (heh, we ARE comparing mathematical systems to property systems)

Jonas: "The idea that Government defined ownership is somehow "real" and state-of-nature de-facto ownership is "not real" requires Government to be some sort of metaphysical force."

First, note that I did not say 'government-defined'. I said: defined by social rules. There's a difference.

Second, I do not think I am requiring the government or society to be some sort of 'metaphysical force'. (I'm not sure I understand what you mean here; apologies if I'm missing your point.) Consider the baseball analogy above: it implies that by creating a game, baseball, with determinate rules, we can create a whole bunch of things that did not exist before. Balls, strikes, sacrifice flies, bunts, stolen bases -- the list goes on and on. And that's without even getting to our amazing creation of the lateral pass, threats to someone's queen, etc., let alone such non-game creations as: sonnets, legal standing, valid nomination papers, marriages, handicapped parking spaces, the ability of music to resolve into a particular key, and so on and so forth.

Does this mean that we have awesome metaphysical powers? I don't think so. I think it just means that when you construct a set of rules or an institution, you can define roles and actions within that institution/set of rules/ etc that would not exist beforehand. I do not see why this is in any way controversial or strange or "metaphysical".

Manyoso,

Jonas, you contend that Mona's taking of the antelope should be considered intrinsic "theft" otherwise this sets the state up as the ultimate arbiter of morality. Ergo viewing Government as Divinity.

Only if you accept (as most do) that theft is immoral. If not, well, now we are in a big mess.

However, what should we say of Hilzoy's murderous preceding act? Did the Antelope not of right possess his own life? Can we judge Hilzoy's act as anything other than intrinsic "murder"?

Depends on any number of assumptions. Right to possess your own life? Well, that's one way to put it. Most of us humans recognize in each other the fact that we do want to preserve our own lives. Therefore we respect it through our morality - at a base level, I won't kill you if you won't kill me.

Note that a ignoring that compact forfeits the agreement - hence, self-defense is not murder.

Now, the antelope is incapable of understanding, and completely unconcerned by, our own moral agreements. The antelope isn't concerned with whether Mona or Hilzoy starve to death for lack of food in the brutal state-of-nature. We are to grant it unreciprocated rights, now? The antelope should be protected by the moral system we use to manage our relationships with each other? Nahhh...

Of course, most would argue that any killing of a homo sapien is wrong when carried out by any species.

Unfortunate, yes. Morally wrong? Absolutely not.

Seb: "If you want to say that 'property' is defined as the social rules we use to govern the interaction between mine and what other people want to do with what I see as mine, that is fine. But you are not accurately describing what libertarians are talking about when they talk about "property rights". A libertarian talking about property rights tends to suggest that the idea of mine is legitimate for some set of things. Property laws tend to regulate what that set of things is and how it interacts with other people's idea of theirs. So when you talk about property you are talking about property laws or customs. But "property rights" are about the idea of mine being a legitimate idea (at least for certain things)."

-- What I meant to say here was: (a) property is a social construct. You can ask what system is best/most just/whatever, and if libertarianism is right, then the answer will be: unrestricted (or: minimally restricted) property rights. Nothing I have said thus far rules out this possibility.

All I wanted to say was: there is no reason at all to assume that this answer should be a privileged default position when we ask what system of property rights to accept. There might be such a reason if we did, in fact, start out owning things, and any other system had to take the place of natural property rights. But we don't, and it doesn't.

Hmm, I agree that the state of nature (in social relationships) shouldn't always get a privileged position. But the problem you assert about social constructs exists for an any claim of 'rights' not just for claims of 'property rights'. In a state of nature there isn't any 'right' to not get killed by someone stronger than you. By your argument, 'murder' cannot exist in such a state, only 'killing'. I'm not totally sure I agree with that. I agree that we have refined a number of laws to describe what murder is, but I'm not sure I agree that if Mona killed you to get the antelope that I would agree that wasn't murder.

The antelope should be protected by the moral system we use to manage our relationships with each other? Nahhh...

and yet, that's one of the two big reasons people become vegetarians: either for health reasons; or because it's immoral to kill animals.

In a state of nature there isn't any 'right' to not get killed by someone stronger than you. By your argument, 'murder' cannot exist in such a state, only 'killing'.
I would say that's true. I think the problem here is not that we define murder and treat it more harshly than just 'killing.' Rather, the problem is that some people pick and choose which rules and rights (and, in particular, their take on those rules and rights) get treated as the 'absolute baseline.' The real point of hilzoy's post, I think, is not to disregard those rules or rights but to say, "Those are fine ideas you've got, but you're going to have to support them and convince other people in the same way that other ideas have to be supported. Simply asserting that your preferred model is nature's default doesn't cut it."

Jonas,

"Only if you accept (as most do) that theft is immoral. If not, well, now we are in a big mess."

Of course, I accept theft as immoral. It does not follow that I accept that a platonic ideal of "theft" actually exists irrespective of the mind of a social animal.

Depends on any number of assumptions. Right to possess your own life? Well, that's one way to put it.

Indeed. Look at the actual language we ordinarily use. One speaks of his or her OWN life as opposed to the life of another.

"Most of us humans recognize in each other the fact that we do want to preserve our own lives."

Indeed. In fact, most recognize in all life forms the basic fact that life strives to exist.

"Therefore we respect it through our morality - at a base level, I won't kill you if you won't kill me."

Which is exactly equivalent to all tribal/pack animals. Of course, exceptions occur. The young one trying to usurp the throne of the alpha male. Petty grievances. War...

"Now, the antelope is incapable of understanding, and completely unconcerned by, our own moral agreements. The antelope isn't concerned with whether Mona or Hilzoy starve to death for lack of food in the brutal state-of-nature."

Not sure what you are getting at here. Of course, the antelope does not concern itself, day to day, whether Hilzoy is getting enough food to live. Neither does Hilzoy concern herself, day to day, whether Mona, or any number of other animals, are getting enough food to live.

"We are to grant it unreciprocated rights, now? The antelope should be protected by the moral system we use to manage our relationships with each other? Nahhh..."

I don't understand. If murder is intrinsically immoral, as opposed to a construct that societies devise with numerous exceptions and caveats, then it follows that the antelope's acceptance of the moral order is in every way, irrelevant.

"Unfortunate, yes. Morally wrong? Absolutely not."

Oh? I can think of countless circumstances where humans are killed by large meat eating predators and the forementioned predator is subsequently described as 'murderous', 'evil', a 'devil', and all manner of morally stained appellations.

Hilzoy,

First, note that I did not say 'government-defined'. I said: defined by social rules. There's a difference.

Okay, I kinda agree. The degree to which private property is honored is defined by social rules, the acceptance of which vary widely from person to person.

Consider the baseball analogy above: it implies that by creating a game, baseball, with determinate rules, we can create a whole bunch of things that did not exist before. Balls, strikes, sacrifice flies, bunts, stolen bases -- the list goes on and on.

My argument is you didn't create anything but the rules. If no one follows them, or if everyone changes them when they perform the action of playing Baseball, the rules become meaningless.

I think it just means that when you construct a set of rules or an institution, you can define roles and actions within that institution/set of rules/ etc that would not exist beforehand. I do not see why this is in any way controversial or strange or "metaphysical".

Sure, but these rules only "exist" to the extent that people honor them. If you argue that the rules do exist outside of their practice, then it becomes "metaphysical."

Therefore, whether the ownership of the antelope is protected by a large and powerful state or your grunting and threats, it makes no difference. You "own" the antelope either way.

"Those are fine ideas you've got, but you're going to have to support them and convince other people in the same way that other ideas have to be supported. Simply asserting that your preferred model is nature's default doesn't cut it."

That is ok as an argument, but it needs to be understood that this is an argument against the idea of "rights" as commonly used in political discussions. It argues against "human rights" just as much as "property rights".

Nature's default is the set of NULL societal rules. The history of natural life far precedes the history of societies.

Does anyone seriously contest this?

That is ok as an argument, but it needs to be understood that this is an argument against the idea of "rights" as commonly used in political discussions. It argues against "human rights" just as much as "property rights".
Yeah, that's a point that I think is important and often overlooked. To use the chimp-tribe example that was mentioned earlier, do chimps behave as they do because they work out arrangements to keep things peaceful? Or do they behave that way because they have an abstract, platonic ideal of 'chimpanzee rights' that should not be violated?

Obviously, we can't get inside the mind of the chimp to see for sure. But I would suggest that the latter model is a relatively recent development in human history. I think it's arguably a much BETTER model for protecting people than approaches like 'enlightened self interest on the part of the king.' But it is always dangerous to pretend that the model one believes is best should be treated as nature's default.

Nature's default is the set of NULL societal rules. The history of natural life far precedes the history of societies.

Does anyone seriously contest this?

Hey, what the heck; I'll give it a shot.

Nature's default is NOT a null set of societal rules. It may have been that way at the beginning, but in the beginning there was no universe: things were very different. Even speaking in context of the Earth's existence, in the beginning things were very different. The time at which there were NO societal rules was many, many millions of years ago.

But, sure, we made it all up. Whether invented deliberately or inherited from the context into which homo sapiens came into being, our notion of morality and law is entirely artificial.

So I guess it all depends on what your definition of "is" is.

Great thread. I have nothing clever to say--just wanted to applaud and tell everyone else to keep it up. I have a moral right to intellectual entertainment.

Apologies if I'm persistently being Mr. Obvious, here. Just let me know.

Jeff: "The real point of hilzoy's post, I think, is not to disregard those rules or rights but to say, "Those are fine ideas you've got, but you're going to have to support them and convince other people in the same way that other ideas have to be supported. Simply asserting that your preferred model is nature's default doesn't cut it.""

This is, in fact, what I meant.

Seb: one difference between math and baseball, as I said somewhere, is that with math, once you get the basic concepts, some conclusions follow necessarily. There's room for saying, in a case like that, that those conclusions are true even when no one is actually using them, on the grounds that it's true that: [if someone were to use the basic concepts of arithmetic, then they would necessarily conclude that 1+1=2] These concepts can be applied in the absence of social practices; we just won't use them unless we define the relevant concepts.

Strikes in baseball, by contrast, don't exist without both: the concept and an actually existing practice. If I, from a baseball-playing universe, consider an imaginary country in which no one has thought up baseball, but two kids are playing with a stick and a ball, then it would be wrong of me to say: she struck him out -- even if she threw the ball three times, he swung each time and missed, and then they left the field.

Personally, I think that some moral concepts are more like math than like baseball, while others (including theft) are more like baseball, since they necessarily require the existence of an institution (property). The situation is complicated by the fact that while, if I drag you off and force you to clean my cave, I will be acting wrongly even if we haven't really thought up morality yet (just as, if I put my antelope skull next to yours, there will be two of them even if we haven't thought up numbers), I won't be culpable in the same way as I would if I dragged you off in this present world, since both my knowledge and my intent would necessarily be different.

(Compare: if I deliberately throw something very like a baseball at your head in the state of nature, I cannot possibly have the same intentions as I would if I threw a baseball at your head when you were up at bat in the World Series. Iw will be wrong for hurting you, but not for e.g. violating the rules, trying to knock you out of the game, etc., etc.)

I don't think beings can "be" without mathematical concepts. Just the act of being a single specific and possibly unique being imposes math, in the sense of classes of beings - there is "me" and then there is everyone else. In that sense, most mammals and many birds are math users. Somewhere between 3 and 5 is the limit for counting for the smarter birds, for example. People too. :)

I don't recall who said it first, but property rights probably do arise from "might makes right". First the might to kill the antelope, robbing it of it's life, then then might to hold the now dead antelope - or to steal it from another in the first place (or second - that is after the antelope first lost ITS property rights).

Then we have communal organization - orginally, and for primates, probably groups a lot like troupes of monkeys. Evolution in action would modify the might makes right rule to include the troupe, as the troupe is mightier than the individual. So you still have a mightiest, but you also include the less mighty because even the mightiest is still but one, and in one vs many, the one often loses.

I get this tickling intellectual sensation that says evolution and tribal influences play a role in how property is defined, even now.

Because even now, if you can't hold it, it ain't yours for long.

As for mathematical constructs, if cause and effect are features of all universes, then math is the same everywhere. Or so I think. I think that because cause and effect in an absolute reqt for this universe, and because it shows up in everything. Without it there is no learning, no change, no evolution, no entropy, no direction. No if-then constructs at all. Even in this universe, cause and effect are only probabilistically related. That is clearly true at the quantum level and at the human interaction level. Probability is more certain (really? :) at the macro physical level.

If might makes right underpins all property, then libertarians have squat to go on.

Jake

Oh, I get it. You all figure that if you talk enough about the social construction of mathematics, I'll just leap in and threadjack this whole conversation out from under you. Well, nope. Nuh-huh. Not gonna work. I'm going to remain pure and unsullied here and you. Can't. Make. Me!

manyoso,

Of course, I accept theft as immoral. It does not follow that I accept that a platonic ideal of "theft" actually exists irrespective of the mind of a social animal.

It's that platonic ideal I'm arguing against here. Apologies if I'm not making sense.

Of course, the antelope does not concern itself, day to day, whether Hilzoy is getting enough food to live. Neither does Hilzoy concern herself, day to day, whether Mona, or any number of other animals, are getting enough food to live.

Kinda true. We are both accepting that Mona is a thief when she takes Hilzoys antelope it is because if we killed an antelope, we'd rather someone not take it as well. I'm asking, if I respect the antelopes desire to live, what respect is the antelope showing me in return? None. Therefore calling killing the antelope murder is outside the construct of "respecting rights as social compact," and instead, as you put it, "a platonic ideal of rights."

I don't understand. If murder is intrinsically immoral, as opposed to a construct that societies devise with numerous exceptions and caveats, then it follows that the antelope's acceptance of the moral order is in every way, irrelevant.

I'm arguing against murder as objectively immoral: these are the depths I plunge to as a devil's advocate!

Jake,

I'd say that might makes right is the uncomfortable underpinning of nearly everything that humans do.

I would also say that the core of 'civilization' is everyone getting together and figuring out how 'collective might' can best prevent 'individual might' from going around cracking skulls and grabbing antelopes willy-nilly.

In that sense, most mammals and many birds are math users. Somewhere between 3 and 5 is the limit for counting for the smarter birds, for example

Animals can't count. They may be able to distinguish, say, between two of an object and three of an object, or between two chirp and three chirps, but they have no sense that there's something in common between "two objects" and "two chirps", or "two pears" and "two predators"; and they have no conception of a numeric sequence, no sense that one of something comes before two of something comes before three of something.

Playing Devil's Advocate:

Seb: one difference between math and baseball, as I said somewhere, is that with math, once you get the basic concepts, some conclusions follow necessarily. There's room for saying, in a case like that, that those conclusions are true even when no one is actually using them, on the grounds that it's true that: [if someone were to use the basic concepts of arithmetic, then they would necessarily conclude that 1+1=2] These concepts can be applied in the absence of social practices; we just won't use them unless we define the relevant concepts.

Is this true? Given the basic concepts of arithmetic, yes, 1+1=2... but baseball can be simulated very well with mathematical systems. Go pick up a copy of Major League Baseball 2k6 for the XBox 360.

Arithmetic is defined by it's rules just like baseball. Mathematical systems can be as varied as the human imagination. Consider Euclid's geometry as opposed to Riemann's. They depend upon a priori assumptions and rules just as much as other formal systems.

Strikes in baseball, by contrast, don't exist without both: the concept and an actually existing practice. If I, from a baseball-playing universe, consider an imaginary country in which no one has thought up baseball, but two kids are playing with a stick and a ball, then it would be wrong of me to say: she struck him out -- even if she threw the ball three times, he swung each time and missed, and then they left the field.

I don't think this is necessary. You are placing to much emphasis on colloquialism. Suppose an independent observer, familiar with baseball in your universe, were looking in on the two kids with a stick and a ball, not told beforehand that he was witnessing a different universe, that independent observer would likely conclude he were witnessing a game of baseball and the kid STRUCK OUT!

A german kid in gymnasium and an american kid in middle high school are both learning geometry even if they use entirely different words to describe the various theories. Similarly with alternative universe baseball playing kids.

hmmmm. I am not sure I agree, ken. There are many, many stories about crows and counting. They can count in a very real and practical sense.

3 hunters go into a barn, 2 come out. Crows stay out until the 3rd hunter comes out.

6 hunters go into a barn, 5 come out, crows go in, get shot. If that isn't counting, then what would YOU call it?

If I recall the story correctly, the hunters can come out one at a time and it doesn't change the outcome. It is not a "size of the groups' thing.

Jake

manyoso: I think that the observer who said the kid struck out would be wrong, since you can't strike out in the absence of the game of baseball, which is in turn constituted by its rules. The fact that we recognize those rules isn't enough; those playing have to know about them as well. The case is different with numbers: there can be, e.g., two rocks, even though rocks can't recognize anything at all.

While the issue of mine has been discussed, no one seems to have mentioned the issue of ours (other than indirectly, as for people born into a set of rules they may or may not have agreed with if given the option). Different groups will disagree on the scope of their social rules. A lion will confescate an antelope carcass from a cheetah, but will then follow the pride rules about feeding priorities. If Slarti and Mona agree that killing the antelope establishes ownership for them, but exclude hilzoy, are they acting in any kind of consistent manner? Certainly many of the great tragedies of history involve who is protected by the rules, rather than the rules themselves. Or perhaps that's just another category of rules?

Jonas,

I'm arguing against murder as objectively immoral: these are the depths I plunge to as a devil's advocate!

That is truly funny. I was also arguing against murder as intrinsically immoral. The concept of 'immorality' can not be divorced from the mind of a social animal.

I'm asking, if I respect the antelopes desire to live, what respect is the antelope showing me in return? None. Therefore calling killing the antelope murder is outside the construct of "respecting rights as social compact," and instead, as you put it, "a platonic ideal of rights."

Hmm, I think you go too far. Just because I believe morality is a social compact does not mean that the antelope, of necessity, has to "buy-in" to be secured by the compact. This is an unwarranted assumption that also fails in reality. Many moral people do not believe that people who've expressely violated the compact are therefore exempted from protection. Example: the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty.

I do not agree that 'property' is a social construct. I believe we create various social constructs, including 'government' and 'theft,' among others, to safeguard something that we would still understand to exist in any case.

Property arises when someone works at a thing. Because he has sacrificed time upon it, it becomes his own -- at least until he sells, trades, or gives it away. It's entirely natural that we would want this to be the case for all of the things we spend time on. We'd want that whether we lived with or without a government. We'd even want it if we lived alone and never once encountered another human being. (Perhaps some intelligent crows would steal our antelope or something?)

This is why property exists, why it's real and not a social construct.

Jason: I have worked on the earth. Is it therefore mine?

"Just because I believe morality is a social compact does not mean that the antelope, of necessity, has to "buy-in" to be secured by the compact."

If it did, that would be a quick and dirty argument showing that there's nothing wrong with abortion, or for that matter infanticide.

Hilzoy,

Reminds me of the Turing Test, but I wonder WHY you would:

1. Assume that the kids did not know the rules of baseball? It stands to reason, that if they are following the rules, as demonstrably observed, they might be aware of them. Couldn't the kids have 'created/discovered' the rules of baseball on their own?

2. Were the kids not aware of the rules, but nevertheless followed them anyway, would this not count? If it wouldn't count, then what do you make of the case of Ramanujan? His mathematical genius is not seriously questioned, and yet, he intuited much of his mathematics absent awareness of the formal proofs

Look at what Hardy said about him:

"The limitations of his knowledge were as startling as its profundity. Here was a man who could work out modular equations and theorems... to orders unheard of, whose mastery of continued fractions was... beyond that of any mathematician in the world, who had found for himself the functional equation of the Zeta function and the dominant terms of many of the most famous problems in the analytic theory of numbers; and yet he had never heard of a doubly periodic function or of Cauchy's theorem, and had indeed but the vaguest idea of what a function of a complex variable was..."

and

But in analytic number theory, a subject he is often associated with, I do not believe he actually knew that much. He certainly contributed little of significance that was not known already. And in a subject that relied so much on proof, a subject where intuition had a bad habit of coming unstuck, he produced much that was false."
"Property arises when someone works at a thing."

Tell that to Paris Hilton.

If you planted a garden on unowned, unimproved land, then yes.

Keep in mind that we are talking about the theoretical origin of property. In the time since then (and that 'time' may well be lost in the mists of the purely hypothetical), property owners have permitted you, through an implicit contract, to walk over their property. You most certainly have not left a trail of footprint-shaped patches of ownership in your wake.

(This leads directly into a discussion of Native American property rights that is, indeed, too awful to contemplate. Nozick mentions this subject too, suggesting, but not strongly if I recall, that ancient injustices can sometimes be too far gone to rectify.)

If Slarti and Mona agree that killing the antelope establishes ownership for them, but exclude hilzoy, are they acting in any kind of consistent manner?

Never happen. I'd keep it for myself. Or, since I'm a typical enabler of male hegemony, I'd give it to them and make them cook it for me. And get me a beer! They can eat what I cannot stuff into my gaping maw, and then kill me while I sleep.

Ok, that was completely unserious.

get this tickling intellectual sensation that says evolution and tribal influences play a role in how property is defined, even now.

Pfft. How about, politics? My tickling sensation has to do with why we assassinate our leaders, and with the neverending struggle for political dominance between Faction A and Faction B, and maybe whether it even matters what Faction A and Faction B are comprised of.

I'm going to remain pure and unsullied here and you. Can't. Make. Me!

Fine, we'll muddle along without you, and consider how number theory might have arisen in beings that weren't equipped with a reliable number of fingers and toes. Or why we'd have gotten so damned good at calculus and geometry if we didn't have this drive to be more efficient about killing each other. Ever notice how you get introduced to trajectories? A shell is fired from a cannon at an angle of X degrees above level and at a muzzle velocity of Y meters per second. Describe the trajectory to impact.

And of course they screw up by having the right answer be a parabola. Frigging high school calculus texts.

manyoso,

Hmm, I think you go too far. Just because I believe morality is a social compact does not mean that the antelope, of necessity, has to "buy-in" to be secured by the compact.

True, because actually you and I can form a social compact that "we will not kill antelopes because we think they are cute and that's mean" and presto! Antelopes are thereby secured, albeit through no fault or virtue of their own.

This is an unwarranted assumption that also fails in reality. Many moral people do not believe that people who've expressely violated the compact are therefore exempted from protection. Example: the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty.

I don't think the death penalty necessarily the expression of the violation of compact - I previously mentioned killing in self-defense, and I think that's the better analogue. Meanwhile, if you're against the death penalty, you're just taking the "you don't kill me, I won't kill you" compact very, very seriously - which I recommend heartily.

Property arises when someone works at a thing.

Oh no... the labor theory of value!

Oh no... italics be gone.


Property arises when someone works at a thing.

"Oh no... the labor theory of value!"

Bzzt. The labor theory of value is the belief that how hard someone works must (or should) determine the value of the product in the market. If I work twenty years to make a paperclip, I should be compensated for twenty years of (probably unskilled) labor. But if I discover the cure for cancer one morning while I'm shaving, I shouldn't be paid at all, since it wasn't very much work for me.

That's the labor theory of value. What I offer is Locke's theory of property, which is entirely different.

Jonas,

No, I mean that the people on death row have, presumably, violated the social compact and are now no longer subject to the societies protection. Isn't that the very definition of a death penalty? I was saying the Catholic Church believes even death row inmates should be afforded protection.

So, Jason, you're saying that until you've improved something, it's not property?

Interesting. Ok, say I have worked on something that's previously been unowned. How far down does my property go? How far up? Do I own stars that happen to pass overhead, and if so, for how long (and, I'm chuckling here, when?). Do I own, as hilzoy says, the water flowing across my property? All of it?

And, conversely, what if I fall ill, and my property reverts to its former unimproved state. Do I no longer own it?

Jason,

Ok, so you like Locke's theory. Doesn't mean his theory explains current society. If you insist that it does, then you have to explain Paris Hilton.

It has always been stressed to me that the "state of nature" is an ahistorical concept meant only to evoke "the state of no societal rules". For isntance, before international organizations existed, it was generally accepted that nation states are in a state of nature with each other or else only barely into the rudimentary stages of having international societal rules. It was invoked heavily by Hobbes in Leviathan, after which it got pretty heavy play all around in the philosophical world.

Jeff said: "I would also say that the core of 'civilization' is everyone getting together and figuring out how 'collective might' can best prevent 'individual might' from going around cracking skulls and grabbing antelopes willy-nilly."

This also happens to be the premise of Hobbes, and one I am pretty convinced on. For what it is worth, his attempt to justify initial property rights is that they come about through the "mixing of labor" with an object. However, this runs into a ton of problems (like the fact that, if mixing of labor is coherent at all, by picking up someone else's stuff and running off with it, I am mixing my labor with it).

I tend to side with hilzoy on this, myself. Property is a social construct that allows us to escape the headclubbing stage and move on to a society where I can recognize that you have a right to that antelope, not just a desire to keep it.

Also, counterxamples about mugging and whatnot only seem to me to draw attention to the fact that many individuals still exist in a state of nature. One of the best formulations of a groundwork for understanding criminal punishment relies on thinking of the criminal as having removed themselves from society by violating the contract. At this point, the society is merely protecting itself from an outside force. If the criminal reforms and earns back goodwill or if the violation is minor, the society may allow her to reintegrate, but that is at the discretion of the society. This, I believe, comes from Locke, but I could be off on that one.

(Note: It just occured from me that this creates an interesting cut against the adage that the death penalty is state sponsored murder, depending on whether murder is a construct only applicable between members in a specific society.)

Lastly, it doesn't necessarily follow that all rights must be dependant on any specific society. For instance, it makes sense to say that true blood communists do not forsake their individual property rights, but rather have none. On the other hand, there may be rights that are attributable to a person merely for being a human being, regardless of the societal structure in which they are enmeshed. A right to life, for instance, might follow here. I am not necessarily saying that this is the case, merely pointing out that it certainly seems reasonable to at least attempt to generate rights on the basis of what one is and not push all rights into the realm of social constructs.

I don't think Paris Hilton has an explanation, manyoso.

Jason,

What I offer is Locke's theory of property, which is entirely different.

My apologies. I look forward to seeing you defend it rigorously ;-)

manyoso,

No, I mean that the people on death row have, presumably, violated the social compact and are now no longer subject to the societies protection. Isn't that the very definition of a death penalty? I was saying the Catholic Church believes even death row inmates should be afforded protection.

Protection from being killed, yes. No one is arguing against the gigantic rights forfeiture that happens when one is sent to prison because they violated the contract, right?

If you insist that it does, then you have to explain Paris Hilton.

The Hilton family "improved" property by building hotels. They therefore owned it, and as is their right they gave it to their children. Again, there is no depth to which I won't sink to be devil's advocate...

P.S. Am I the only one that sees the italic problem I created?

Slartibartfast --

These are theoretical explanations; just as we do not ask ourselves "ok, so when did we actually _agree_ to the social contract?", so too we do not honestly believe that all property was created in the manner I describe. (I alluded to this in my first comment.)

As to owning the stars, no, you don't. You've done no actual work with them. For a good description of the limits of property, see this comment at Jim Henley's.

http://highclearing.com/index.php/archives/2006/06/05/5168#comment-10964

Ok, so you like Locke's theory. Doesn't mean his theory explains current society. If you insist that it does, then you have to explain Paris Hilton.

I don't even pretend to understand what this means, or why she presents a problem.

Jason,
As I mentioned above, really Hobbes' theory that Locke ganked. And I think Jonas gave the standard explanation the the Paris Hilton case brings.

She did not earn her property herself, so why should she get it? Becaus her parents did earn it through their work and they gifted it to her.

Jonas,

Ahh, but Locke's Theory insists that if you 'waste' or 'horde' your property that you must forfeit it. Again... PARIS HILTON! :)

As to owning the stars, no, you don't. You've done no actual work with them. For a good description of the limits of property, see this comment at Jim Henley's.
The 'stars' bit was only the most extreme example he cited. To put it in easier to digest terms, if I find a piece of entirely unowned land, and I start gardening on it and doing some spiffy landscaping, this model holds that it becomes mine. If, later, I someone else comes along and discovers that there is gold under the surface of my garden, and digs it up, have they stolen from me? They put the labor into obtaining the gold, even though I put the labor into building the garden that sits atop the gold.

And this doesn't even begin to touch on the wacky world of intellectual property, where everything is pure labor and one cannot steal actual substance, only 'opportunity to profit.'

Jason K: "Keep in mind that we are talking about the theoretical origin of property."

OK; is this supposed to have justificatory force? Also, any evidence that it did arise in this way?

I'm not wild about Locke's theory myself, for a variety of more or less familiar reasons. (And the question about 'the earth' was serious: for most plots of land one acquires, one has not 'mixed one's labor' with all of it -- every molecule. One gets some land along with the bits one has actually worked. How does one decide how much comes with the stuff one has actually worked? And why not say that I get the whole earth?)

More generally, though, Locke's positive argument for his theory of property was (imho) premissed on the existence of God. He did not think it was obvious that when you mix your labor with something, it becomes yours. What he did think was that it made no sense to think that God had put us on this earth, with all its abundance, but had left us with no legitimate means of appropriating it (e.g., of legitimately eating an apple without consulting everyone else on earth.) This being the case, there had to be some way of rightfully claiming things (if God was not to be malevolent or an idiot), and this was it.

It doesn't make nearly as much sense without the theistic backdrop, like the rest of Locke's political theory, much as I adore the rest of it.

Jonas: I saw the italics, and fixed them. For the record, Typepad Does Not Like It if you do: italics, blockquote, text, close italics, close blockquote; or in some other way fail to close tags in the reverse order of the way you opened them. It seems to fail to acknowledge the existence of italic tags under those circumstances.

Probably it'd have been better to refer to Locke from the beginning, not that I'm well-read in that area.

THAT said, though:

As to owning the stars, no, you don't. You've done no actual work with them.

Are you sure? I'm an avid astronomer, for the sake of this discussion. Sure, I've never touched a star, but you've never touched an idea.

Hilzoy,

Jonas: I saw the italics, and fixed them.

Thanks, I'm just clumsy today I guess.

Slarti,

Probably it'd have been better to refer to Locke from the beginning, not that I'm well-read in that area.

Me neither, clearly. So, who gets the antelope in Locke's formulation?*

*I hope it's me

The 'stars' bit was only the most extreme example he cited. To put it in easier to digest terms, if I find a piece of entirely unowned land, and I start gardening on it and doing some spiffy landscaping, this model holds that it becomes mine. If, later, I someone else comes along and discovers that there is gold under the surface of my garden, and digs it up, have they stolen from me? They put the labor into obtaining the gold, even though I put the labor into building the garden that sits atop the gold.

It's an interesting question. Not one that comes up very often, but interesting nonetheless.

In our present system, property deeds and property law in general describe what rights you have and do not have to your plot of land. Arguably, it was all the ambiguous cases like these that brought about their creation in the first place. In a state of nature, I freely admit I am not sure what I would do here. I don't think that this disproves the justification of why we have property.

Hilzoy: As an atheist, I am not bothered that Locke believed property to be a grant from God. I believe instead that it is a grant we make to ourselves, or rather, a grant that our past selves have made to our future selves. I've never written about this at length, nor seen it argued by others, but I think the justification holds: Each of us wants to be able to provide four ourselves at some future time. Property allows us to do so, by ensuring that tomorrow we will still have use of the same things that we have today.

In this sense, property facilitates the one thing that sets us apart from the animals, which is our ability to create and execute complex plans. Property, as an ethical directive, is rooted in what it means to be human. We therefore make institutions, like governments, to ensure that this directive is respected.

Slarti--

On owning stars, please take the trouble to copy and paste the link I offered above. There are entirely logical limits to what can be called property, and you're just barreling right past them if you think you can own the stars.

Slarti: the basics:

Let's figure out whether there are any limits to what kings can legitimately do. How? We weren't around when our forbears agreed to be ruled by them. But -- aha! -- if there are some things we couldn't have agreed to and then been bound by, then either our forbears didn't agree to them or they did and it's not binding.

God created us. Clearly He had something in mind. What could it have been? Well, we are free and able to reason, so that must have something to do with it. We get to use our freedom in reasonable ways. Do we get to do just anything? No. God didn't just give us our lives and our freedom free and clear; he gave them to us so that we could do his will. It's as though he invested them with us, and we are his financial agents: we get to use this stuff he has deposited with us for his purposes, but we do not get to do anything we want with it.

For instance: we can't kill ourselves. That would be throwing away God's gift; and that's inconsistent with our fiduciary obligation to Him. Also, we can't give away our freedom.

(More stuff, including property....)

So suppose we want to form a government. We can give it certain powers, in order to make our lives better and allow us to do more interesting stuff and spend less time fighting Mona off when she wants to steal our antelopes. But just as we cannot throw away our lives, since they are not ours to dispose of freely, being God's, so we cannot just sign away our freedom -- it's God's too. We can only give up certain freedoms in exchange for stuff we need -- greater freedoms in other areas, protection, etc.

(Because giving up some rights to gain others can be a way of getting good returns on the freedom God invested us with, but just giving it up in perpetuity, for nothing, is not. It's as though my financial advisor gave all my retirement money to the Hare Krishnas.)

So: if our forbears did agree to this, they had no right to, and it's invalid.

Thus, when some King, call him, oh, James II, goes beyond the limits that our forbears could have agreed to accept, we have a right to revolution.

See how easy?

Oh, I looked at the link, Jason. Read it right up.

It bore almost zero resemblance to your initial comment on this topic, but if the highclearing comment is what you meant to say, it's pretty silly to continue picking apart what you did say. Not being adversarial, here, but one of those things was emphatically not like the other.

So, is Intellectual Property property? Clearly it gives you some legal recourse, but so does having property rights.

For the record, Typepad Does Not Like It if you do: italics, blockquote, text, close italics, close blockquote..

Pedantic FYI: HTML is the offended party here, not Typepad.

We can give it certain powers, in order to make our lives better and allow us to do more interesting stuff and spend less time fighting Mona off when she wants to steal our antelopes.
Excellent summary, hilzoy. That said, I need to point out that the Great Antelope War makes me giggle every time someone posts, and it should appear as the basis for more discussions of philosophy and economics.

Oh, and one more thing:

you're just barreling right past them if you think you can own the stars

I have not ever said I could own stars, I just questioned how I could NOT claim to own them, given your initial formulation, which was:

Property arises when someone works at a thing. Because he has sacrificed time upon it, it becomes his own -- at least until he sells, trades, or gives it away.

Many of us (including me) found that notion to be logically unsound, and here we are.

Again, if this isn't what you meant to propose, we'll let it be.

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