02 Jul 2013

Another False Victory Claimed Against A Priori Theory

Law, Libertarianism 25 Comments

Hans Hoppe (as well as many other living Rothbardians) argues that the purpose of property rights is to resolve disputes over scarce resources. (It is through this channel that Stephan Kinsella argues against the existence of legitimate “intellectual property” rights, since IP isn’t scarce.)

Gene Callahan doesn’t like Hoppe’s claim. Today he writes:

Of course, when property rights are agreed upon, there won’t be disputes — but that really says nothing more than where there is agreement, there is no dispute!

But property rights are often the very source of disputes. Reading Bailyn’s account of the English settlement of Massachusetts drives that point home with great force. In understanding the human world, history trumps theory! [Bold added.]

Yet hold on a second. Bailyn’s account of the English settlement of Massachusetts contributes absolutely nothing to Gene’s point. Hoppe (and Kinsella) obviously doesn’t think the world is free from disagreements over the use of scarce items.

In fact, I’m sure that Gene would agree with me, since on June 14, 2011, he wrote a whole blog post criticizing Hoppe’s position, relying purely on a Socratic dialog. No specific historical experience necessary; Gene’s point (whether you think it silly or brilliant) is obvious enough once it is mentioned.

25 Responses to “Another False Victory Claimed Against A Priori Theory”

  1. Major_Freedom says:

    “In understanding the human world, history trumps theory!”

    Perhaps Callahan is at a point in his intellectual “development” where he no longer even recognizes self-contradictory statements when he utters them.

    He should read both Mises and Hoppe’s debunking of historicism as a refutation of rationalism (a priorism).

  2. guest says:

    It may be that there are actually two different issues to distinguish, here:

    1) The purpose of property rights, and

    2) The legitimate means of attaining property.

    Does Crusoe own property? Of course; And this is absent any conflict.

    The reason this distinction matters is because, in order to make the case for property rights based on individual liberty, you have to be able to show that property rights exist prior to society; that they derive from self-ownership.

    Anticipating an objection: While it wouldn’t matter unless other people were around, what if someone comes into contact with Crusoe’s property? How would he know what property he was free to homestead?

    Crusoe’s act of homesteading came BEFORE this new arrangement; Who has the right to work the land that Crusoe had previously worked? Is it Crusoe because property is prior to society, or is it the newcomer because property requires society and the newcomer worked that land after society began?

    Aside: You’ll notice that Robert Wenzel begins his defense of property rights from the paradigm of an already existent society. This is why we can’t break him of his pro-IP stance. He doesn’t yet see property as deriving ultimately from the individual. It’s BECAUSE I own the thoughts in my head that he can’t have IP over them.

    • guest says:

      “It’s BECAUSE I own the thoughts in my head …”

      I’m going to regret phrasing it like that, I just know it.

      • Ken B says:

        “It’s because I OWN the thoughts in my head …” that we can levy a property tax!

        • Tel says:

          It’s not a property tax, it is a fee for protection, just in case something bad might happen to that head, and all your property spills out.

          Ask Mosler and his henchman with a nine. Ya need protection, buddy.

    • Tel says:

      That’s not a meaningful example, because “society” in that form is as old as (or maybe older than) humanity (depending on your beliefs about early humans). At any rate we have evidence that humans normally lived in groups (not alone like Crusoe) as far back as we can reliably figure out what humans did at all.

      From this we can pretty safely presume there have always been disputes in one way or another. There have been some rather old weapons discovered, suggesting that those disputes got settled too.

      I might point out that all property rights are fundamentally rights of exclusion. If I own a piece of land, this implies an ability to exclude other people from that land. Similarly “Intellectual Property” gives certain people the right to exclude other people from use of some idea or piece of work. Thus, Crusoe has no one to exclude from anything, no one else is around, so property rights do not really exist in that situation. I guess you could argue that the remote island creates a natural exclusion barrier thus becoming Crusoe’s property in that way, but this only applies until some pirates land on the same island and then Crusoe’s property rights immediately extinguish.

      • guest says:

        I might point out that all property rights are fundamentally rights of exclusion.

        I disagree, on the basis that property derives from self-ownership.

        My labor may not be forcefully commandeered for another’s purposes, and so those resources which I transform become my property.

        The right of exclusion is derived from ownership, but ownership does not reduce to the right of exclusion since my labor can be used to transform resources whether or not anyone else is around.

        So property and property rights exist independent of society; They are not primarily for conflict resolution.

        Property rights only mean anything when other people are involved, but they derive from individual liberty.

        If you knew that you would never meet another person, you would still know that IF you did, you would have property rights in some things and not others.

        You don’t need a society to understand property rights.

  3. Jonathan Finegold says:

    In order for Callahan’s argument to be valid, there has to be such a thing as *the* property right (where property laws are immutable). It’s almost an equilibrium argument, where “perfect” property rights resolve all disputes. In this world, where the equilibrium reflects reality, any evidence of dispute would falsify the claim that property rights revolve disputes. But, the real world doesn’t reflect the model. Rather, property rights are formed in response to conflict. The establishment of a property right is a Cosean solution, and we know that Cosean solutions vary with each case.

    • Matt Tanous says:

      No, his argument only makes sense if we say that property rights are not only immutable, but inviolable. Once we say that, even given a natural property right according to homesteading based on natural law theory, a person’s rights can be violated (even systematically) by other individuals, we see that the fact that there are still disputes means nothing really.

      “The establishment of a property right is a Cosean solution”

      On the contrary, the Cosean “solution” is to deny property rights and simply perform a cost-benefit analysis (ignoring that this is actually impossible, as it requires interpersonal comparison of utility).

      • Jonathan Finegold says:

        The Cosean solution is a private solution. It’s the property holder that makes the cost-benefit analysis, and then decides to trade his property rights to solve a dispute. The only people, in a Cosean solution, who are making utility “measurements” are the property owners themselves. The legal system is used when there are no Cosean solutions.

  4. Ken P says:

    I will have to read the book. Companies buy lousy companies just to build their patent war chest. The way I understand it there is a state of mutually assured destruction in potential patent litigation among large tech companies. Meanwhile, startups have the potential of a patent landmine coming out of nowhere and destroying their existence.

    I think everyone should browse the patents in their field. It is amazing the number of patents that are so obvious an intern would have naturally thought of them. Definitely not scarce property in my estimation.

  5. Joseph Fetz says:

    I saw Gene’s post, and I was about to hop onto the same tack, but then I realized that his argument deals with rights, not property per se (which is a priori “property” due to scarcity, rivalry, and human action; only one actor can control any one good, and if not, then there is no need for “property” rights in such thing).

    Gene is dealing from the historical context, so he is not questioning the right from wrong in the modern context, but rather from the “truth” of that era. The problem that I have is that he often superimposes that “truth” upon the modern era as a proof.

    He rejects absolute property, and especially Hoppe’s conception of it, thus the argument would be a nonstarter (I am not going to convince him otherwise). I understand where he is coming from, but I still think it’s wrong.

    • Joseph Fetz says:

      I should add that while Gene says, “… property rights are often the very source of disputes”, I say that property is the source of all disputes, and that property rights are the way that we resolve them.

  6. The Narrator says:

    Property rights are neither sufficient nor necessary for conflict avoidance / resolution. GC is right about that. Only to the extent that people actually respect property rights (and to the extent that those rules are coherent / internally consistent), conflict is avoided / resolved. But the same holds for other (coherent) systems of rules, such as those of democracy: to the extent that people respect the rules that are the product of the democratic process (and to the extent that those rules are coherent / internally consistent) conflict is avoided / resolved as well.

    But I don’t understand GC’s point that this somehow is an example of history trumping theory. I mean, how is the statement that property rights are neither necessary nor sufficient for conflict avoidance / resolution any more historical rather than (a priori) theoretical than the statement that property rights are necessary and/or sufficient for conflict resolution / avoidance. I mean, I think the problem is more that those people who state that property rights are necessary and/or sufficient for conflict avoidance / resolution fail to understand that theirs is not an a priori claim.

  7. RPLong says:

    I would encourage anyone with an interest in theories about property rights to study the history of Bangladesh.

    I think one problem for libertarianism is that too many libertarians take the British view of property rights to be the only valid one from a natural rights perspective. What we discover when we study Bangladeshi history is that there are many viable, naturally occurring systems of property rights that emerge to cover the situations in which they emerge. When the British arrived in the Bangladeshi delta and put fences around everything, they eliminated the natural migratory patterns that the Bangladeshi people had developed to cope with the fact that the land literally shifts under their feet from year to year. The British system not only resulted in inferior use of land resources and increased private property conflicts, but also damaged the environment in unanticipated ways.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think private property rights are crucial to a functioning society. But the concept is much broader and more complex than the one system that emerged out of British colonialism. Jonathan Finegold Catalan wrote a really good blog post on property rights. I wanted to link to it, but my internet seems to be acting up. Everyone cruise over to his blog and search for “property rights.” 😉

  8. Ken B says:

    “Of course, when property rights are agreed upon, there won’t be disputes — but that really says nothing more than where there is agreement, there is no dispute!”

    I see property rights as a decision mechanism. So if you grant that ad arguendo Gene’s claim falls apart:

    “Of course, when the rules for settling disputes are agreed upon, there won’t be disputes — but that really says nothing more than where there is agreement, there is no dispute!”

    But what else can property rights be except a broad agreement to use certain standards to decide questions of exclusion, control, access, etc — all the perquisites of “ownership.”

    Gene also ignores the obvious point that facts matter. No disputes? Jarndyce v Jarndyce!

  9. Blackadder says:

    The Austrian claim that there economic theories are “a priori” strikes me as odd, particularly since they also claim they are derived from experience.

    • Joel Poindexter says:

      Which Austrian claims his theories are derived from experience?

    • skylien says:

      Well I am also still a bit struggling with all those synthetic, analytic, a priori and postiori stuff…

      Yet at least I found in google a quite helpful blogpost about it. Thanks Jonathan!


      • skylien says:

        I only realized now that this blog post was not from Jonathan but Mattheus von Gutenberg. Thanks to you then!

    • RPLong says:

      If I’m not mistaken, I think all this comes down to is the fact that the theory which explains the experience is logically prior, and thus a priori, even if it is not chronologically prior.

      I think this resolves the Mises-Rand epistemological dispute, because Rand correctly stated that one must observe something before one can create a theory about it, while Mises correctly indicated that regardless of the observation’s occurance, the theory is a priori because, after all, we can develop many valid and true theories in absence of direct observation (theoretical physics for example).

      I once wrote something for the LvMI-Canada on this topic, but I don’t want to link to it because it caused a huge controversy, and I don’t really want to revisit it. haha…

      • guest says:

        That’s very helpful. I agree.

        The alternative position is that the theory was not true UNTIL you observed it.

  10. Transformer says:

    “Hans Hoppe (as well as many other living Rothbardians) argues that the purpose of property rights is to resolve disputes over scarce resources”

    Presumably what he means is that property rights provide a framework by which any dispute could be resolved. If one rejects the framework provided by any particular set of property rights then one would likely reject the resolutions it advocates as well.

    Empirical evidence of disputes of property rights does not disprove the claim that “the purpose of property rights is to resolve disputes over scarce resources” but merely that some property rights don’t serve this purpose very well.

  11. Teqzilla says:

    The claim that property rights resolve disputes over scarce resources is obviously a normative appeal in their favour and not a description of their effect throughout history. If we want to resolve a dispute, to arrive at a just settlement, then we need a method to determine what a just settlement would be and that’s where rights come in. The argument is that property rights are necessary to resolve disputes over resources, not that their very existence as a concept exerts influence over human behaviour. This is all so obvious that I suspect Callahan is just having fun engaging in some chimpanzee like poop tossing.

  12. Oztrian says:

    Furcifer: Hey, Eugenius, I bought a car!
    Eugenius: Why, pray?
    Furcifer: To get from A to B.
    Eugenius: Excellent! Although I hear cars can break down.
    Furcifer: What? Oh no! You’re a genius, Eugenius! Why didn’t I consult you before wasting thousands of dollars? But … If it does break down, maybe I can get a good mechanic to look at it for me.
    Eugenius: Thus abandoning your plan to get from A to B! Now perhaps you can see that a car can also be a shelter from the rain, an encased entertainment system and a surprisingly comfortable place to sit!
    Furcifer: Thanks, Eugenius! I’m glad I bought my car again!

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