I find it easier as time passes to suppress the urge to giggle that naturally accompanies my reading of the oft-repeated claim that property is theft. The odd case of IP law that renders genetic sequences subject to copyright protection suggests to me that theft is the nearest description of ownership that might be applied. Similarly, I still recall with a crawling sense of disdain a (perhaps satirical) proposal I once heard while working one season at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to sublet a stretch of the park to a developer who would build an extensive waterslide from the rim down to the mighty Colorado. Privatizing pristine wilderness of special aesthetic or cultural value to crass commercial ends is a takings, a theft of sort against the interests of persons living and not yet born.
But ordinary property? The land my house sits on? The car I drive? The textiles I wear?
Congratulations to Jean Tirole, this year’s recipient of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. On my shelf is a copy of the textbook he and Drew Fudenberg wrote on Game Theory (titled, unassumingly, Game Theory). In it, they write of models that might be applied to notions of property as described by Enlightenment philosophers. Locke wrote as if ownership of the wild places of nature emerged through felicitous mutual cooperation, where men of like spirit pursued joint agreements to tame the wilderness and promote useful industry. Contrast this with Hobbes, who contrived a brutal state of nature, red in tooth and claw, where hapless primitives died early and painfully, enduring the din of a merciless God’s laughter. Between Locke’s Coordination Game and Hobbes’s Prisoner’s Dilemma is Rousseau’s Stag Hunt, whose organizing maxim lives on in Orwell’s Animal Farm: all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Whatever your game theoretic bent, if you squint your eyes hard enough, you can make the “property is theft” trope fit. A peaceful Lockean farmer still has to bar marauders and arsonists from his land to render it fertile, thus restricting their natural “liberty” to burn and pillage. However, given the choice between “property is theft” and “property is respect”, I have found respect to more comfortably fit each of the game theoretic models above. In Locke, property is supported by a widespread mutual respect, and the sovereign is there to recognize and enforce the terms of respect. In Hobbes, constituents are unable or unwilling to generate the rules of mutual respect, so the sovereign arises to provide that valuable service. In Marx, the direction of respect has been bloodied and perverted to flow in the wrong direction, to be restored by revolution.
What can we gain by thinking of the institutions of property as arising from the sentiment of respect rather than the crime of theft? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but it helps me a little easier to spot those specific instances where respect becomes corrupted or ignored. Staying off my lawn when I’m seeding it is a sign of respect for me, preventing folks from fleeing across my lawn when a fire rages across the street is also a measure of disrespect, this time on my part. This trope predisposes me to easily assign a hierarchy of wants, of justice to the ownership in a way that theft does not. Respect better matches the established order of law, better channels moral intuitions, and is better reflected in the folklore and received wisdom of the civilization. I don’t know if “property is respect” true or not, but it’s a lot more useful to me than “property is theft.”
You can’t spell “property” without “proper.”
[published without editorial review]