Property Rights

December 20, 2003

Whenever I read Ayn Rand I start thinking about what I really believe about rights. Rand considers rights to be absolutes, and the right to property is the key to exercising any other rights.

Well, I don't believe that rights are an absolute in the world, but that they are a description of our instincts about what to protect and what to respect, and an expression of a slew of rational ways to behave toward one another.

Property in particular is an interesting one. I think it was Locke, oft echoed by Rand's fans, who described property as springing from "mixing one's labor with the land". That is, applying one's human reason and effort to a piece of land generates a right to property in that land.

While I find this concept compelling, I have a strong feeling that a person simply cannot "own" a piece of nature. So what is it about property that makes sense to me?

The behaviorist in me has long thought of property as being a matter of conditioning—if I have been working the land and gearing up all my behavioral dispositions as appropriate for remaining on the land, being denied the right to stay with the land would be psychologically disruptive. Therefore I will almost instinctively defend the land I have labored on.

This conception of property covers many kinds of human activity. It even helps to understand those who claim a "right" to, say, keep their job. My job is my livelihood, and losing it would be (if I had worked at it for many years) psychologically disruptive, beyond merely the disappointment or depression of being judged no longer valuable, but stirring an instinct to defend the job itself. (I don't claim that a person does have a "right" to a job—employment is an endeavor involving many people with conflicting claims—but I can understand the motivation of such a claim and I want to keep it in the discussion.)

To get back to property in nature, I want to consider a thought experiment. This will involve an idealized, hypothetical scenario, where I want to imagine what we instinctively would protect and respect, as well as what we rationally should protect and respect.

Imagine several people stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean. On this island there is a single source of fresh water, though the people don't know it yet. They all set out in search of sustenance with equal fervor.

One person—let's call him Joe—stumbles across the spring. Joe digs down to get better access and scrounges around for vines, leaves, and hollow logs to build a makeshift well.

Now, does Joe own the water? Does he own the spring? Does he own the well?

Joe drinks his fill and runs to find some of the others. He offers to take them to the spring and operate the well in exchange for promises of future favors.

One of them gets upset at this and demands that Joe show him to the spring as a duty to one's fellow human being—he would die without that water! Joe backs down from the confrontation but is beginning to feel resentful.

Does Joe own the way to the spring?

Back at the spring, when Joe takes a break from the well, another person goes behind his back and starts operating it himself, even though Joe had asked to be the only one to operate the well he had constructed. They start shouting at each other, and Joe becomes more resentful.

Does Joe own the use of the well?

Here is how I have approached my answers to these questions: To begin with, I don't believe that a natural resource can be owned. Joe had no part in the genesis of the water or the spring. He may have mixed his labor with the spring in building the well, but that does not change the nature of the water and its genesis. So to the first question, Does Joe own the water? I answer, No.

But Joe did have full responsibility for several distinct acts incident on the spring. First he discovered the spring. Then he constructed the well. And finally he operated the well. These are all areas in which I wish to consider his property rights.

Discovery: Joe did not own the way to the spring, but he did own his knowledge of the way. Any other person could have gone off to search for the spring on his own. But no person had the right to demand that Joe show him the way.

Construction: Joe did not own the spring, but he did own the well that he had constructed. This is a more difficult point, because on the spring only one well could be constructed. Perhaps anyone could have constructed one, but Joe did it first; Joe does not own the right to build wells on that spring, but he does own that well.

Operation: Since Joe owns the well, and he built it with the intention of operating it, he also owns the use of the well. No other person has the right to use Joe's well without Joe's permission, even though Joe does not, as my first point, own the water which may only be accessed through his well. Furthermore, no one has the right to compel Joe to operate the well himself.

So I have described Joe's property rights, but I have also described a basis for challenging his claims in the answer to the first question. No one can rationally compel Joe to show them to the spring or to operate the well, and no one can use the well without Joe's permission. But, since Joe does not have any exclusive right to the water itself, and everyone else needs that water, then if Joe is found to be unreasonably preventing access to the water, the others have a right to remove him. Joe may be offered the choice to sell the well to the others or to remove the well himself, but ultimately the others may destroy the well in order to get access to the water.

I agree with Ayn Rand that the need of the others does not give them any claim on Joe's mind and his accomplishments. It does not give them the right to his discovery or his construction or his operation. But neither do his accomplishments give Joe the right to prevent the others from accessing the natural resource that they need. Any rational defense of property has to be deeply rooted in the former principle, but also has to account for the latter. §

Sampson Synergetics

Copyright 2003 by Justin T. Sampson