"Unfortunately, many — even on the left — will concede that property rights exist, and that the institution of property makes sense... I think this is the wrong move: the issue of property should be attacked head on for the incoherent mess that it is... You cannot justify ownership based on free exchange because ownership necessarily does not originate from free exchange: at some initial point, someone had to just grab some piece of land without exchanging with anybody. This is logically unavoidable."What Bruenig is pointing out here is hardly revelatory. He seems to think that he's spotted a flaw, but in reality he is merely working his way back to the starting point of Locke's principle of ownership. He is correct that it is logically unavoidable, which may explain why neither Locke nor any other thinker of note avoided it.
"Now, there are all sorts of efforts to explain how that initial appropriation can occur. Philosophers like John Locke, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick give famous accounts, and there is significant amounts of literature explaining just how spectacularly they all fail."So Bruenig drops the names of Locke, Rothbard and Nozick, but where I might find the 'significant amounts of literature' which disprove such thinkers remains a mystery. I shall charitably presume for the moment that Bruenig has sated himself on such wisdom. Perhaps he will provide the knowledge for his readers?
"But the easiest way to understand how original appropriation cannot be justified within a conservative/libertarian framework is by focusing on the idea of opportunity loss. When an individual declares perpetual ownership of some piece of unowned land, every other human being on earth suffers an opportunity loss: their opportunity to use that land has now disappeared. Opportunity losses are real economic harms.
To be concrete about this, consider an example. The piece of land down by the river is owned by no one; so everyone can use it. Sarah declares — on whatever property theory she prefers — that the piece of land by the river now belongs to her exclusively. But, wait a minute. The previous ability of others to use the land by the river has now vanished! They have been hit with opportunity losses. If one of the dispossessed were to say “this is silly, I do not consent to giving up my pre-existing opportunity to use the land down by the river,” Sarah uses violence (typically state violence) to keep the dispossessed out.Unless unanimous consent exists, the original grabbing up of property results in violent, non-consensual theft from others. It is really just that simple. What follows from that conclusion is that the conservative/libertarian positions that depend on the sanctity of property rights are totally bogus."
Okay, so now we have Bruenig's argument. Let's start with his conception of 'opportunity loss'.
"When an individual declares perpetual ownership of some piece of unowned land, every other human being on earth suffers an opportunity loss: their opportunity to use that land has now disappeared. Opportunity losses are real economic harms. "On the face of it, this is a ridiculous statement, which declares that it is wrong for anyone to do anything, because this will harm everyone else. Bruenig is talking about land, but the same principle could be applied to any other property. If I eat an apple, in doing so I deprive everyone else of eating that apple. If we accept this notion, let us not forget that I at least have benefited from eating the apple. Therefore, let Bruenig's cosmic ledger record on one side the benefit I received balanced against the sum of loss to the rest of mankind thus deprived, and suppose that these sums are equal.
Bruenig must realise that one apple cannot be divided between 7 billion people, and that any particular 'opportunity loss' which such an individual action imposes is infinitesimally small to any other individual. He must also accept that if such an action is forbidden due to the 'real economic harm' that it imposes on others, then we must all starve to death. I would suggest that any philosophical principle which leads to the annihilation of humanity should be rejected for that reason alone! Moving on...
"To be concrete about this, consider an example. The piece of land down by the river is owned by no one; so everyone can use it. Sarah declares — on whatever property theory she prefers — that the piece of land by the river now belongs to her exclusively. But, wait a minute. The previous ability of others to use the land by the river has now vanished! "Here we find how Bruenig has completely misunderstood the Lockean principle. His example does not address the principle at all. He states: "The piece of land down by the river is owned by no one; so everyone can use it." However the Lockean principle deals with land which neither owned nor used by anyone. Indeed it is the use of the land which confers ownership. If the land is already in use, say as common land, then its ownership has been thus established.
What Bruenig is failing to distinguish between is actual use and potential use. Indeed he is dishonestly, it seems, switching between these different states. He then hammers home his crooked nail with this statement:
"If one of the dispossessed were to say “this is silly, I do not consent to giving up my pre-existing opportunity to use the land down by the river,” Sarah uses violence (typically state violence) to keep the dispossessed out."If he is now describing someone who was a prior actual user, this is a fine example of self-refutation. He uses the term 'dispossessed' - dispossessed of what? A prior property right! In other words, the dispossessed person needs to assert the very principle Bruenig wishes to deny. If however Bruenig is describing not a prior actual user, but merely a potential user now excluded, we are back to the starvation scenario above. Therefore, if only on pragmatic grounds, property rights must be defended if we are to avoid extinction.
Having failed to refute Locke's argument, Bruenig's further deductions are hardly worthy of consideration, and it will be no surprise to learn what he prefers to put in its place, nor the language he uses to obscure the harsh reality of his position. He talks of a "democratic decision-making process about resource use ", which sounds so much nicer than collectivist tyranny.
If I wasn't losing interest at this point, I would start applying Bruenig's fallacious reasoning and dubious word definitions to his own position. If all property resolves to the collective, what about the 'opportunity cost' to the individual? Furthermore, how are we to ensure that the democratic decision-making process will represent everyone? If, in his example, the collective swings into action to prevent Sarah's land enclosure and reasserts the common ownership of that parcel of land, how can we be sure that those acting in the collective interest are properly consulting the 7 billion humans who have, apparently, just as much ownership in the piece of land as anyone else?
In closing I will mention 'the tragedy of the commons'. If Bruenig and his fan George Monbiot are truly concerned with the environment, they would park their ideological inanities for a moment and consider the pragmatic benefits of property rights. They should also bear in mind that if the totalitarian system they espouse were ever put in place, there is no guarantee that the dictators whose boots they dream of licking will share their particular vision of utopia.
Cross-posted at Libertarian Home