RE: Property Rights
Mon, 24 May 1999 12:20:52 -0700

Billy Brown, <>, writes:
> I have two simple questions for those who have expressed anti-property
> opinions on this thread.
> To those who have suggested that we should abandon private property, I ask
> what you propose to replace it with. We can't determine which alternative
> is superior unless we actually have two concrete ideas to compare.

I say there are situations where other methods than private property work best for organizing the use of resources.

For example, when two siblings share a bedroom, they often paint a line down the middle and say that each one owns one half of the room. However this can be inefficient, as in many cases there are common resources which can't be easily divided with geometric arrangements like this. It might be necessary to install a second closet and door in order for this to work. This is expensive and inefficient.

It is simpler to view most parts of the room as jointly owned by the siblings, and possibly by other members of the family as well. When someone uses more than his "fair share" of the resources, social pressure is applied to rectify the situation.

Another case is ownership of ants. Yes, we can say which ant is owned by each person, but it is hard to keep track of them. Sometimes when they meet and bump antennas, then separate, it's hard to tell which was which. Then when they go underground we have to send in our little robot ants so that we can follow them around and keep track of them. And of course uncontrolled and unplanned breeding raises the issue of who owns the offspring. Many thorny issues arise in this situation.

It is simpler not to view individual ants as owned or ownable.

Here on the extropians list, rather than having to pay for each posting, it is simpler to treat it as a commons, a communal resource. Anyone is free to post to the list and we all benefit from reading their words. Where abuse occurs, a combination of social pressure and, if necessary, technical means (address blocking, etc.) can deal with the situation.

In the case of air, I can own the air over my property. Unfortunately, it won't stay put. It keeps blowing around to be the air over someone else's property. This raises confusing issues about who owns the air. I can construct bubbles over my property to hold my air in, but this is expensive, and it is hard to get the closed ecology working.

It is simpler to treat air as a common resource which is not owned in this sense. Where problems of pollution arise, they can be dealt with either by regulation, by torts (suing the polluters), or by *abstract* markets in pollution rights. But it's just not efficient to have individual pieces of air owned by specific individuals.

> To those who have suggested that we should abandon any sort of property
> system, I have a more fundamental question. A system of property exists to
> answer the basic question "Who decides what will be done with any given
> resource?" If your answer is that each individual always decides what to do
> with the fruits of his own labor, you are on your way to a private property
> system. If you say that some other entity will always make the decision,
> you are on the road to collectivism. If you say that the answer depends on
> the situation, then you are exploring the middle ground of socialism.

I think you have tremendously oversimplified the situation here. Even if we agree that we should use property rights to dispose of the fruits of our labor, that would only refer to made objects. In fact, people often try to extend property beyond things which humans have created, such as the ants and air in my examples above.

Even in the context of human creations, it is often the case that property rights are not the most effient means of deciding what will be done with them. Families do not use property rights to make many of their resource allocation decisions, and neither do corporations, and neither do voluntary communities like our own. It could be done; we could pay for each posting, and every object in your home could be owned by a specific person. But we don't do that, because it is not efficient.