Friday, April 21, 2017

Further Comments on Private Property Society Theory

By Robert Wenzel

A number of comments have come into the post, The Private Property Society and the Outliers, and I will respond to them here to clarify my views on the nature of a Private Property Society.

First up is Perry Mason who writes:

One way to blow up an ethical or philosophical position is to blow up the easy case. David Gordon does this to great effect (see, for one example).

Here is an easy case. I live next to a person. He sells his land to Crazy Joe. Crazy Joe creates a "rule" that any trespasser will be killed. He puts up a sign.

I get to work building a fence between our properties, but while I am doing so, my 3 year old sneaks off goes on Crazy Joe's land. Crazy Joe puts a gun to my son's head.

If RW is right, I have no moral right to stop Crazy Joe. I have to watch my child be shot.

Of course, that would be a disgusting perversion of life and liberty. I have every right to go on Crazy Joe's land and stop his aggression.

So the philosophy fails an easy case.

To find something with better footing, I recommend readers explore (1) Rothbard, who as good posters above note, addressed proportionality, and (2) the Salamancan Scholastics, who justified private property as emanating from its ultimate protection of life. Consequently, where property imperils life unreasonably, property rights are circumscribed .
First off, I have never said anything about "rights," moral or otherwise, in my discussion of supporting  PPS. In fact, in more than one post, I have made clear that like Henry Hazlitt I do not believe in natural rights. See, for example, here.

People can hold their owns views on morality based on religion or whatever but this has nothing to do with PPS

My view is that a PPS is just the best way for society to generally grow and grow peacefully and offer the most freedom.

When Perry brings up the case of the 3-year old, he is what I call "Making an error of the specific over the general rule."

Under any system, you can draw out off-the-wall scenarios where a negative could happen. This is looking at a specific while ignoring the general. As I pointed out, people die in cars, people eat poison mushrooms. But the general rule is we allow cars and people picking mushrooms because it is understood that it is generally beneficial.

Likewise, a Private Property Society is better in the general than a situation where all kinds of new rules are introduced---that is new rules which by definition must be moving in the direction of government where laws overrule the freedom of property owners, such movement has created some of the most horrific killers ever on the planet.

I can think of no better basic foundation for society than, "I will leave you alone on your property, please leave me alone on mine."

In  Perry's off-the-wall "easy" scenario, he would first be irresponsible to allow his son to roam before a fence is built. That is very easy to see, Second, let's assume that Perry is irresponsible. This doesn't mean he can't plug Crazy Joe, this is easy to see. He would just have to deal with his initial irresponsibility and suffer the consequences. This is easy to see.

That said, since I do not believe objective proportionality can be determined, it wouldn't apply in a PPS. It is possible under my view of PPS that Perry could walk after killing Crazy Joe, since presumably, Perry would retain private sector representation and if Crazy Joe has representation after his death the representatives of the two sides would sit down and discuss punishment if any. Since Joe was crazy, maybe Perry would walk. If Joe had a will that called for enforcement of the death penalty against anyone that killed him, maybe Perry wouldn't walk for his irresponsibility.

But again this is a specific of Perry being irresponsible in the first place and Perry wanting to introduce some law based on this crazy specific to overturn the general rule to leave everyone alone on their own property.
Next up is Thane Eichenauer who writes;
I would think that Harry's neighbors would shun and boycott Harry and that he would sooner or later alter his rules.
Thane brings up a good point but PPS is not about "shunning" people so they conform, It is only about leaving people alone on their own damn property.

There is a natural shunning that goes on in society but that is only because you don't want to be around someone, not because you are in charge of changing the world so everyone conforms with your views.

If  Fox NFL color analyst Tony Siragusa walks into a bar, I am likely to walk out but it is not because I want to change him. It is only because I don't want to be around his type of behavior.

Changing people is work for missionaries, I am not the missionary type and it is not the responsibility of the general public to go around shunning people to attempt to change them.

I have no idea how shunning as a non-aggressive enforcement method got so much play in libertarian circles. Just leave people alone---unless you are a missionary.

Ad Libertati writes:
RW is pretty much alone in his view here. Even Rothbard viewed just punishment as requiring proportionality (Chapter 13 in "The Ethics of Liberty"). Anything beyond proportional punishment would be (in Rothbard's view) an act of aggression.
The idea of "proportionality" suggests some type of objective perspective.There is no such thing. Suppose someone destroys the only picture I have of my dead grandmother who was very important to me? Who but me could determine adequate punishment?

Suppose three men are intentionally hit by a car and all three end up with paralyzed right legs. One of the men is a couch potato, one is a young man that used to love to play pick-up basketball, the third is LeBron James.

Is there a right answer to "proportional punishment" for intentionally causing paralysis of a right leg?

It could very well be the young man who liked to play pick-up basketball lost the most. Maybe Lebron has enough money and was pretty much sick of playing and this gave him an excuse to stop. You can't measure proportionality objectively. It is not an objective fact.

Someone aggressing against another is kind of entering into an open contract where the victim should determine the cost since he was forcibly pushed into the "contract."

Now, admittedly, in many cases people are going to set rules on their property in a PPS that will include set punishments. Say, for example, some will subscribe to Jack's rules of property behaviour and punishment, while others might subscribe to Murray's s rules of property behavior and punishment.

The point is that individuals would be able to set up their own rules of behaviors and punishments and except for the very daring (the Marco Polos) people would stay out of areas where the rules aren't clear.

Ed Ucation writes:
There is a problem with your theory, Robert. If property owners can do whatever they want on their property, than they can certain post false signs. So a serial killer can post a "free beer" sign and then trap people in his dungeon when they enter his property looking for the free beer. And no one would be able to investigate, because he would not let anyone on his property. In fact, it is not at all clear how any sort of law enforcement would work in such a society.
Where the hell do you get the idea that people are just going to go unquestioned on to a property that says "free beer"?  Like I said in the comment above, unless you are a Marco Polo type you aren't going to go into areas where the private ruling body will be unclear. And don't think for a minute that every private ruling body wouldn't have a cellphone app that told you exactly what properties are covered by them.

PPS is not a society where there aren't protections against crazies. You stay out of bad areas, just like you do now. The only difference being that you will have real (private) backup, not fake government backup--and freedom to do what you want on your own property.
Warren writes:
I was in a discussion about food safety with a statist and mentioned that there would likely be insurance on both parties in a transaction and thus you could count on say a hot dog cart owner to be covered if he poisons you or at the very least you'll have some sort of coverage or perhaps the property owner where the cart is placed.

He, of course, took this to mean that every sale of a hot dog would be preceded by a filling out of paperwork and all the parties in the sale would have to sign.

So "what if there was no county health department" in his mind became a horrorshow where every sale of any food would take a huge amount of time.

This guy doesn't understand that folks work to reduce transaction costs and because of that it wouldn't take anymore time to buy a hotdog as it is now.
Warren' s comment is essentially correct but the idea that everyone is going to walk around with insurance for every possible transaction is a serious error. The hot dog stand could simply have some kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Or perhaps not, if it is on a property where it is known the owner wouldn't allow bad food. Etc.

Or someone may have a reputation for opening excellent restaurants (or hot dog stands).

There are millions of options that have nothing to do with insurance. When you present the insurance case to others their initial reaction is correct" "You want insurance for every possible transaction?"

Tying a private property society down with insurance is an error. It might occur in some cases inside a PPS for certain transactions but that would not be the driver and justification for PPS anymore than tampons would be, though you would be able to find both in a PPS.


 John Howard writes:
RW is setting up a false dichotomy: that there are no rules (except the single one he likes) or too many rules. He wants us all to observe his property rule but he doesn't want to observe our proportionate response rule (which, BTW, is based in property rights). By referring to his rule as a theoretical "society" he ignore that it is just a rule which he likes.
Well, I didn't say "there are no rules." I look around and there are all kinds of rules.

The only point I am making is that the most peaceful, most freedom oriented, most positive standard of living oriented society would be a PPS.

It is surely possible to make all kinds of laws beyond PPS but then you are taking freedom away from people on their own property. And there are plenty of people who are willing to do that for all kinds of reasons, religious, cultural, social justice etc.

The minute you move away from PPS you are starting to make a move down the road to serfdom.

"Leave me alone on my property and I will leave you alone on yours," just seems very sound to me, allowing people of all kinds to practice whatever they want on their own property. Why would you want to interfere with this with a rule machine of some sort overruling private property freedom that would eventually result in a lot of rules you don't like?

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of and Target Liberty. He also writes EPJ Daily Alert and is author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics, on LinkedIn and Facebook. The Robert Wenzel podcast is on  iphone and stitcher.


  1. Robert, in your version of a PPS how would disputes over property rights be resolved?

  2. Thanks again for an illuminating column, RW. Though some find the discussion of outlying eventualities tedious, and as you've pointed out, it's vital to keep their unlikelihood in mind at all times, it's also necessary to confront them head on, I think, and you've done that admirably.

    Slight typos noted:

    If Perry had a will that called for enforcement of the death penalty against anyone that killed him, maybe Perry wouldn't walk for his irresponsibility.

    ... accept for the very daring (the Marco Polos) people would stay out of areas where the rules aren't clear.

    " "You want insurance for every possible transaction?"

    That would be Joe's will? Except. Extra quote.

  3. One of the problems we all want to eliminate are the centers of power such as the Federal and State Governments in the US and throughout the world. Most of us will agree that the more localized the power center the more likely it can be controlled by the local population. Seems that RW's PPS is taking this to its extreme. No doubt there will be difficult issues to navigate but, "the most peaceful, most freedom oriented, most positive standard of living oriented society would be a PPS."

  4. RW asks me: "Why would you want to interfere with this [PPS] with a rule machine of some sort overruling private property freedom that would eventually result in a lot of rules you don't like?"

    But PPS is a rule machine which, unmodified, has results I do not like.

    RW makes the error of thinking that the punishment of private property violators is a PART of the private property rule. It is not. It is a separate rule - one which he is not crafting well. We can have a PPS which absolutely observes the rule of private property and yet leaves violation punishment to a separate rule.

    Remember what the PPS is: a rule that says we may not interfere with your use of your property. It isn't a rule for you to obey, but for the rest of us to obey.

    So your PPS lays down a rule for the rest of us to obey, and we, in turn, lay down a rule for you to obey: punishment will be according to some code, not your arbitrary whim. We do not get to arbitrarily decide what is your property and you do not get to arbitrarily decide what is our punishment. A proper Private Property Society is a bargain struck to mutual advantage - not a one-sided power granted by us to you. You may not agree with the punishment our code prescribes, but then we may not agree that the property is yours.

    RW seems to want us to agree to his declaration that some property is his and also to his declaration of its value to him (unprovable since value is subjective and the subjective is without evidence). Such flagrantly one-sided arbitrariness is absurd in human relations. We can not build a society by pretending that subjective whims are facts to be balanced in the scales of justice.

  5. Robert, I don't find your skepticism of the idea of proportionality to be persuasive. For instance, if someone destroys an object of great value to me, then a proportional punishment would be that I have the right to destroy an object of great value to them. If someone causes paralysis of my right leg, proportional punishment would be that I have the right to paralyze one of their legs (or have someone do this for me). If the other person didn't want to suffer these sanctions, he would be free to bargain with me for a monetary payment in lieu, which I could accept or reject.

    I would imagine local communities developing norms around issues like this.

  6. "The idea of "proportionality" suggests some type of objective perspective.There is no such thing. Suppose someone destroys the only picture I have of my dead grandmother who was very important to me? Who but me could determine adequate punishment?"

    Much of law is meant to counter disproportional responses. Lex talionis, an eye for an eye, was a restraint on disproportion. RW is correct that there is no "objective perspective", but he is wrong that, because he is the only one who knows the subjective impact of the lost photo, any response he makes is just. An important reason for courts is because many things are judgement calls, hence the need for judges. Judges need not represent a "state", but can be service providers in a free market. But I reject any notion that property rights are absolute. There will always be limits placed on the use of property, the best limits being contractual.