Morality and the free market economy.

Author:Machan, Tibor R.
  1. Natural to Private Property Rights: Capitalism

    Does not natural rights theory in the liberal tradition include the right to private property--which is the foundation of a free market system? Presumably, then, if one has justified basic natural rights, one has already gone a long way toward justifying a free market economy. (2)

    But what I tried to do in the previous chapter was provide a merely formal justification of natural rights. Natural rights are those principles that provide one with the moral space in society--the sphere of individual authority or jurisdiction--within which one's authority to exercise moral agency is fully respected. Natural rights are the means by which an organized human community preserves a place for everyone to make decisions that may be right or wrong. But we need to spell out in more detail how a natural right to private property helps secure moral space for human beings in a social context.

    The natural right to private property is a specification of the natural right to one's life. If life were a purely supernatural and spiritual phenomenon, then private property rights might not be necessary--they might not have to be specified as a proper implementation of one's natural right to life. Property rights are necessary because human beings are complex natural beings who, in their efforts to make moral choices, must act in the natural world around them. The right to property is based on the recognition that in order to have moral space, individuals must have "room" in which to operate, a sphere of jurisdiction or personal authority in which to move about. Other persons must be able to learn the extent of this sphere, however narrow or wide-ranging it might be, so that they can take care not to intrude on the sovereignty of their fellows. And this sphere of personal authority can grow as one's conduct is successfully directed toward expanding it. Property rights secure one's authority to engage in this expansion--or, alternatively, to squander it. Property rights do not provide one with values one might wish to own, only with the authority to peacefully gain and own values. It is a common mistake to protest that property rights mean nothing to those who own nothing or very little. They do, since a regime of property rights enables them to fruitfully embark on obtaining, producing, and creating valued things for themselves; and since even while owning little, they benefit directly and indirectly from all the values protected and created in a society in which property rights are respected.

    The right to private property is not some separate or detached right but simply the explication of the right to life in more specific terms that apply explicitly to the natural world. One's choices, one's decisions to do this or that, take place in the natural world. Private property rights delimit the sphere of authority one has in this natural world. Historically, it was necessary to spell this out, since so much attention had been paid to the presumed spiritual realm, one in which ordinary concerns about mine and thine were irrelevant.

  2. Property beyond Material Objects

    What would be the implication of the view that to have a basic right to property must include the positive right to have goods and services provided for one by others? The enforcement of such a positive "right" would make others one's servants or slaves, whereas in fact others have the task of embarking upon a moral life of their own.

    What this means is that everyone has the right to act to secure the values that could make one's life a moral success. The property involved does not include only land or physical space. For example, if a poet or a computer programmer has created a product, it may be specifiable in terms of intellectual property. A sufficiently specific and new musical arrangement can constitute private property. So can a musical notation, a logo, a design, or anything that is of value to human beings. And moral success for a natural being such as human beings must involve making choices about various elements of nature, either "raw" or as refashioned by human hands--land, trees, fish, cattle, cars, mineral deposits, printing presses, electric generators, songs, novels, computer software, money, shares of corporate enterprises, and so forth.

    What we call private property can range from a slice of space-time (e.g., land) to something as complicated and elusive as a jingle. One may but need not give a purely physical or material specification of what the right to private property means in a particular case. A human being is indeed a complex being with his feet planted, so to speak, in physical reality first and foremost; everything else will relate to this fact of his feet being planted in physical reality. Thus, specifying a sphere of personal authority within nature is a very useful way to carve out his moral space in society.

    The right to private property, which secures for individuals the authority to set terms of trade, is the foundation of a market economy. A property holder has the authority to say, "This is mine; I have a say over what will happen to it, and others must ask my permission concerning their interaction with what is mine." The right to private property is a practical, potentially elaborate specification (once developed into property law) of one's general right to life, the right to life that derives from one's moral responsibility to make the most of one's human life and what the practical social requirements are of exercising this right. Life is a natural phenomenon, and the right to it requires expression applicable to living in the natural world--vis-a-vis natural processes, objects, concerns, aims, goals, needs, and wants. Having rights is natural as well, at least for a moral agent who requires the respect that others can provide in light of everyone's equal purpose to live a good human life.

  3. Misguided Criticism of Property Rights

    The most forceful if wrongheaded criticism of property rights has been that of Karl Marx. He raises a rather odd yet revelatory point against it in his famous essay On the Jewish Question, in which he writes that "the right of man to property, is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily without regard for other men, independently from society, the right of selfishness."

    This is a substantially correct explication of the right to private property as applied to natural living, living within the confines of natural reality. But it alludes to only some of the more bizarre ways of using private property. If one has the right to private property, as applied to, say, a pair of glasses, one certainly has the authority to take the glasses and break them--as it were, arbitrarily. And within a system of just government one would be protected from coercive interference if one chooses to do so. That is one of the con sequences of having the right to private property, namely that one is free to do with what one owns as one wishes (other than injuring others). If this is a person's property, that person could jump up and down on it, break it, and burn it, whatever. This, rather perversely, is what Marx is essentially focusing on in his remark. If we have a right to private property, we could dispose of what we own arbitrarily, for no good reason whatsoever. Obviously, people sometimes do that.

    But is this really a fair characterization of the general rationale for and impact of the right to private property? It is true that one of the necessary consequences of having rights is that one is free to do wrong things. For example, having the right to speak without coercive intrusion on one's speaking by some outside party--i.e., without being politically edited or muzzled--includes being able to say very bad or naughty things, yell profanities, write pornographic literature and yellow journalism, and all kinds of lamentable conduct. These are all protected if free speech rights are protected. The right to act often includes the right to act badly.

    But is it philosophically fair game when one focuses on the nature of rights to concentrate only on the most lamentable possible exercise of one's rights? Having the right to liberty means that one may be a (peacefully) vicious person. One is free to make a completely botched-up job of living, be a misfit, be a lazy, loathsome, intemperate, ungenerous, evil person. You can be someone who mis-spends his life. But this is not the only way to exercise a right.

  4. The Benign Function of Private Property Rights

    Human beings are not only capable of mis-spending their lives; they are also capable of spending it fruitfully, virtuously, creatively, and imaginatively. Marx evades this fact. His characterization of the implications of having the right to property is entirely lopsided, akin to claiming that all that follows from the right to freedom of the press is that there will be a good deal of pornography to read. What about the fact that having such rights also enables one to use one's possessions not arbitrarily but sensibly, carefully, prudently, and productively? Marx ignores the fact that the right to life, liberty, and property also protects the freedom to do well, to make good judgments and act on them.

    The central function of human rights is that they provide criteria for how we may protect ourselves--or how those to whom we have delegated this task may protect us--from the intrusions of people we want to stay away from. If Marx and his followers think no such people can be found, they are fooling themselves. But it is true, also, that such rights spell out the sphere of our liberty to selectively share our lives with others.

    If I use my glasses wisely but you prefer to break yours, I do not need to suffer from your foolishness and can benefit from my wisdom. Whereas if these rights are denied, if we do not have a sphere of personal authority, then your conduct within a common sphere of mutual...

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