More Empirical Evidence for Property Rights Beliefs

In his most recent essay in the conversation, Daniel Klein continues our debate over the question of whether most contemporary liberals assume government “overlordship” of all property — that, in Daniel’s words, “everything is owned by the state.” In my view, outlined in my two previous contributions, most modern liberals don’t make any such assumption. They merely believe that private property rights can often be overridden in order to promote other values, such as equality or utility.

In response, Daniel cites a poll of economists asking whether they believe that “that the minimum wage law is coercive because it (along with concomitant enforcement) threatens physical aggression against people for engaging in certain voluntary, consensual acts.” Some 50.5% chose the response that “I give little to no weight to that definition of liberty; the minimum wage law is not coercive in any significant sense.”

This survey is at best only very weak evidence for Daniel’s point. As a tool for addressing the issue in dispute between us, it has several flaws. First, it does not ask respondents a question about property ownership. Rather, it asks about a restriction on contractual freedom, which is a distinct, even if related, issue. Second, one can in fact give the answer Daniel points to without believing that the state has ownership rights over either contractual freedom or property rights. Giving “little or no weight” to the “definition of liberty” outlined in Daniel’s question and believing that the coercion inflicted by the minimum wage is not “significant” is perfectly compatible with the view that these liberties belong to individuals rather than the state. The respondents might also believe that the restriction on liberty imposed by the minimum wage is minor in nature, and outweighed by other values.

In this context, it’s worth nothing that a large percentage of economists are utilitarian consequentialists, who judge all or most moral and policy issues based on utility maximization. To a utilitarian, it does not matter whether a given policy restricts liberty or is “coercive” except in so far as that reduces the sum total of happiness in society. Focusing on economists biases the sample towards utilitarians and away from believers in natural rights.

Finally, the question cited by Daniel is flawed in that its wording is long and complex and conflates several different issues. For example, respondents may be confused about whether the question is primarily focused on “liberty,” “coercion,” or both issues at once. As a general rule, survey researchers try to err on the side of asking questions that are as simple as possible, and clearly focus on just one issue. I think that I understand what Daniel was trying to get at with his question, having read it over carefully several times. But respondents who answered it quickly after only a casual reading might not have.

A better test of Daniel’s theory are the surveys cited in my initial response essay about the public’s reaction to Kelo v. City of New London, the 2005 decision where the Supreme Court ruled that government has the power to take property from one individual and transfer it to another for purposes of “economic development.” To a person who believes that “everything is owned by the state,” such a transfer should be morally unproblematic. Even if he or she regards it as bad policy, it should not inspire outrage. Yet recent surveys and numerous polls conducted in the immediate aftermath of Kelo, show that the overwhelming majority of both the general public and self-described “liberals” oppose such transfers, with many expressing great indignation about the Court’s decision.

Unlike Daniel’s survey question, the data on Kelo includes a representative sample of the general public — not just economists. And the results are based on simple and clear questions, with the outcome being robust to changes in survey wording. Even when the wording of the question is favorable to the pro-condemnation side, over 80% of the public still opposes economic development takings, with liberals differing little from the average.

Obviously, liberals who oppose Kelo are far from being libertarians. They still likely support numerous other restrictions on property rights and economic liberties, many of which I think are unjust and harmful. But they do not seem to believe that “everything is owned by the state.”

As I have noted previously, the “collectivist” view Daniel criticizes is a real position endorsed by a number of prominent legal scholars and political theorists. It is certainly worthy of sustained discussion and critique. But it is not the view held by the majority of modern liberals.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Daniel B. Klein introduces us to the idea of overlordship – the premise, implicit in modern social democracy, that the state is the ultimate owner of all property rights in society. Under this theory, the state provisionally delegates any rights that individuals may have, and it is free to revoke them as well. The social contract, to which we have all allegedly subscribed, gives warrant for these acts, or so we are told.

    Though his formulation may seem quite harsh – “overlordship” is a term we more often associate with feudalism – Klein traces its development in the late nineteenth century, citing authors who were quite explicit about their intentions. He also cites recent figures, up to and including President Barack Obama, who subscribe to substantially the same views. Klein calls for a return to individualist modes of ownership, as championed by David Hume and Adam Smith, both of whom were also skeptical of the social contract in general, owing in part to the dangerous consequences implicit in that mode of thinking.

Response Essays

  • Matthias Matthijs charges that libertarian thinking caused the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression, and that our current political climate is nonetheless still dominated by an ideology highly congruent to Daniel Klein’s. Reasonable people, however, now doubt even market capitalism itself. Libertarians and social democrats disagree on three fundamentals: the empirical evaluation of government efficacy, the positive/negative liberty distinction, and the absolutism of private property rights. On each disagreement, Matthijs argues, the social democrats have the upper hand. In particular, property rights would not exist without the state to regulate them, and these rights are in no sense “natural.” A natural right, Matthijs argues, would never have any need of defense by the state.

  • David Friedman suggests a threefold classification of rights. In his scheme, normative rights are moral claims whose violation results in a moral judgment: I may think, with reason, that you are a bad person. A legal right is one that has been duly written into the law. Finally, a positive right is one for which violators face meaningful consequences, such that they will be substantially deterred. These definitions differ somewhat from those found in traditional legal theory, but Friedman defends the analytical power of his schema. In practice the three types overlap, but we may still analyze rights according to their normative, legal, and positive dimensions. Friedman offers historical and contemporary examples of the three types of rights and speculates on their origins using game theory.

  • Ilya Somin examines three arguments for government control over property rights: the claims that property rights are created by the government, that residence and/or citizenship imply consent, and that government control can produce superior outcomes to private control, regardless of theoretical justification. He dismisses the former two and concedes that the latter, consequentialist argument for government control is the strongest of the three. Still, he argues that this approach has serious weaknesses, in that people across the political spectrum tend to overestimate the good that governments can do.