What Surveys Tell Us about Liberal Views of Property Rights

In his most recent rejoinder, Daniel Klein helpfully clarifies his position on liberal views of property rights. He argues that liberals do not believe that “government owns everything,” as he suggested at one point in his original essay, but merely that they think that we have all consented “to an implicit contract with the overlord [i.e. — the government]” under which the state has the right to reorder property rights as it sees fit. He argues that his survey of economists who signed a petition supporting the minimum wage proves that most leftists take this view.

I remain skeptical that this survey proves Daniel’s point. As I pointed out in my last post, the minimum wage question has four important shortcomings for the purpose of addressing the issue we are discussing: it does not actually ask respondents about property rights; it does not test a representative sample of liberal opinion (instead focusing on a subset of economists); a respondent could give the answer emphasized by Daniel without actually believing that the government has any presumptive right to reorder property relations or restrict liberty; and finally the question is complex and confusing.

Let’s take each of these problems in turn. The original focus of this symposium is the relationship between property rights and the state. The subject of economic liberties in employment relations is related but distinct. Libertarians, to be sure, tend to support both strong property rights and strong protection for economic liberties. But one can potentially believe in stronger protection for the former than the latter. Much of the general public takes precisely that view – supporting strong property rights (as in the polls I cited reacting to the Kelo decision in my last post), while also supporting the minimum wage and various other restrictions on freedom of contract. Daniel assumes that attitudes on property rights and economic liberties are closely correlated. This is not always so.

Second, it is important that the survey focuses only on a sample of economists who support the minimum wage rather than left-liberals more generally. As I noted in my last post, many economists are utilitarian consequentialists. To utilitarians, arguments based on liberty or social contract theories are irrelevant except insofar as protecting liberty or honoring a contract might increase social welfare. Thus, a utilitarian could easily say that they give little to no weight to “th[e libertarian] definition of liberty” and that “the minimum wage law is not coercive in any significant sense” without endorsing the view that the government has the right to reorder property rights because we have supposedly consented to it. That is because the consistent utilitarian gives “little or no weight” to any definition of liberty, and likewise believes that no form of coercion is morally “significant” unless it reduces utility (and economists who support the minimum wage presumably believe that it increases it). Perhaps, as Daniel suggests, a utilitarian could believe that the minimum wage is coercive in “a significant sense of that term” even if he does not believe that the coercion is morally significant. But I think that most respondents were likely to interpret the term “significant” in a normative rather than purely linguistic or descriptive sense.

Third, we should recognize that a person could attach “little or no weight” to the definition of liberty described in the question without doing so on the grounds that we have consented to have the state regulate all liberties as it sees fit. Rather, the respondent might simply have a different definition of liberty that he or she prefers. Political philosophers have offered a wide range of options.

Finally, the question is complex and has several moving parts. Daniel is confident that his respondents read the question carefully enough to avoid such confusion, in part because they knew their answers would not be anonymous. Perhaps so, but I am skeptical. Certainly, complex questions of this sort go against longstanding conventional wisdom in survey research. Even if the respondents’ answers to the question were made public, I doubt that those who gave a “wrong” answer would feel great embarrassment; none of the possible choices are likely to harm their reputations. This would diminish their incentive to take great care in answering.

I also continue to believe that the survey data on the public response to Kelo and economic development takings is a much better test of public attitudes towards state restriction of property rights than Daniel’s minimum wage question. The former addressed a representative sample of the general public and actually focused on property rights, while Daniel’s question did not.

Daniel suggests that strong opposition to “economic development” takings is compatible with the “overlordist” view because respondents might simply disagree with the government’s policies but admit the government’s right to enact them if it chooses; alternatively, he suggests that they might believe that the government has violated its “contract” with the people, the Constitution.

The most recent survey question on the subject, however, does not even mention constitutional restrictions on such takings. Moreover, it did not simply ask whether the respondent supported or opposed economic development takings, but whether the government “should be able to” undertake them at all (emphasis added). A “no” answer suggests that the respondent denies not merely the wisdom of these takings, but the underlying right to compel them in the first place. Some 81% of respondents — including the overwhelming majority of self-described liberals — answered “no,” despite the fact that the question wording was in several ways favorable to the pro-taking side.

In a 2008 survey by the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center, some 88% of the public agreed that “private property rights are just as important as other rights like freedom of speech and religion,” with only 12% saying that they are “less important.” This strongly suggests that the vast majority of the public, including most liberals,[1] attach much greater value to property rights than Daniel believes. To be sure, one can interpret this result as proving that the public believes that we have consented to let the government restrict speech and religion (as well as property) as it pleases. But that seems a highly implausible characterization of either general public opinion or that of most left-liberals.

To my knowledge, no one has yet administered a survey question to a representative sample of liberals that would definitively resolve the issue we are debating. Such a question might look something like this: “Do you believe that Americans have consented to allow the government to take away private property rights whenever it chooses to do so?” I am fairly confident, however, that a majority would answer “no.” However, it would be useful to actually administer such a question to see if my conjecture is correct.

Obviously, most of the public — and even more so, most liberals — support far greater government restriction of both property rights and various liberties than Daniel and I do. And a number of leading political theorists and legal scholars do indeed believe that the government is entitled to absolute “overlordship” over property rights either because it “created” those rights to begin with, or because we consented to it. But the available evidence does not support claims that all or most liberals share this view. It is even more clear that the vast majority of the general public does not.


[1] If all of the 12% who said “less important” are liberals, they would potentially be a majority of liberals, since self-described liberals were about 22% of the U.S. population in 2008, according to Gallup. However, it is highly unlikely that all 12% were in fact liberal, with virtually no moderates or conservatives giving that answer. If we, assume, more realistically, that 75% of these respondents were liberal, we get a result under which 59% of liberals believe that property rights and other rights are equally important. And, obviously, believing that property rights are “less important” does not necessarily equate to believing that we have consented to let government override them at will.

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.