Bryan Caplan  

Ownership for Cartoonishly Nice People

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The noble and prolific Jason Brennan has just released Why Not Capitalism?, a short book replying to Gerald Cohen's Why Not Socialism?  Outstanding work, as usual.  For me, the highlight is Brennan's explanation for why even cartoonishly nice people would want to own private property.  It's easy to see why cartoonishly nice people - classic Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse -  would want other people to own private property.  But why would the nicest people imaginable want to claim ownership on their own behalf? 
It's not just that Minnie, Donald, and Willie want exclusive use-rights over objects.  They also want to be able to use, give-away, sell, and in some cases, destroy these objects, as part of their pursuit of their visions of the good life.  It means something for Minnie to be able to sell bows to others - that others are willing to buy from her because they like the bows rather than as a favor to her.  It means something to Clarabelle that she can choose to sell her muffins or instead give them for free to a sick friend.  And so on.
But but but...
Some philosophers - themselves never having owned a business - might have a hard time understanding these kinds of desires.  But if that philosopher can understand why one might want to write a book by oneself, rather than with co-authors or by committee, the philosopher can similarly understand why someone might want to own a factory or a farm or a store.  Or, if an artist can understand why one might want to paint my oneself, rather than having each brushstroke decided by committee, or rather than having to produce each painting collectively, then the artist can similarly understand why someone might want to own a factory or a farm or a store.
Furthermore:
Another closely related reason for having private property, even in utopia, has to do with the sheer aggravation of always having to ask permission.  Imagine everything belonged to everybody.  Now imagine everyone loves each other very much.  Still, every time you go to use something, you'd have to check and see if anyone else needed or wanted to use it.  ("Hey, does anyone need the laptop right now?")  Or, otherwise, we'd have to develop conventions such that you knew, without asking permission, that you could use particular things at certain times.  ("Oh, good, it's 6 p.m., now it's my turn to use one of the village laptops.")  There's something deeply annoying about both of these scenarios, even if we love others as much as we love ourselves.  We want to have a range of objects that we can count on to be free to use at will, without first having to ask permission or check with others or follow a schedule...
Simply put:
People have a need to feel "at home" in the world.  Most of us feel "at home" in our homes because we may unilaterally shape our homes to reflect our preferences.  Our homes are governed by the principles we endorse.  We do not have to deliberate in public and justify our furniture arrangements to others in society.  To the extent that we have private property, we acquire the means to carve out a space for ourselves in which we can be at home.
My main complaint about Why Not Capitalism? is that Brennan doesn't take Cohen to task for conflating voluntary and involuntary socialism.  Cohen's book builds on a thought experiment about a socialist camping trip.  The only reason the trip sounds nice - or even bearable - is that campers' socialism is voluntary.  If Cohen presented a thought experiment about a camping party that inducts dissident passersby at gunpoint, almost everyone would draw an anti-socialist lesson.  And when people evaluate socialism in the real world, involuntary socialism is almost always what they have in mind.

Furthermore, there's a simple way to make even Cohen's voluntary socialism unappealing: just make the campers' commune pushy and demanding.  E.g., a stranger walks by the camp site minding his own business, and the voluntary socialists start preaching, "Join us!  We won't force you, but you're morally obliged to join us and do whatever a majority of us say.  You're selfish - selfish - unless you join.  Come on, pitch in.  Do it.  Do it.  Do it!"  The awesome leftists of Bad Religion get it; why doesn't Cohen?



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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Jameson writes:
And when people evaluate socialism in the real world, involuntary socialism is almost always what they have in mind.
OK, but the point Brennan keeps stressing is that we need to evaluate socialism and capitalism in the ideal world, not the real one. In the real world, sure, we have some pretty good empirical evidence on the side of capitalism--that work doesn't need to be repeated.
E.g., a stranger walks by the camp site minding his own business, and the voluntary socialists start preaching, "Join us! We won't force you, but you're morally obliged to join us and do whatever a majority of us say. You're selfish - selfish - unless you join. Come on, pitch in. Do it. Do it. Do it!"
This is a pretty amusing example to ponder. Is preaching at the crowd--even if it's done peacefully--ideal or not?

The thing is, Professor Caplan, a lot of people would consider what you do to be preaching of a similar nature, e.g. with respect to immigration law. Does that make you question your own activism?

Sam writes:

Agreed. I think conservatives and libertarians get caught in a rope-a-dope whenever we engage the left in the collectivism vs. individualism argument.

People participate in a vast array of collectives: corporations, clubs, HOAs, parades etc. The relevant moral question is whether participation is voluntary or involuntary.

liberty writes:

Disclaimer: I write this as devil's advocate - do not take it to mean I am a socialist.

The problem with boiling everything down to "voluntary" or "involuntary" is that in certain respects inclusion in any society is involuntary, and in many ways living in a capitalist society means just as much involuntary participation - in the private property regime - and propaganda and so on as any involuntary (state) socialism. It is only because libertarians see private property as natural and completely based upon free exchange that this is not obvious, nor even believable. This is because of the way libertarians define freedom, coercion, and other relevant words.

As to the cartoonishly nice people who want factories -- the examples, ironic and fitting, from Disney, would not persuade socialists because they are characters bred in a bourgeois society, with bourgeois values, and of course they think they want that ownership - so they can sell their products and enjoy the bourgeois value of personal accomplishment - but if society could evolve and learn about cooperative values and virtues and experiment with other kinds of ownership (which may make use of more modern techniques than merely asking others if it is our turn yet), they may come to find that it is no longer important to sell and enjoy that bourgeois value. There are new values and virtues, new ways to feel at home.

And people who are really nice and really care about others as much as themselves may be willing to wait until 6 to use the community laptop if it means that those who under capitalism had neither laptop nor home to use it in can have (use of) both in the new society. Sure, it may be a little annoying to sometimes have to ask to use something, but it may be worth it.

Pajser writes:

Brennan deserves credit that he honestly assessed maybe most important but rarely discussed difference between socialism and capitalism. As I already discussed, Cohen's camp is still better. All the resources are directed toward satisfaction of the most important needs. In Brennan's village, not all, but most of the resources are directed toward one's own satisfaction. Invisible hand will help to some degree to others, but if goal is satisfaction of the most important needs in society, it is both less moral and less efficient.

"But why would the nicest people imaginable want to claim ownership on their own behalf? ... It means something for Minnie to be able to sell bows to others - that others are willing to buy from her because they like the bows rather than as a favor to her."
If Minnie doesn't want the profit, she can pursue her vision of good life in Cohen's camp as well. She can propose to design and make bows. It is her try. Decision should be done on the base of cost-benefit analysis, where Minnie's joy is weighted in - society tries to help her with her good life. The answer can be negative, but similarly, her pursuit can fail on the market. Furthermore, market will ignore her joy, her sense of accomplishment.
the philosopher can similarly understand why someone might want to own a factory or a farm or a store.
Ownership excludes other people, hence it should be justified. It is particularly hard in the case of factory - very few can collect enough resources. In socialism, planner decides which factory is built and some people, willing and most capable, are elected to be managers. It seems just. In capitalism, it is possible primarily through accumulation of the profit. The socialists believe that appropriation of the profit is unjust.
Another closely related reason for having private property, even in utopia, has to do with the sheer aggravation of always having to ask permission.
Brennan can look at his office at University. It is not his private office. But he probably frequently says "my office", because he has enough exclusive use - without asking permission all the time. It kinda works. Everything that is private can be communal, and various levels of exclusiveness can be given on the base of cost-benefit analysis.
And when people evaluate socialism in the real world, involuntary socialism is almost always what they have in mind.
True, but if some people like socialism, then it is not involuntary for them. The capitalism is involuntary for them. The best possibility is, I think, democratic decision that satisfies more than half of the society. Then the right to secession can be given to others.
Daublin writes:

Wow, that's 5-6 common-sense thought experiments that are all very productive. Bravo, Brennan!

As well, that's a great distinction about involuntary socialism.

magilson writes:

@liberty,

Exactly. This is why Marx had to invent New (socialist) Man.

~FR writes:

"Cohen's book builds on a thought experiment about a socialist camping trip. The only reason the trip sounds nice - or even bearable - is that campers' socialism is voluntary."

Ugh- and that there were a small number of people involved. I would just as soon not go on a 'camping trip' with a million other people.

Socialism doesn't scale well.

ThomasH writes:

I think the Brennan analysis do not go far enough to establish that "nice" people want not only Capitalism, but Democratic Capitalism with a state that can deal with externalities and purchase public goods (with some income redistribution being one possible public good.)

Sean writes:
I think the Brennan analysis do not go far enough to establish that "nice" people want not only Capitalism, but Democratic Capitalism with a state that can deal with externalities and purchase public goods (with some income redistribution being one possible public good.)

Ideal Capitalism is anarchist; there is no need for a state to solve any public goods problems because there are no public goods problems. Morally perfect people do not free ride and willingly redistribute their income in whatever way is dictated by justice.

JA writes:

I've heard that objection to libertarianism: how come there is no present day libertarian country?

This post got me thinking about voluntary socialism. How come there are no voluntarily socialist enclaves in the USA?

I know there are a couple hippy communes, but how come this couldn't be done in something like an HOA. I get there would be an issue with free-riders, but there always is with socialism. The membership could be limited somehow, they could all put their wages in a pot or however they want. If anyone knows or any sizeable groups that have done this I'd be very interested. I know Jamestown was initially socialist and had approximately one thousand people living there, but that didn't end well.

LD Bottorff writes:

I have also heard the objection to libertarianism that there are no countries that are actually libertarian. Just so; but there are countries that are socialist: Cuba, North Korea, and to a growing extent, Venezuela. Perhaps someday, these societies will become the workers paradises that the Soviet Union was supposed to have become. When that day comes, I guess I'll regret that my bet was on capitalism.

But, I'm still betting on capitalism.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Ownership is justified by the moral premise that man must eat of the sweat of his brow (Genesis-Adam's curse).

Tracy W writes:

Liberty: to engage with your devil's advocate, agreeing it's not your words.

1. It may be that in many ways living in a capitalist society means just as much involuntary participation - in the private property regime - and propaganda and so on as any involuntary (state) socialism.

But "many" is not "all". The ways in which living in a capitalist society involve less involuntary participation than under involuntary state socialism are the ways in which capitalism is freer.

2. I suppose it is possible that people could evolve that way. All we can say is that empirically they don't appear to, people living under socialism are less cooperative and display fewer virtues than people under socialism. Asking us to believe this is like asking us to believe that a working cold fusion power plant will be built in 20 years time. It's possible, just in the light of history it seems unlikely.

I also note the silliness of claiming that cooperativeness doesn't happen under capitalism.

Basically your devil's advocate has had to put in a lot of "maybes".

Pajser I see is back at his self-described "pointless masochism" basis: socialism is better because people spend more time working on the most important needs, as socialism is less efficient than capitalism. About all I can say to that is that very few people are into pointless masochism.

The rest of your argument, Pajser, seems to be based around that socialists think that private profit is unjust. They may think that, but unless they have some independent reason for thinking it, they've just made a circular argument.

LD Bottorff writes:

@ Pajser "All the resources are directed toward satisfaction of the most important needs."
The problem is determining the most important needs. Tobacco farming was part of Soviet agriculture. So, while people were starving in some parts of the Soviet Union, tobacco was being grown and processed to satisfy the important needs of other Soviet citizens.
Those of us who have read David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom should recall the essay Buckshot for a Socialist Friend in which Professor Friedman explains how deciding everything by majority vote can produce some pretty bad results. I do not have faith that the majority will effectively decide what my basic needs are. That's my job.

Pajser writes:
Tracy W. "Pajser, I see is back at his self-described "pointless masochism" basis: socialism is better because people spend more time working on the most important needs, as socialism is less efficient than capitalism. About all I can say to that is that very few people are into pointless masochism. "

It would be true, if socialism is less efficient than capitalism, even for morally perfect people. But it is strong assumption, one which Brennan doesn't have, because he tries to prove that capitalism is better on purely moral ground.

Tracy W. The rest of your argument, Pajser, seems to be based around that socialists think that private profit is unjust. They may think that, but unless they have some independent reason for thinking it, they've just made a circular argument.

I think I used that argument only for the question "who runs large projects which need resources not available for everyone." Because, socialism cannot be egalitarian about that: there is not enough resources. In socialism, planner decides who runs the project, and in capitalism, it is through accumulation profit. The socialists have their arguments against profit - but I didn't listed any. That's why I stayed with fairly weak formulation "The socialists believe that profit is unjust." And you're right - if it stays like that - it is circular.

I didn't mentioned arguments against profit because I believed they are mostly well known, and comment was long already. My opinion is derived from belief that property is limitation of freedom (right for exclusion of other people from use of the owned object or owned abstraction), maintained through violence. So, I believe property should be allowed only to extent it, in practice, affirms more important needs on expense of the less important needs, if both are incompatible. I cannot justify the right on appropriation of the profit on that way.

Ann S writes:

JA -

"How come there are no voluntarily socialist enclaves in the USA?"

There were many (hundreds, I believe) utopian communities of various types in the 1800s. Marx and Engels were the ones who labeled these as utopian socialism, whereas they called their version scientific socialism (as far as I can tell, what's 'scientific' is that they shoot you if you try to leave, whereas utopian societies are voluntary).

I'd be interested in learning more about the various utopian approaches. For example which lasted longest? Were those the most successful because of their structure or just because of a charismatic leader?

Many native American tribes were essentially socialist as well. Socialism can be optimal when a group is at subsistence level and its very existence is threatened, since "we'll all die if you don't share and work hard" is a pretty effective incentive. Think of the legends of old people walking off to deliberately die of exposure for the good of the tribe - what's more socialist than that?

But the same forced sharing approach that works so well for survival at subsistence level can actually hold back economic development if times get a bit better. "To each according to his need" is an incomplete system - past a certain point, there's too much extra beyond basic need, and socialism isn't good at handling any surplus. One example is modern native American reservations.

Peter Gerdes writes:

The reason you get this wrong result is you confuse several issues.

1) Ownership of private property, i.e., a scheme in which you have total exclusive control over a particular item and may do with it what you will.

2) Being recognize as the author of some text.

3) Having a practically useful policy that provides you the resources you want to exclusively at the times you want to use them so in an efficient fashion.

4) Being given limited rights to distribute items when it will be of special psychological significance to do so.

To distinguish 1 and 2 note that you might have fully and total control over distribution and sale of some novel you wrote but EVERYONE assumes it was written by some other famous guy with a similar name and even thinks you are lying when you claim to have written it. This is where you fall down in your authorship by an individual analogy. Even full copyright control can't guarantee recognition. On the other hand merely having recognition (people correctly recognize the works you have officially designated yours) immediately grants you the desire to only write novels individually...sure others write variant novels using your source material but everyone recognizes which novels are yours.

To distingush 1 and 3 note that hunter gathers who have relatively few resources to divide and relatively simple considerations in dividing it (feeding the hungry is more important than stuffing the full) plus the guidance of long tradition to guide them in that division.

Indeed, this is what is seen in practice. The hunter gathers are essentially socialist (share proceed of hunts) and have had so much time to adjust their culture to the features of the land they inhabit they don't need to think to know who to let use a rare discovery of obsidian, rare poisons used in hunting etc.. in any situation by thinking about the stories they have heard their whole lives.

Similarly computational allocation schemes can avoid making the exclusive use of items a matter of complex annoyance.

To distinguish 1 and 4 consider cases like pets. It's super important to you that the dog you've been feeding and caring for go with the people you want to designate but not so important that the person with the actual property right in the thing be allowed to do so (dog ran away many years ago).

Or consider situations where particular objects are sometimes discovered to have special value to various religions based on some after the fact property (say a random number generator is run until it produces a globally unique serial number of some consumer good). In this case the desire for the religious group to be able to distribute it goes against the property interest rather than towards it.

---------

Sure, I agree that capitalism happens to be the most efficient allocation scheme at the moment but as is pretty easily scene differing assumptions make it pretty easy to produce cases where it is no longer the best schemw

Julien Couvreur writes:

For those who missed it, Jason Brennan gave an excellent interview on his book, available at http://www.libertarianism.org/media/free-thoughts-podcast/why-not-capitalism

Tracy W writes:

Pajser: "It would be true, if socialism is less efficient than capitalism, even for morally perfect people."

Yes, once we stipulate morally perfect people then that's the only condition under which your claim that under socialism people spend more time working on the most important needs is true. We went through this in the comments on the last post - morally perfect people meet the most important needs of society first regardless of what economic system they live under. The only way you can get to your "pointless masochism" position with morally perfect people is if socialism is less efficient, so morally perfect people under socialism must spend more time than under capitalism working on the most important needs to satisfy them.

As for the rest, well, I'm surprised to find myself agreeing with you. I do think that the consequentialist arguments for private property are much stronger than the Nozickian arguments.

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