Sunday, July 27, 2008

Roderick Long on Property

I was reading Roderick Long's article, "Land-Locked: A Critique of Carson on Property Rights," and came across an argument that left me somewhat skeptical. I've recently become convinced that appropriation needs to be justified on the grounds of being a desirable "game," as Schmidtz argues in his essay, "The Institution of Property." But I don't want to rule out the possibility that a Lockean approach to understanding appropriation can be defended, so I figured it might be useful to spell out my confusion with Long's argument in order to see whether I (or anyone else) can make sense of any of it.

If I understood correctly, Long claimed that property rights arise from self-ownership essentially because "By transforming external objects so as to incorporate them into my ongoing projects, I make them an extension of myself, in a manner analogous to the way that food becomes part of my body through digestion" (91). But I feel like a number of questions need to be addressed in order to make this a complete theory.

First, what does it mean to "transform" something? I can incorporate all sorts of objects into my projects without physically transforming them at all, and I think that it makes a lot of sense to think that a homesteading principle might still want to cite me as their owner. For example, I might build a fence around a plot of unowned land, and claim it for my yard. Surely someone who believes in homesteading as a source of property rights would think that I owned the fence itself, and the land on which the fence was built. But it seems like I would also have a pretty reasonable claim for thinking that the land surrounded by the fence was also mine. Does surrounding something with a fence constitute a transformation?

If so, it seems like the transformation would have to be something purely subjective. But this seems like it would open the theory up to accusations of over-breadth. For example, if I build my house in a secluded area with a view of a previously undiscovered beach, do I own the beach? If I discover a new planet, and construct a telescope that allows me to gaze at it whenever it's over my house, do I own the planet? I don't think the answers are obviously "yes."

Further, I wonder why incorporation into one's projects should have anything to do with ownership. After all, I can incorporate things into my projects without owning them at all. My neighbor's house, for example, might produce a shady patch on my yard in the afternoon, allowing me to plant certain shrubs which would not have survived if they were exposed to direct sunlight all day long. Surely I don't need to own my neighbor's house in order to do this, and while it would certainly entail a frustration of my plans if my neighbor decided to knock his house down, it doesn't seem like this involves any violation of my self-ownership.

Approaching the issue from another direction: given the subjective nature of the transformation which confers ownership, it seems like we can frustrate the projects of a property owner without ever physically transforming an object, by changing the way that the owner views the object, or how others view the object. Generally, these sorts of things are not considered violations of property rights. But if property rights can be understood in the way that Long discussed, why would this be the case?

Also, the idea that property rights can be understood in terms of the relationship between an object and a valuer's ends, it seems like we would be led to an easement-based theory of ownership. But this is not the generally accepted view of property. Does this mean that we need to abandon that view?

I'm open to answers; I don't want to be unfair to this idea, largely because I once accepted it as correct, so any input would be great.

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