Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Property and the Right to Life

(The essay below is in answer to a request for further elaboration on how Property Rights relate to the Right to Life)

Humans as integrated beings: mind and body. Those two aspects of ourselves can never be separated. We are neither corpses (bodies without consciousness) nor ghosts (disembodied consciousness). To live, we must attend to the requirements of both.

Our culture has denigrated the physical aspect of ourselves and thus lost hold of the fact that we exist as physical beings by physical means. We use our minds to observe, judge and make decisions, but then for those decisions to have any effect, we must act. What we act upon is the physical world. The material goods we produce are the effect; our actions are the cause.

What our actions produce are physical goods. These goods are actual things which exist in reality. Property, however, is not a physical good. Property is the concept which delineates a specific type of relationship we have to a physical object, that of owning it. The right to property means the right of ownership. Ownership entails control of the object: the right to possess, use, alter, and transfer ownership of the object. If we lived alone, there would be no need for the concept of property. We would simply take from nature the things we needed. It is the fact that we share our existence with other people that creates the need of defining ownership: the freedoms of actions which pertain to material goods.

These actions of ownership are what allow us to apply the material good in the service of our lives. In a social setting, we need a means of making it clear where a man’s freedom of action begins and ends. That is the purpose of rights in general. As Locke pointed out, the original ownership is of each individual to his own life. To have any practical meaning for a physical being, that ownership of self extends to one’s labor and then logically, to the results of one’s labor. Since life is indivisible from our physical existence, the right to life is indivisible from the physical creations of our labor.

Here is another way of looking at the same issue, of how the right to property is simply looking at the right to life from a different point of view. When we expend time and effort upon gathering and/or producing a material good, we expend a portion of our life. In a very fundamental way, life is time. The time we spend creating goods is simply the physical result of how we have chosen to spend a portion of our life. In this way, material goods are actually the physical embodiment of our lives. To truly have ownership of our lives, we must have full claim to the results which our life-actions produce.

The concept of “life as time” has another aspect relating to property rights. We do not exist simply in the moment. Our lives extend over a period of time. Supporting our lives in the present involves planning for our lives in the future. We must think and plan long range. Secure property rights are what allow us to live beyond the range-of-the-moment, to set aside some of what we produce and own for later use. Meaningful property rights protect our ownership in the future as well as now. The more secure we can be in the control of our property, the greater our ability to plan, invest, and broaden the scope of our actions. This long-range planning is the type of actions essential to the creation of wealth. (It is the lack of this security which DeSoto found to be the root of poverty in developing countries. See “A Hero of Capitalism” below.)

Thus, property is the recognition of the fact that our lives depend upon material goods and that those material goods are the result of our life-action. It ties together cause (our labor) and effect (property). To recognize the right to Property is to recognize the right to the fruits of one’s labor, to how one spends one’s time, i.e. to one’s Life. By protecting the right to Property, you are protecting the right of an individual to further his own life. When property rights are compromised, you infringe upon a man’s ability to act for his own purposes, i.e. for his own life.


Sue said...

Thanks Beth. What you wrote is great. I just wish there was a way to present the material so "regular folks" could take it in fairly easily. I had to read your post twice. And stop to think about each paragraph and sentence. It is hard for me to really get it.....I know most people won't take the time to read carefully and thoughtfully. That's what worries me.

Beth said...

Hi Sue,
Thanks for taking the time to slog through it. I realize the problem posed in your comment which is why I am trying to find ways to broach this topic bit by bit in a way that more directly relates it to daily life, but that is a tougher task. I have recently read an explanation of why socialism is so popular and it has something to do with its more emotional appeal. On the face of it, socialism seems more compassionate and equitable. The defense of individual rights and capitalism are more abstract. Somehow, a stronger case for studying economics and political science needs to be made.

General knowledge supports the need to study science for the more abstract explanations of direct sense experience (our flat appearing world is in fact round; the earth goes around the sun and not vise versa as it appears directly to our senses) but it does not currently support the need to look as deeply and critically into understanding social phenomenon such as poverty, prosperity, peace and war.

Can you tell me which points were difficult to follow? Are there points which still are not clear? Maybe I can come up with a less abstract way to presnt it.

Thanks so much for reading and responding. It helps me feel a bit more connected.

A.C. Cargill said...

Hi, Beth. Sue makes a good point about the writings on topics like this being a bit tough to get through. I can read a P.D. James novel in a day or two but am still struggling with Ayn Rand's "The Romantic Manifesto," despite being married to someone who can help me with the difficult parts. However, I get the gist of it and find your writing to be eloquent. My advice to Sue and others is to hang in there, it's worth it. Meanwhile, I have been trying to write pieces that are a bit lighter in tone with some humor. My latest looks at abortion. To me, it's all about property rights, i.e., a woman's right over her own body. Hope you get a chance to read it at American Chronicle.

Beth said...

Hi Colleen,
Thanks for your comment. I read your article. Here is a question: if we base all rights on the right to life, the issue with abortion seems to me to be: Where do you assign that right, the woman or the fetus. People who are against abortion view their fight as trying to preserve the right to life of the fetus (not trying to destroy the right to life of the woman.) So who gets to claim that right? That seems to be the crux of the difference and where we need to concentrate our efforts and clarify our thinking.

A.C. Cargill said...

Hi, Beth. Good question. I tend to go along with Ayn Rand that the rights of the woman trumps the rights of a bunch of cells growing within her. Basically, if that bunch of cells cannot exist outside of the woman's body, it is essentially a parasite. If we start to give such entities rights over us, we have to stop treating people for things like tapeworms and tumors. Therefore, my position remains that the woman's right over her own body remains in force even during a pregnancy. The fetus, once born and able to survive, with or without medical assistance, outside of its mother's body, is secondary. I always hope that woman will consider such a decision as abortion VERY carefully but cannot interfere if she makes her decision willy nilly.