PART 3: MORAL LIMITS ON PROPERTY
The non-aggression principle limits coercion to what is necessary for defense of person and property. The limits of "person" are relatively clear, although not without controversy, compared to the limits of "property." The duality model suggests that, to achieve social balance, some complementary limits on property should also be recognized.
Property may be understood as exclusive rights pertaining to some tangible or intangible object. Without exclusive rights, property does not exist. Therefore, limiting property rights (as opposed to eliminating such rights altogether) can not consist of removing exclusivity as a feature of property rights. Instead, limits must consist of rejecting property claims to objects of certain types, or under certain circumstances. For example, rejecting property claims made on other persons (i.e., slavery) is an example of a moral limit.
A simple approach to moral limits on property rights might include just holding that any property not gained by improper aggression is proper and moral. While it is true that property claims gained by immoral aggression are illegitimate, the converse is not necessarily true. More to the point, a statement that all property rights gained without improper aggression are proper is merely a truism based on circular logic. Defense of property is a justified use of aggression. Since the definition of proper aggression relies on property, the definition of property cannot depend on aggression without making both definitions circular. The definition of aggression cannot be used to discern moral limits on property rights.
Similarly, moral theorists have traditionally looked for moral justification for property rights in a labor theory, by which unowned matter is converted to morally justified property by application of productive labor. Such theories are useful for explaining how property might be justly acquired, but say nothing whatsoever about whether or not property claims to otherwise justly acquired property are moral. Labor-based justifications for property rights boil down into the position that any property not gained by improper aggression is proper and moral. That such a position places no actual limits on property, and is merely circular, is pointed out in the preceding paragraph. Again, justifications based in non-aggression, and by extension labor-based justifications, are logically incapable of providing moral limits to property rights. Placing limits on how property can justly be acquired does not provide any limiting constraints on what can morally be acquired and owned.
It's important to distinguish between unequal limits on property rights and those that are uniformly applied. For example, statist systems are often eager to limit personal property rights of all kinds, but without limiting property claims by the state. At the statist extreme, all property claims including the ownership of one's own body are regarded as mere privileges granted by the state, while ownership rights of the state are absolute. All property is "collective" and therefore subject to the control of whomever rules the collective. These are not limits at all. They are instead reallocation of property rights by those who hold political power.
A moral limit on property must apply equally to all persons, regardless of social status. Such limits define what cannot be owned by anyone, things such as the atmosphere, oceans, and slaves. Such limits may also define things that can only be owned or used up to some limit, which may be different in different circumstances.
Under the duality model, we might inquire whether moral limits on property can be discerned by looking for limits on property that are complementary to limits on aggression. If moral aggression is limited to that which is necessary for defense, what are moral property rights limited to?
Before attempting to answer this question, consider what property is used for. Property can be used for consumption or for production, or for some combination of these uses. Consumption may be defined as any use that decreases the economic value of the property consumed, on balance. Production is the transformation of less valuable property into more valuable property, by application of labor, including the accumulation of additional property. Property may require preservation to prevent it from losing economic value; preservation that requires any activity may be considered a form of production. Speculative investment may be may be considered a productive use requiring preservation and finding willing buyers, at minimum.
Property that is completely unused and unpreserved for a sufficiently long time is abandoned. Once abandoned, it is no longer subject to any claim of exclusivity. Ownership of property requires both use and exclusivity. Limits on property may be of two kinds: those that negate any exclusive claim to a class of objects, and those that relate to use, such as defining when abandonment occurs or placing other limitations on use.
So how might inappropriate uses and property claims be discerned in the duality model? Duality does not explicitly provide guidance to how such limits should operate. Instead, the concept of duality leads to an expectation that, if morality demands a limit to the exercise of aggression, it similarly demands a limit to the exercise of property claims. Such limits might be discerned by the same fundamental principle or principles that make limits to aggression apparent. What such principles are deserves a moment of reflection.
It was posited in Part II that improper aggression is based on the difference between defense and offense, with defense distinguished from offense based on whether or not the aggression is necessary to stop an ongoing or imminent attack and whether it increases the aggressor. In both cases, the limit on aggression is a manifest aspect of the Golden Rule, which might also be called the fundamental principle of reciprocity. Aggression satisfies reciprocity if those who claim a moral right to aggress adopt the position that others may claim the same moral right, when reciprocal circumstances exist. The only logically coherent systems based on reciprocity are those in which (a) defined, reciprocal limits are placed on all exercise of aggression, or (b) every person with the power to aggress must do so until only one person remains. Anything system in between is not governed by any coherent logical principle, and must include a degree of arbitrary exercise of power.
Reciprocity is the essential fabric of society; without it, there can be no moral limits to aggression or property claims. In a sense, morality is reciprocity. Without reciprocity, the only law is that of power: whatever any person has the power to do is lawful, and no moral judgment on any action is possible. Society cannot exist without moral judgment. When any action is as permissible and as just as any other, there can exist no ordered relationships or expectations between persons. Without ordered relationships and expectations among persons, there is no society. People can certainly exist in the short term without society, but whether the human species can survive in the long term without society and without morality is an empirical question that is beyond the scope of this essay.
Society may not be ordered perfectly in a moral sense, that is, society can exist without perfectly embodying the reciprocity principle. In other words, morally imperfect societies can and obviously do exist. Such societies may institutionalize a mixture of moral and amoral conduct. For example, in hierarchical societies, all "others" possessing reciprocal rights must be of the same social status, and a layered structure of social classes each possessing different rights may exist. Nonetheless, within each class, perfect reciprocity is the moral standard. To the extent one class claims superior rights and thereby oppresses a lower class, it does so by an exercise of power, not of morality. As power is amoral, a perfectly moral society must be classless.
Therefore, the duality model suggests that moral limits to property should be discernible from the reciprocity principle, just as moral limits on aggression are discernible. Reciprocity leads to the observation that aggression, to be morally justified, must be limited to what is necessary for defense. It might similarly be posited, therefore, that morally justified property rights are limited to those necessary to secure the right holder's freedom of action, security, and health against competing property claims of others. Second, reciprocity teaches that proper exercise of aggression requires carefully distinguishing offense from defense, to avoid aggressive encroachment on others. It is posited, therefore that morally justified property claims must be limited to do those that do not disable any other person from asserting property rights reciprocal in kind to those being asserted. Very briefly, the basic principle of reciprocity may be divided into the twin subsidiaries of necessity and non-encroachment. These principles apply equally well to limitations on use or class of property that can be owned.
Consider, for example, slavery. Slavery takes many forms, but may be generally understood as a state in which a person is coerced into involuntary servitude to another, without just compensation. Ownership of a productive slave may increase the freedom of action, security or health of the slave holder, and in some limited circumstances may even be considered necessary. For example, a person with a pressing medical need or disability may be unable to obtain desired medical or nursing care, which may be necessary to preserve the person's life. In such straits, can the sick or disabled person gain a property interest in a doctor's services, under which the doctor is required to provide services to the sick person involuntarily and without compensation? That is, can the sick person claim to own a doctor as a slave?
Under the formula of "necessary and non-encroaching," there are at least two reasons the answer is "no." First, under the "necessity prong," the property claim must be necessary to defend against a competing property claim by another. It is nonsense to state that slavery is justified by the prospective slaves' claims of ownership over their own bodies. Self-ownership can never be a competing claim because it is limited to the self, of which there can be only one for each person. So there is no discernible competing property claim to justify slavery. Second, under the "non-encroachment prong" a property claim on the doctor's services disables the doctor from self-ownership without granting a reciprocal right of the doctor to own the patient. A slave can have no reciprocal right to own the master. If some such reciprocal right exists, the relationship is not slavery but something different, likely contract. Therefore, a claim to a slave violates the second principle as well, by encroaching on reciprocal rights of the slave to own property of like kind.
On the other hand, many claims to real and personal property clearly satisfy both limiting principles. Competing claims exist, necessitating a property claim in almost all cases wherein a limited physical resource is divided among a group of persons. For such property, the second prong is what provides discernment of most moral limits. For example, claims of kings and states tend to be so expansive as to practically or actually extinguish assertion of reciprocal claims by their subjects. Such claims are therefore immoral. In comparison, ownership of relatively small bits of real estate or limited collections of personal property seldom, if ever, violates the non-encroachment prong of the reciprocity principle. Non-encroachment requires further attention, which will be paid in Part IV of this series.
The limits of necessity and non-encroachment are fundamental, but do not preclude other limits on property ownership. For example, uses of morally held property that trespass on the property rights of others can be forbidden. Such limits are a function of trespass, not of moral limits on property rights. Limits based on trespass or tort theory rely on an assumption of legitimate property rights being held by different persons, and do not concern the fundamental question or what can be morally owned. Also, other limits may apply to ownership of property that are in a sense moral, but irrelevant to reciprocity and thus, socially unenforceable. For example, a person may develop a self-destructive habit or addiction to acquiring or consuming property of some type. Self-destructive behavior can be recognized as immoral, but is merely a vice and not subject to the coercive intervention of the law.
Under the duality model, unnecessary suffering is avoided by balancing the polarities of a duality. In Part I of this essay, aggression and property rights were conceived as opposite poles of a duality, while Part II argued that under the reciprocity principle, certain limits on aggression should be observed. Part III points out prospective limits on property claims, inspired by the limits on aggression previously discussed. These essential limits impose moral duties on property holders, to ensure that their property claims (a) are necessary to secure the rights-holder's prosperity and freedom against competing property claims by others, and (b) do not disable others from claiming reciprocal property rights in kind.
In Part IV, how the posited limits to property rights may play out in various hypothetical situations will be explored in more detail.