Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An interesting point on redistribution

Chris Dillow:
Now, libertarians might object that such redistributions are the effect of meddlesome government. In their ideal polity, we'd simply have secure property rights and no redistribution. I'm not sure. In a minimal state, we'd still have technical change. And this itself creates de facto rights. For example, in the 19th century mid-west, the invention of barbed wire (pdf) allowed land-owners to enclose large areas, thus strengthening their property rights. In the 21st century, file-sharing gives young people the idea that they have a right to free music. Faced with such technical change, even a libertarian state would have to choose how to allocate new rights - for example, the right to shared files versus the right to protect one's intellectual property. However it chooses, there's redistribution.

I say this to endorse Frances' claim; governments don't "defend" property rights but create them.
I think that there is a real sense that this point is very useful -- property is entirely a social construct.  There is no sense, in the state of nature, where a given piece of land is owned by a specific individual.  A system of property rights has many great features but the choice of what can be owned is, itself, rather important as are the socially acceptable steps that can be taken to defend these rights.

In practice going back to first principles on these types of rights can be very difficult and is likely to be somewhat misleading.  However, it is always worth noting that the outcomes that we currently have are because of system of values interested to maximize aggregate welfare and not some sort of natural entitlement. 


  1. Paul Graham essay along similar lines:


  2. Thank you, David. A very useful link