What Exactly Is Property? Alt-Right Vs. Liberty

by | Aug 3, 2017

I was listening to a comedian talking about “stolen jokes” today.  It’s an interesting question for libertarians.  Is it wrong to steal jokes?  Should it be illegal?

Briefly, I think that most libertarians would say that stealing jokes should definitely not be illegal, though it might be wrong.  It might be appropriate for comedians to shun those among them who steal jokes, making it a socially unacceptable practice.  From the libertarian perspective, stealing jokes shouldn’t prompt and initiation of force, but it could still be treated as wrong.  I think this is a pretty standard libertarian conclusion.

What interests me is the question of property, and why we care about it.  Comedians feel like they “own” the jokes they create.  But do they?  According to strict libertarian theory, comedians don’t own jokes, because jokes can’t be owned.  A joke is an idea, and ideas aren’t scarce resources which can only be possessed by one person at a time.  A thousand comedians can all tell the same joke all at once, in a thousand different clubs around the world – there’s no initiation of force.  But, libertarians might be sympathetic to the idea that comedy audiences could decline the services of joke-stealers as an act of solidarity with their “victims”.

Why would this sentimental act be valid, if no actual property is stolen?  Why is there a moral imperative where libertarian ethics have already settled the legal question?

I think there are two different ways to conceive of property.  Curt Doolittle would probably agree with the basics of this analysis, but not my conclusion.

Comedians don’t like it when their jokes are stolen because what is being stolen from them isn’t real property, but social status.  The comedians worked hard – in addition to possessing natural talent – to create jokes with the expectation that these jokes would give them social status as popular (and rich) celebrities.  This incorporates the “aristo-propertarian” idea that a person’s natural qualities translated into real outcomes entitle that person to a certain status, and property is the quantification of this status.  This alt-right idea seems to be much older, and more intrinsic to what is traditionally called “human nature” (at least, according to them, of Europeans) than modern legal and philosophical norms pertaining to property.

This conception of property – and let’s discount the Doolittles of the world for a moment – seems to be intuitively understood, and indeed this intuition is probably what drives many people’s understanding of what property is and why it might be good.  The right defends capitalism and property rights on the basis of self-entitlement to the product of one’s labor.  The left critiques property rights on the basis of deconstructing the right’s notion of entitlement.  But libertarian property norms are subtly different, and I would argue that “markets” as we understand them operate according to functional libertarian norms of property.

Intuitive property is effectively social status, which is considered to be justly deserved because it is earned on the basis of relative merit.  “My jokes are funnier, so they’re more valuable to society, so I deserve social status.”  This is very close to the market phenomenon in a voluntary society in which the volition of consumers connects producers of valued goods and services to revenues and profits.  But, it’s not the same.

The left would critique this intuitive conception of property by arguing that merit is falsely conceived.  Being a “white male” gives privilege which might be expressed as relative merit among “white male hegemonies”, but which represents injustice and lack of true merit among non-white non-males.  The importance of the concept of relative merit is that it applies in a given social context, and translates to a social outcome – so it’s dependent on the preservation of the larger social order, an imperative which must be incorporated into the defense of property itself.

When a comedian angrily defends their property right to their intellectual property, they are seeking to preserve their social status against others.

My one hat-tip to the alt-right is that it does seem to be the case that most humans are not rational economic actors primarily, but rather act in the context of seeking social status.  Where I diverge is to say that despite the majority, I think there are those who don’t care about social status, and also those who are rational economic actors.  In particular, I think that Praxeology and even materialist sociology reveal that people end up conforming to the rational economic patterns out of necessity.  The market has proven its ability to upturn social norms and traditional social structures.  This is one reason why the alt-right laments it.  But this is also where their ideology is betrayed.  Traditions aren’t good in-and-of themselves, traditions are accounted as good because of the social order they produce.  Well, if markets can upset traditions, then that means that markets can operate according to an order that doesn’t depend on tradition.  Defending tradition for its own sake contradicts some of the alt-right paradigm.

In the end, the left is probably right to reject the right’s way of defending property.  Libertarians don’t defend property because it reflects a person’s relative social merit and institutionalizes their social status.  We defend property because of the logical axioms which prove that clearly defined property boundaries eliminate initiatory violence from society, and thereby allow for maximal dynamism and freedom.  Libertarians value freedom over social status.

Curt Doolittle might argue that freedom is meaningless.  Social status is all there is.  Freedom to him might mean something like the freedom to aspire towards and freely compete for social status equally.  There’s some sociological merit to that argument.  But, I believe that real freedom obviates the need for worrying about social status.

Therein lies the tension that Libertarianism has and should have with the right.  We’re a different philosophy.  And our mutual desire to defend property rights is actually only superficial.  This isn’t to discount political alliances, or argue against them.  But I think this is an important and overlooked nuance about property.

About Zack Sorenson

Zachary Sorenson was a captain in the United States Air Force before quitting because of a principled opposition to war. He received a MBA from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as class valedictorian. He also has a BA in Economics and a BS in Computer Science.

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