[ExI] Basis of property rights/was Re: The Circle of Coercion

Dan dan_ust at yahoo.com
Tue May 12 15:54:35 UTC 2009

--- On Tue, 5/12/09, Damien Sullivan <phoenix at ugcs.caltech.edu> wrote:
> -0700, dan_ust at yahoo.com
> wrote:
>> This is a key feature of social contract theory. 
>> The typical social
>> contract theory is an attempt to justify some
>> socio-political order
>> via an analogy with a real contract -- as if all
>> members of society
>> agree to some (you guessed it!) social contract. 
>> Since real world
>> societies of any appreciable size don't arise
>> contractually -- viz.,
>> people don't get together, formulate a contract, and
>> then actually
>> expressly consent to it -- the problem is how to
>> complete the analogy.
>> This is where tacit consent comes in.
>> This brings up another problem with social contracts:
>> even were an
>> explicit contract signed, it wouldn't bind others or
>> future
>> generations.  But in the case of your country of
>> birth, the government
> But these problems are true of property rights as
> well.  I didn't
> consent to be born into a world where I inherit no wealth
> and Paris
> Hilton inherits $100s of millions.  Why should I
> respect her claim to
> more than a fair share of the Earth's resources?  Or
> the claim of the
> Sultan of Brunei?  And why, in turn, should someone
> without even access
> to clean water, respect my modest life, let alone that of
> the
> egregiously wealthy?

But (most*) libertarian property rights theories are not based on consent.  Rights don't arise by consent.  In fact, consent only arises because there are prior rights.  For example, you can consent to give me this for that only if you have a right to this and I have a right to that.  This is true of any consent argument: it presumes the consenting parties have prior rights -- even if the term "rights" is not used.

My point was aimed at social contract theory.  In fact, for social contract theory, consent is central; without consent, the whole of it breaks down.  No consent, no contract, right?**  Then the problem becomes how does this consent come about -- because, obviously, no real world governments rules by explicit consent of the governed (and most social contract theorists from Hobbes to Rawls appear to recognize the impracticality of express consent for real world governments***).



*  There's been some debate over Hume's views on conventionalism and rights.  I haven't done enough research on Hume or Hume-inspired rights theories, but I believe his view is that property rights grow out of the social conditions.  I don't know how he separates the social condition from human nature -- as I believe the social part of it would be partly determined by human nature, even if in a dialectical fashion.  (Dialectical determination can have one side setting the initial conditions or having more sway, no?)  If this is so, it seems to me that Hume's rights theory is merely a different gloss on the human nature basis of rights -- and not really a radical alternative to most libertarian rights theories.

**  Notably, libertarian minarchists -- like Rand, if I understand her views correctly -- tend to base their view of government arising and its legitimacy not on consent per se, but on human nature.  Rand argued that humans needed government.  Of course, she did argue that government must rule by consent, but the ultimate basis for her is human nature -- not social contract.

***  Not to mention, were such necessary, there'd probably be almost no government as such consent would be limited to small groups for a limited time.


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