If ‘property rights’ is the answer, what’s the question?

If ‘property rights’ is the answer, what’s the question?

The question is, how do we allocate scarce resources in a free society?

Here are two common examples of scarce resources.

(1) Tangible, “value added,” goods.
(2) Land.

The answer in each case is the same: privatisation. The institution of private property—which is a societal convention—accords people property rights in tangible goods and land.

Tangible goods to which value has been added are the products of someone’s effort. Other things being equal, we give ownership of the goods to the person who produced them. According to our property conventions, you get to keep the fruits of your labours.

Land is already there. It’s not the fruit of anyone’s labours. So, as a very general rule, we give ownership of land on a “first come, first served” basis. If you’re the first to stake a claim (by planting a flag, perhaps), then it’s yours. (There may be qualifications, for example, it may be deemed necessary to “improve” the land, or to “occupy” it “continuously” for a period of time.)

What about so-called “intellectual property”? Should a free society give ownership of ideas? There’s no disputing the fact that good ideas are (almost) always products of someone’s intellectual effort. And there’s no disputing that good ideas are (almost) never thought of simultaneously. Take any good idea, and there’s (almost) always someone who thought of it first. And, what’s more, it’s (almost) always the case that the person who thought of the good idea first is someone who put in the intellectual effort required to come up with the idea. So, other things being equal, why not give ownership of the good idea to that person, perhaps by way of copyright or patent?

Why not? Because, in the case of ideas, ‘property rights’ is the answer to a question we don’t need to ask. In a free society, ideas are not scarce resources. Tell me what your good idea is, and I have it too. Ideas can be copied. They can be copied ad infinitum. Ideas aren’t scarce.

The notion of “intellectual property” is bogus. The correct account of the nature of property is the scarcity theory of property. The production theory of property is flawed.

Here’s a counter-example to the production theory of property, a third, less common, example of a scarce resource.

(3) Radio frequency transmission bands.

If you and I broadcast our radio shows on the same radio frequency band in the same geographical area, our transmissions interfere with one another. The solution to the problem is, again, privatisation. There’s actually a legitimate role of government here—to endorse, and to enforce the rulings of, an independent body that grants exclusive use, in a given geographical area, of scarce radio frequency transmission bands. On the basis of … what? Fairness? Not on the basis of first come, first served. And certainly not on the basis of the production theory of property. You can’t produce a mathematical range. And you can’t be first to use a set of numbers.

[Cross-posted to SOLO.]

2 thoughts on “If ‘property rights’ is the answer, what’s the question?”

  1. Intellectual property is more than just an idea, it is the development of new technology, a new way of doing something. The technology behind an invention is often the result of years of effort as well as the expenditure of large amounts of capital. It is necessary for the inventor to be able to protect his invention by way of a Patent so he can exploit his invention and get a return on his efforts. It is theft of his time an effort if someone else could come along and copy his invention and thereby save himself the time and effort of developing it.

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