Securing Property Rights

In cultured societies1, the state secures personal property against wanton takeover. Such protection encourages personal investment in productive social activity.

In a sense, private property becomes, and indeed is, sacred.

Nowhere is this more clear than the severe, albeit varying punishment vetted against thieves in various cultures and societies throughout history.

For example, consider the law in the U.S. that called for the execution of a man who stole the horse of another. Presumably, stealing a horse could be tantamount to stealing another's livelihood if not his or her life. As another example, if some score of  conditions hold, a thief of a personal property might lose a limb--starting with a piece of a finger--according to the sharia law. One of those score of hard-to-meet conditions that must exist for this particular law to apply involves a lack of a survival need to steal. So, the punishment may apply to a Wall Street magnet who has provenly and intentionally stolen from an old lady's pension or some orphans' trust, wrecking their lives as a consequence, but will not apply to a hungry beggar who takes an apple. 

Furthermore, and beyond the proofs in stipulated punishments, we have the proof in taboos against taking what belongs to others. These taboos run deep. For example, consider the emphasis, in both Jewish and Islamic law, regarding payment of debt as a religious obligation. Most reasonable people experience the relevant acculturation and live by these taboos and commendations.

Without the protection of private property, no one can be expected to give of his own or contribute anything for she or he will receive nothing of worth in return. There would be no incentive to contribute anything of worth without the protection of private property and rights in what is of worth. The history of the artificial beliefs in the sanctity of communal property extending to all things worth owning makes it quite clear that when incentives of private ownership disappear, people stop contributing willingly.

However, all protection of private and personal "property" has come at a price. States levy taxes on assets presumably to compensate themselves for cost of securing the conditions for ownership of such assets. The owners pay taxes and return something to the society that harbored their ownership rights. There are similar limits in other cases.

While IP and copyrights have been treated by some as private property, the protections granted to them had a different purpose. It was not an eternal protection but simply a safeguard for a limited time in order to grant the creative forces some security so that they may achieve and earn a return on the novelty they had created. Indefinite or long-term protection would create other problems such as slow propagation of novel ideas and innovations, not to mention the cost of enforcing such "rights." However, there were limits imposed on the duration of such protection in order to return the ideas to the mix of the community that had helped foster them. 

Lawrence Lessig has written enough about this topic, and today, in The Wall Street Journal, we read how sums are invested for the very protection of copyrights. ("Copyright Tool Will Scan Web for Violations," WSJ, December 18, 2006, Page B1.)

When a society pays more for securing what only needs limited protection, it increases its cumulative transaction costs at a time when better, lower-cost, alternatives exist for safeguarding what needs protecting. (This forumla also holds with aggressive wars as a means to provide "security" or with dubious prisons and gulags as a means to provide "justice." These techniques remind us of the analogy of a hammer used to kill a fly. Indeed, they are far worse.)

To the extent creative commons get a chance to grow beyond a certain threshold, we are in a position to see a more free culture. Cultural production means creating new cultural products against and upon what history has handed to us. To the extent that history can be frozen in a particular era by some few owners of its cultural products, we stand to suffer because we lose our flexibility as a cultured community to respond to the changes that go on around us.

Notes

1. The phrase "cultured societies" reads like an oxymoron. No society can exist in the long run without a culture to sustain it. Perhaps, I should have said in "Sustainable societies". Then again, we aree dealing with a bit of a tautology here. Without culture a society cannot be sustained, and no society is sustainable without culture.

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