Monday, February 19, 2007

On Avoiding Conflict Through Private Property

People often have trouble seeing from where it logically follows that there exists a right to self-ownership or a right to own anything at all. That is, just how, exactly, can we show that each person having an exclusive right to control himself or any other good is justified, and that slavery through kidnapping and initiated force cannot be justified and that there is truly and objectively such a thing as theft.

The right to own anything, including self-ownership follows from realizing that the act of denying that anyone has such rights results in a performative contradiction. This is because the person attempting to deny this right demonstrates through his very act of attempting to deny it that he presumes such rights for himself. Therefore, he refutes his denial in his very proposing it, thereby demonstrating the right to self-ownership and ownership in other goods as undeniable.

People sometimes presume that there are a large number of property norms available to us to choose from, and that they all have their various features to recommend themselves. Some also even go so far as to suggest no property norms at all may also be viable. In fact, there is only a very limited array of arrangements possible to allocate property, and property must be allocated if we are to avoid conflicts. This is because people will always have conflicting ends with which they will wish to control scarce means to achieve their ends. A property ethic is necessary to avoid conflict over these resources including our own bodies. A need for property rights is therefore unavoidable.

Universal rules over ownership of individuals can be thought of in only three pure forms:

1) We either have 100% exclusive ownership over ourselves;

2) We all have a 1/n the ownership in everyone and they in us;

3) A class of specially privileged individuals has 100% ownership over an unprivileged class.

The second scheme, if followed religiously results in a very quick death of the human race. The third scheme is feasible, but cannot be justified due to its violation of the principle of universalizability and also its tendency to encourage conflict. Only the first - right to property in one's self - can be justified via the universalizable homesteading principle and allows completely for conflict avoidance. There are essentially no other schemes of rights in property of one's self; they can only be hybrids of these three. Saying no one has any right to anyone or anything is simply to avoid reality. Because men can and must act, they will always control scarce resources starting with their own bodies to achieve their ends. To avoid conflict, universally acceptable rules of establishing rights to such property are required. So while scheme three would allow human survival, it would not be justifiable and would not help avoid conflict.

To reiterate, we need justifiable property rights rules in order to avoid conflict. Anyone who discusses the need or lack of a need for a conflict free ethic has already demonstrated a value for conflict avoidance. Once we see that all participants in argumentation implicitly demonstrate a value of conflict avoidance, we can see that an ethic that allows conflict avoidance is desirable and justifiable, and also that any ethic that encourages conflict is unjustified.

So the issue of a valid ethic is an issue of how to justifiably assign property rights: what is a universally valid system of property rules that allows conflict avoidance? It must be a system based on respect for the homesteading principle, ownership in all that is produced by one's labor and previously homesteaded resources, and also through other contractually agreed upon arrangements. No one who asks any question at all, or makes any proposition at all, can argue against granting such a universal ethic which he already must implicitly presuppose as valid in the act of asking the question or making the proposition.

Something that becomes apparent out of this is that there is no such thing as a just egalitarian system. The nature of man is that he is not equal to his neighbor. To attempt to make him equal requires aggression, confiscation and extortion against some men and unjust transfer of wealth to others. Such behavior encourages conflict, which is contrary to the goal of argumentation, and again, therefore is contrary to justice.

For a better and more complete elaboration of these ideas, see essays by Hans Hoppe on his Argumentation Ethics.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Argumentation Ethics: some brief notes on the concept

Humans have discovered the ethics of liberty over and over again throughout human history. Of course, an ethical system for rational animals has to take account of the dynamic aspects of conflict, and not just zero sum scenarios. All other species in the world are not characterized after a vigorous a) capability and b) need, for owning and creating property. Men profit from a more advanced division of labor, whereas the animals and plants suffer when they compete for scare resources, since they cannot create more or just conceive of any alternatives for large numbers. The need for property is now evident. But how are we to validate the justice behind property and -of course- its distribution?

The best answer available to us (yet) is Hoppe's development of Habermas-Apel's concept of Discourse or Communicative Ethics. Those German thinkers have written about it to justify democracy and even dialog for the sake of dialog. Hoppe, a student of Habermas and a scholar on both, took the concept one step beyond. Thus, we can properly speak of Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics.

Hoppe studied and applied the empistemological breakthrough that Ludwig von Mises provided as an answer to Kant's dilemma: how are categories of the mind supposed to fit reality. Is it that humans create reality or at least that there is no reality but our mind makes sense (arbitrarily) of a senseless cosmos? Is it that reality created the human mind, and because of that human mind can understand reality around him?

The last position
fits perfectly with what Neurobiology teaches us about the human brain. Our brain is not, by any means, a tabula rasa. We are born with a brain (mind) that is the result of millions of years of evolution, and even if free will is a fact (which it is), we still have analogical processes that allow us to understand concepts which are key to our survival.

One of those concepts is the concept of property. Intuitively or rationally, men have always known that property homesteaded (by mixing labor with a resource) or created, belongs to the actor. But a contract to homestead a forest implies understanding more than meets the eye: the capitalist is the homesteader, and the employees just play a limited role and accept to receive a reward for it from his capital fund. That someone now owns the forest after some labor exerted over it, may be intuitive to some point. What cannot be is the fact that the capitalist existed, since he hired them over the phone and was not present to the eye of the natives in the zone. Those subtle categories of action (contract, fraud, wages) and the fact of -inevitably- limited information in an individual brain (no human being is omniscient, although I couldn't know, since I am not and so I have to deal with categories and generalizations). Those categories require reflection upon the meaning of human action, and in this case, human relations. The capitalist-wage earner relation is not self-evident, as we see. But neither is property. From the simplest to the most advanced form of property (say, company stocks or insurance policies), the human mind has to reflect upon basic categories of action in order to establish the
proper relation between owner and property.

What about the human body? Nature (before us, that is) never had to deal with
organ donation or robbery. Donation implies contract through the will of the parts. Robbery implies just the opposite. In order to distinguish both to a degree that will satisfy the victim or a judge, proper ownership of body parts has to be established.

But it is action what creates property around us. Isn't action capable of determining property of ourselves too? A right to self-determination embodied (yes, literally) on self-ownership?

Argumentation as action: the act of engaging in an argument is certainly revealing of some facts. First of all, we are willingly interacting in a peaceful way with the interlocutor. Argument, after all, is not any form of talking: it implies at least two people engaging voluntarily and freely in it. A speech to the slaves in a galley may not be an argument although it certainly is communication, of course. But if we talk about ethics, we are talking about principles equally valid (the universalizability of rights is a vital part of its definition, as a table has to hold things from falling to the ground in order to be a table) for all humans in the same situation.

Second, then, some ethical principles are revealed in the course of argumentation. One of them is contract, of course (and this is not tautological by any means, just keep in mind the galley example). But contract requires property. So denying self-ownership to the parts, would be denying the whole argumentation possibility. And yet, the one denying it would be engaging in some sort of argument if he was free to do it or not from the start. So in this case, we have a clear case of proof by contradiction of the opposite.

Human beings have a right to own themselves, as the act of argumentation clearly shows: nobody else can have command of their own bodies.


Hans-Hermann Hoppe has discovered and developed a system of rights that is grounded on the fact that humans act, that humans have a mind that is analogical to its circundating reality and that does not require an "is-ought" duality in order to show us the proper ethical system for rational animals. We are the rightful owners of our bodies and of property we create through the use of our minds, ourselves or through contract. If
slaves in a galley can dream of freedom in the near future, so can citizens of an statist world. Argumentation Ethics provides us with a template based on facts of how to untangle, understand and finally free a world ridden with contradition and denial of justice.