What is Property?

In the current age the concept of property is notoriously difficult to nail down. Most concepts of property in Western Civilization trace back to early Roman origins, but there they become ambiguous. “Possession is nine tenths of the law” is as far as the Roman legal scholarship seems to go.

Some anthropologists take a different view. They argue that in primitive societies women represented the ideal of property. This is not to say that women were devalued as things, but, rather, that women enjoyed a special proprietary interest on the part of the men in their lives.

It is not hard to see how elaborate systems of social currency, or value, might arise from such simple, natural origins. And yet the result remains confusing because a) women defined as property clearly benefit from the social protections that derive from the status, and b) it is noticeably impossible — even in primitive societies — to define the value of a human life in material terms.

I am somewhat inclined to the anthropological view. My sense of property is that it consists of those things and people I control. Of course, I have no absolute control over anything or anyone. Still, the concept of property seems rooted in human relationships as far as I can see.

In case the point I am trying to convey isn’t clear, let me note that “She is my wife” is in every sense the exact equivalent of “He is my husband.”

48 thoughts on “What is Property?

    1. Hmm. Property = profit?

      I can see that profit is property, but surely property can be other things. I’d like to suggest that property is a claim we have on others, but that others have a claim on us, as well.

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      1. I don’t think it’s that complicated.

        Assume I am good at making chairs. I have all the chairs I need so I sell the excess chairs I make, and buy a table from someone who is good at making tables.

        That table is now mine, and the guy who made it no longer has any claim on it, and I have no claim on the chairs I sold. If the table is well made, I never have to deal with the table maker again, unless he wants to buy some chairs.

        No one has a claim on me and I have no claim on anyone.

        That property represents that portion of my life I expended to make or earn them, so for anyone to make a claim on that property is making a claim on a part of my life.

        That will not go well for him.

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          1. I have no problem with the concept of self-defense. It simply does not apply as broadly as your stated interpretation would stretch it. Your “property” is NOT a “portion of your life” which you have an unqualified right to defend. And, as long as you live in – and benefit from being in – a well-organized society there are always going to be claims on your “property” which are entirely legitimate whether you like them or not.

            Beyond that, your constantly threatening violence on every subject comes across very badly. You may think it makes you sound like some sort of manly man, but the real effect is to make you sound like a childish jerk. IMHO of course. Take it or leave it.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. RE: “And, as long as you live in – and benefit from being in – a well-organized society there are always going to be claims on your ‘property’ which are entirely legitimate whether you like them or not.”

            It is actually impossible for any one person to “owe a debt” to society because the amount cannot be quantified. Since the amount is unknowable, it cannot be paid; and since it cannot be paid it cannot be owed.

            There is, in other words, no such thing as a legitimate claim on one’s property, only claims that can be extracted by force. Your comment merely shifts the right of violence from the individual to society, hardly an improvement.

            At least Dr. Tabor recognizes the person as a human being.

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          3. “It is actually impossible for any one person to “owe a debt” to society because the amount cannot be quantified. Since the amount is unknowable, it cannot be paid; and since it cannot be paid it cannot be owed.”

            Tell that to anyone who been sentenced for a crime. Prosecutors and judges quantify the “debt” based on suitable time for the crime committed.

            I won’t go into who gets charged more for his or her crimes.

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          4. “There is, in other words, no such thing as a legitimate claim on one’s property, only claims that can be extracted by force.”

            You are just playing with words.

            There very obviously ARE legitimate obligations owed to the society that supports you. The amount is quantified by the political process.

            And what is it with you people? Always talking about “force” as we go about the business of living, working, raising our kids, and paying taxes. I have personally been paying – say – gasoline taxes – for sixty years and not once have I encountered a government thug at the pump.

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          5. “Your “property” is NOT a “portion of your life””

            Because you say so?

            To put it in simple terms, taking wood and making a chair consumes a portion of my life. I cannot get that time back. So, yes, that chair represents a portion of my life.

            Tell me how it could not?

            Chairs don’t magically appear when needed. Time and effort are required. Absent that, there is just unorganized wood. That portion of my life is as much a part of that chair as the wood.

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          6. RE: “There very obviously ARE legitimate obligations owed to the society that supports you. The amount is quantified by the political process.”

            Well, if they are obvious, they should be easy to explain.

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          7. “Because you say so?”

            If you wish.

            It is a silly construct. Let’s say you are taking a walk and you find a chair. Is that chair not your property because it has none of your life in it? Better yet, let’s say you find a valuable gold nugget. Not your property? None of your life nor none of anyone else’s.

            But here is a head’s up. If you spend an hour building a chair, or eating a meal, or taking a nap that “portion of your life” is gone forever. No one can take it from you because you no longer have it.

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        1. RE: “If the table is well made…”

          There’s the rub. Since no table (or chair) can be perfect, defects that were not noticed in the moment of exchange are bound to surface later. When that happens, the recipient of the defect must decide what to do about it, beginning, perhaps, with some calculation of its importance.

          The point is, exchange doesn’t automatically cancel the social psychology which is the pre-existing context in which it occurs. In the case of the table and chairs, the recipient of the defect may believe he is owed something he didn’t get in the transaction. The giver of the defect might even agree, upon confrontation, that the debt is a legitimate one.

          I can see how a society with an elaborate system of exchange can function to everyone’s advantage, but the question of ownership in the sense of one person being (in some sense) the property of another is impossible to avoid.

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  1. It is interesting (to me) that Tabor’s tables and chairs example is exactly how a communist might explain Marx’s Labor Theory of Value. That is, putting human labor into raw materials is what gives something value. And in his example, he’d be absolutely right to claim the products of his labor as rightfully his.

    Where the calculus will get tricky for him, is when the capitalist is introduced–when one guy owns all the lumber and lathes and employs people to produce chairs which the capitalist will then claim as his property. Should the finished chairs belong to the workers, or to the person who has come to own the means of chair production?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, I was trying to put it in the simplest possible terms just to make a simple point.

      But sure, if a capitalist builds a factory that produces chairs more efficiently than individual craftsmen, they are his chairs. The workers are paid for their time and efforts and that satisfies their interest in the chairs.

      Where the Marxists go wrong is that they think everyone’s time and labor has the same value. But the time and effort of the guy who can organize a factory has a great deal more value than that of those he employs.

      How do I know? The Market tells me so.

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      1. That’s not really accurate. Marxism is less concerned with whose job is more valuable to society. It is more about who actually performs labor, vs who simply collects the surplus value (profits) created by others.

        I guess it’s appropriate you would draw comparisons between the market and the Bible.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. One of the two is infallible.

          But no one simply collects the profits made by others.

          If a craftsman can make a chair in a day, but with provided with modern machinery can make 10, to whom do the other 9 chairs belong, the investor who provides the machinery or the worker who runs it?

          The only rational response is the investor.

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          1. “One of the two is infallible.”

            You actually believe that?

            Back to the chairs. How many chairs does the investor get absent the workers? He needs the workers, the workers do not need him.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Actually, it’s the opposite.

            The investor could make the 10 chairs himself, he hires someone else because his time is better used elsewhere.

            Absent the investor, the workers could never make more than the one chair a day.

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          3. “The investor could make the 10 chairs himself, he hires someone else because his time is better used elsewhere.”

            In your first response to me you were talking about a factory. Now we’re talking about a guy with a machine in his garage that he hires someone to work all day?

            Liked by 1 person

          4. It does not scale. A factory versus a single person are two very different things.

            Again, you misunderstand the point. I’m not suggesting only those workers could run the machines. But the capitalist needs someone to run the machines. The workers do not need a capitalist who does nothing to produce and only siphons off profits. If he is performing some king of administrative or logistical duties, then he is also working and that’s a different story.

            Liked by 2 people

          5. The workers don’t need a capitalist?

            They’re going to get their labor leveraging machinery from the factory fairy?

            If they keep making their 1 chair/day, how will they compete with the workers who do have a capitalist providing them with machinery? They will be unable to match the chair factory’s prices and they will earn nothing.

            The capitalist does not siphon off profits, he makes profits, and employment for those workers, possible. Without him, they will starve.

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          6. “The factory fairy.” That is how the first generation of capitalists get their money. When the commons are enclosed and would-be enterprises are handed over to private hands, it is (gasp) the government acting as capital fairy.

            Now, the capitalists are needed to accumulate he capital required to build the factories. That’s not controversial. What Marx (and the modern world) says, is that capitalism is not sustainable and will eventually spiral itself out of control. At that point, workers will “seize the means of production” from the capitalists.

            Marxism acknowledges the necessity of capitalism. This is part of what got the Bolsheviks in trouble when they tried to leapfrog the capitalist phase.

            Liked by 2 people

          7. Again, Marxism does contend that capitalism is an improvement over anything that came before it. That said, Non well-connected people of most every country outside of Europe endured horrible atrocities as capitalism was imposed on them. Just because they now have smart phones doesn’t erase the decades of foreign interventions and death squads sponsored by capitalists.

            Liked by 2 people

          8. I’m not going to read another tired book defending power any more than you’re going to read Lenin. The entire world is shaped around this paradigm. I’ve heard it.

            The fortunate part about being a defender of the status quo and existing power structures is that you can get by with a child’s understanding of these systems by just repeating official ideology.

            Imperialism is what enabled capitalism to grow beyond Manchester and the Ruhr. Capitalism needs constant expansion and access to new markets and cheap labor. If you can’t see the straight line between capitalism and imperialism, you’re not trying to have a serious conversation.

            Liked by 1 person

          9. Then why did the US and its allies spend the better part of the 20th century ruthlessly suppressing any alternative systems that tried to sprout? “Good [natural] ideas don’t require coercion,” right?

            Liked by 1 person

          10. No, but they do require defense.

            Note that I said of a FREE PEOPLE. Freedom is a relatively new concept and one that requires vigilance against the lust of government.

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          11. That’s an oversimplification.

            If government excludes force(including unresolved externalities) and fraud from the marketplace then free market capitalism is the natural state.

            Imperialism and cronyism require government collusion with actors who do not want to face the rigors of a free market.

            That is why government must be strictly limited to the role of an impartial referee.

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          12. “… strictly limited to the role of an impartial referee.”

            So how do we elect legislators who are not beholden to big money with the current laissez faire campaign finance regulations? Then get those same legislators to vote for bills restricting influence.

            Also, “force or fraud” is an issue. How does a huge company like Amazon or Walmart get to drive others out of business just by sheer size? No force or fraud, just outsized market share by having the best lawyers.

            Liked by 2 people

          13. “Was the British East India Company capitalist?”

            You seem to confuse the word “capitalist” with the word “manufacturer.” You prefer the a priori imagined capitalism of academics to a posteriori analysis based on evidence of how “capitalism” actually functions.

            But to answer your question – yes, they were, and they were a necessary part of the capitalist system that they were a component of.

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          14. Capitalists don’t control armies and navies. They were an imperialist cabal of members of the British aristocracy and their cronies. They did not engage in free market trade.

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          15. “Capitalists don’t control armies and navies.”

            Is there no limit to your naivete?

            We are obviously back to your “no true capitalist” defense of what you really, really want to believe.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. RE: “Should the finished chairs belong to the workers, or to the person who has come to own the means of chair production?”

      The employment contract between the workers and the capitalist answers this question completely.

      I would argue that it is not possible for anything to be property (subject to ownership) except other human beings. They at least can consent to the relationship. But in so doing, they also disprove the concept of absolute property itself.

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  2. I simply define property as something I exchanged labor, other property or money for. I define a spouse as a result of a contract between a man snd a woman.

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