Property is power. How much power is too much?

Ian Welsh wrote a great analysis of property, starting from the premise that “Property is the right to choose how resources, including people, are deployed,” and showing what that means from an ethical standpoint.

What you can own and how much you can have of it, and when it is taken away, is entirely a social decision. It is the acquiescence of your neighbours, in the broadest sense, which allows you to keep what you have–especially when it grows to include far more than your dwelling, tools, clothes, and the land on which you actually work.

Libertarianism is an attempt to take a socially granted license to use resources which are primarily a result of society’s efforts, not yours, and say that it is an intrinsic, individual human right.

But you did not train the workers you employ. You did not raise them or bear them. You did not educate them. You did not build the roads you use. And so on. The value, the advantage, of living in an advanced society is having access to all the infrastructure and institutions you did not build.

Let us bring this back to ethics.

To create a good society, that work is all necessary. It’s necessary that we build institutions, that we have infrastructure, that we support scientists (all the key research and inventions which created the internet were publically funded, for example).

It is also necessary that the people who are making the decisions are making good decisions. Bankers were making bad decisions. When they lost their money, it should have stayed lost. They weren’t harmed, like GM, by a crisis caused by other people, they were wiped out by a crisis of their own creation.

For a society to run well, we must be able to say, “You are not using society’s resources and people well, therefore, we are going to take away your ability to command so much of society’s resources.”

The larger we expand the sphere of property, as with intellectual property and the right to patent genetic codes, the more we say, “Only person X can make decisions about what to do with these resources.” We had better be damn certain that that one person, or corporation, or whoever owns these resources, is at least making good decisions, and ideally making better decisions than would be made if those resources had stayed in the commons, available for use by many.

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