I feel like this:
Interestingly, this view also makes NIMBYism seem natural instead of unnatural. If I own a house, I can use that ownership to prevent things from happening to the house that I don’t want. But do I just own the dirt and wood, or do I also own the ambient level of noise? The fragrance of the air? The view? The price? We can make our conception of property too large or too small
Conflicts with this:
Many of the problems we have now, I claim, are not caused by too much property but by too many decision-makers, or in this view, too little property.
Above, you seem to be arguing that property can encompass all sorts of rights to determine things. If you tear down your house in Berkeley and build an apartment building, its true that you have more property (as you call it, the ability to abuse your house). But, by giving you this right, your surrounding neighbors necessarily have less property, because they no longer have property in these things that you list: noise, air, light, price, etc. So, we might argue about whether changing the balance of those rights is good or bad (in this case I think it’s good), but you have to just make the case for that on normative grounds (consequences will be better, fulfills categorical imperative better, makes people more virtuous, whatever). You can’t shortcut that by saying that one state involves more property, or more properly more rights, than another. Every person’s right to act is the equal and opposite of other affected people’s lack of right to control the thing that affects them. You can’t get more total rights. This has been known and accepted for a long time in legal philosophy, most prominently and succinctly by Wesley Hohfeld.
This confusion about rights is most prominent in your reference to landlords and factory owners. You say:
Why have impersonal property, i.e. a landlord who rents out houses, a company that owns factories, massive tracts of land owned by the same farm, a bank that chooses which loans to grant and which to deny? The same basic reason, I claim; the landlord can make decisions about the houses that they own without having to consult anyone else, and this means decisions can be made faster and more cheaply.
These references conveniently don’t mention the people who would actually be most affected by decisions about the private property—the people whose livelihoods depend on it. A “landlord who rents out houses” may not care about any one house all that much, qua house. It is an income stream to him, and if it were replaced by a bundle of bonds that pay interest equal to the rent he receives he would be indifferent, or probably even happy (bonds are easier to manage). But there is someone who cares a whole lot about what is done with that house—the tenant! To them, the house is not just some property, it is a home. Its where they live, they laugh, play, eat, raise children, etc. And the more rights you give to the landlord, the less rights the tenant has.
It feels like this post is effectively a stab at using the language of rationality to try to adjudicate age-old debates between socialism and capitalism. After all, it’s an supposed to be a defense of [private] property. But if you want to do that (good luck!) its important to try to seriously engage with the socialist critiques of property instead of breezily eliding them, which are centered around this very concept. The fundamental point of the socialist critique of private property is that it assigns more rights to relatively disinterested absentee capital-owners at the expense of the rights that could otherwise be assigned to the person who is most affected. To use your shirt analogy, assigning the rights to the landlord/factory owner would be like assigning the right to choose what color shirt you wear to the shirt company instead of to the person who wears the shirt.
I upvoted your post because I think the discussion is a good one to have, but I think you have yet to have it.
Above, you seem to be arguing that property can encompass all sorts of rights to determine things.
Right; it’s a social agreement, and so it could be altered if the relevant parties decide to alter it.
I think you’re right to object to me calling it “too little property”; like, if the thing is a two-dimensional object, rather than saying “too little area” I should be more precise and say it’s “too short”. That is, a vetocracy is what you get when you have too much distributed ownership and too little concentrated ownership.
You can’t get more total rights.
Seems right, although importantly you can maximize the sum of individual benefit minus coordination costs; I think my overall sense is that’s how you determine what the correct level of rights is, but that’s a longer argument (where I would mostly be leaning on Hayek, I suspect). Of course this gets you into the problems inherent in aggregating benefit across people, and other thorny territory; I’m not saying it’s easy, just that there’s a target.
The fundamental point of the socialist critique of private property is that it assigns more rights to relatively disinterested absentee capital-owners at the expense of the rights that could otherwise be assigned to the person who is most affected.
Eh, I’m not very sympathetic to this. I’ve rented something like a dozen apartments in a dozen years; to the best of my knowledge, all of those places are still standing and rented out to someone else now. It seems odd to claim that when I was there for a year, my interest in the place outweighed the landlord’s interest, because it requires forgetting about the interests of every other renter that the landlord contracted with.
although importantly you can maximize the sum of individual benefit minus coordination costs
Although you have to be careful how you measure this. If you naively measure it in dollars, you can pretty easily come to the conclusion that the optimal distribution of property rights is for Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to own everything. But I don’t think that Jeff Bezos’s life changes one whit if his wealth changed from $185b to $300b, or $100b, or $10b, or even $1b.
Obviously there are positional aspects, but if you imagine that his wealth is being reduced by generally applicable laws then those laws would obviously apply to others too.
you can pretty easily come to the conclusion that the optimal distribution of property rights is for Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to own everything. But I don’t think that Jeff Bezos’s life changes one whit if his wealth changed from $185b to $300b, or $100b, or $10b, or even $1b.
So, let’s set aside the contractual question, where society lets Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk keep their stuff because society agreed to do it, and holding up society’s end of the bargain is important. Instead let’s ask the question: what does society get out of Musk owning something instead of someone else owning something?
I argue society really doesn’t get much benefit from Musk eating additional capital; like, if he buys really fancy steaks or really fancy yachts or whatever, this is mostly benefiting him instead of us (the indirect benefits, like being able to vicariously consume it on Twitter or Youtube or whatever, are probably pretty small and entertainers probably have a comparative advantage here).
I do think society gets a significant benefit from Musk owning additional capital, because he turns it into businesses that are plausibly beneficial, many of which seem like the sort of visionary longshots that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Similarly for Bezos, altho his focus is pointed at a particular company. The world where Amazon has $100B of assets and MediocreCorp has $100B of assets will be poorer than the world where Amazon has $175B of assets and MediocreCorp has $25B of assets.
I think a similar story goes through for many historical titans. On the for-profit side, it’s easy to see the creation of massive fortunes through increased efficiency; like, Ikea became massive and Kamprad hugely wealthy because they had a better way of doing things than the competition. The more money Kamprad was ‘allowed’ to direct, the more things he improved. On the non-profit side, it’s also easy to see examples where they applied the same efficiency and long-sightedness where selecting programs was more difficult than ‘just writing checks’. Carnegie’s decision to fund libraries seems like a significant example here, but probably more central is Rockefeller, himself a fan of homeopathic medicine, setting up a medical research institute that would actually figure out the truth instead of just pushing his favorite. Both of these were pioneering projects in a way that seems easy to ‘fade into the background’, in the same way that Ikea might seem like “just how furniture is” to someone young enough. [Both of them, of course, also have efficiency stories behind how they made their wealth, but they’re distant enough in the past that they might be hard to empathize with.]
That can hold if you assume that a dollar collected is a dollar of value produced. As more and more wealth is concentrated in fewer hands, it becomes easier and easier to extract monopoly rents through market power rather than actually produce value by innovating. For example, Amazon is so big that it makes money by squeezing suppliers. One way it does this is by “accidentally” allowing low-quality counterfeits on its site and only making any effort to remove them when the supplier of the genuine item pays up. It’s not clear to me that shifting the producer surplus from the manufacturer to the retailer generates any marginal value for society, but it does earn Jeff Bezos a lot of money.