Property and Norms

From Cultures Are Portfolios Of Property Rights:

Cultures are portfolios of property rights. The composition of, and distribution of those property rights, varies from culture to culture. In each culture, those rights are expressed as norms. Property rights themselves are a norm. Those property rights perpetuated by norms may be more or less beneficial than other portfolios of property rights.

But any idiot who thinks that (a) formal institutions don’t matter – such as libertarians or (b) that formal institutions are sufficient – such as progressives, will have history prove him wrong to the chagrin of the people who understand (c) that norms are a form of property – conservatives. Norms are a commons that we all pay for. The tax we pay for them with is forgone opportunity to consume them, and absorbing the risk that no others will absorb them too.

One of the most difficult problems I have  when attempting to discuss Propertarianism is property. What is it? I want to get across two important ideas here: Property is a Norm and Norms are Property.

Property is a Norm

This may not seem intuitive to you. After all, an apple is property. It exists. You can touch it, you can trade it. We call this ‘intersubjectively verifiable property’: that which we can all subjectively verify that it exists. Given this common understanding of physical property, such as an apple, this leads one to scratch his head and ask “How can an apple be a norm?”. That just doesn’t make sense.

Let’s look at it from another perspective. What if that apple were on the Moon. Would it then be property? Not really. No-one owns the moon. No-one owns the apple. Therefore it is not property. So we see there is actually a difference between the apple and property. An apple is an apple, but it may or may not be property. What’s the difference? It’s how we treat it. If we treat it as property, then it’s property. You see, an apple becomes property through an act of human behavior.

What’s a norm? “Norms are cultural products (including values, customs, and traditions)”

Customs and traditions are behavior which are the result of values. An apple becomes property through social behavior (custom/tradition). An apple on the moon isn’t property. An apple on a grocer’s shelf is property. The difference? The presence of humans behaving in a certain way.

What is the norm (the behavior, the custom or tradition) that we call property? The norm is ‘non-parasitism’ (Thou Shalt Not Steal). Group cooperation is valuable to us, and in order to maintain group cooperation we have a rule of non-parasitism: each person will produce what he needs and not take what others have produced.

In nature, the strong take from the weak, and a state of nature is a state of war (Hobbes). War is not cooperation, it is conflict. You have an apple and I have a rock. I hit you on the head with my rock and take the apple. That’s nature. But that destroys cooperation, and cooperation magnifies our production, so we build rules to preserve this cooperation. We then teach these rules to our children and enforce them. These rules are norms of behavior.

Once we create the norm of non-parasitism within a group (a laborious process), then all forms of theft are barred (by custom/tradition). So, now you have an apple and I want the apple but I can’t steal it (per our norm), so we negotiate a deal, a trade. Under the norm of non-parasitism, trade is the only mechanism remaining by which we can (knowingly) transfer objects to one another. Any object which is transferred in this system (of the norm of non-parasitism) is property. The system of trades within which we transfer these objects is called a market.

When non-parasitism is the rule, then the trading of objects (property in a market) is the only thing that is left. So, property only exists as an act of a social norm: non-parasitism. Property is a norm of behavior, not a physically measurable attribute. When we refer to property, we are really referring to property rights, and all rights originate in contract (agreement). Therefore property = property right = contract = agreement (of reciprocal behavior) = norm of behavior.

As an aside, it should also be clear that non-parasitism (the norm), property (the objects) and markets (the method of transfer) are all different ways to look at the same thing. There can be no markets without property. There can be no property without the norm of non-parasitsm.

Norms are Property

Once you understand that property is not a real thing, but instead is nothing more than an agreement of human behavior, a norm, then we can take the next step to understanding an expanded portfolio of human capital.

The process of discovering the rules of cooperation which then magnify production to yield prosperity for a group (values), and the process of transferring these rules (customs and traditions) within the group (horizontally) and through time (vertically/(intergenerationally ) is not free. The acquisition and transfer occurs only at a high cost. Allowing children to roam free is cheap (in the short term), educating (domesticating) them is expensive (in the short term) but yields long term benefits in increased group cooperation. Domesticating every man, woman and child is expensive.

The loss of this norm of non-parasitism (corruption, theft, fraud) is costly both to individuals and also to the group as cooperation is disrupted. Therefore, protecting property rights (remember, rights are a contract within a group) means protecting a norm: non-parasitism.

There are other norms which have beneficial long-term outcomes and which have been propagated (horizontally) throughout groups and (vertically) through time. Monogamy and marriage are such a norm. I’ll refer to monogamy/marriage as marriage, which is a set of social norms which were developed to regulate the obligations and responsibilities attendant upon procreation. Females, when given the opportunity, will breed with the highest ranking males (status) that they can attract, and will offload the cost of resulting offspring onto the group. Prior to the modern welfare state, this would have been family members with primarily the woman’s father and brothers providing resources for the offspring. Gestation, lactation and child rearing are resource-intensive activities which generally a single female cannot perform, thus requiring group cooperation. When a male produces offspring, but does not provide the necessary resources, then he is externalizing the cost of his own reproduction onto others. The creation of externalities (imposition of cost) are a form of parasitism. Thus, the norm of marriage is an extension of the norm of non-parasitism with regards to the activity of procreation.

The destruction of the norm of marriage (single motherhood financed through the redistributive welfare state) allows for the imposition of cost via externality upon men (taxpayers) who do not receive the benefit of having their genes propagated (gene propagation is the ultimate purpose of acquisition/production). It also creates a host of other costs to the group via propagation of social pathologies which are associated with the children of single mothers (dysgenia).

In the case of the norm of property rights and marriage there is a reduction in parasitism which is achieved, which maximizes cooperation and has other beneficial long term effects. This means that norms are capital, a form of property. They are expensive to discover, propagate and maintain, and their destruction imposes costs (or reduces benefits). For this reason, humans will defend norms, customs and traditions in exactly the same way, and for the same reason, that they defend physical property. Therefore, norms are property.

The portfolio of human capital includes not only physical objects, but also norms of behavior (customs and traditions which transfer values). Property is a norm, and norms are property.


5 thoughts on “Property and Norms

  1. I keep thinking “did I write this and not remember it?” and “wow… this is really good.” You demonstrate every one of the techniques as well: parenthetic examples, full articulation of causal arc, completely declarative sentences, full accounting, damn…

    You say it better than I do. Wow. Absolutely thrilled. Nice work. Really blown away.

    seriously man. When you said you wanted to get there … it wasn’t that long ago. Wow.

    I’m kinda stunned.

    Liked by 1 person

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