Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Right Questions: Eric T. Freyfogle's "On Private Property"

Remember how I was complaining about ideologues' lack of new analysis? Specifically, the inability to use data and observation of human society over the past half-century to evaluate and modify beliefs and theories...?

Well, I had a clever idea of my own the other day! Instead of just complaining that I haven't tripped over any new ideas, why not wander over to the bookstore and look for some? And I found a real gem: On Private Property: Finding Common Ground on the Ownership of Land,by Eric T. Freyfogle.

What does private property even mean? What precisely can you expect to do to/with/on your land when your right to property is upheld? If you think those questions have simple, clear, well-understood answers, you're wrong.

On the most basic level, your use/enjoyment of your property affects your neighbors' use/enjoyment of theirs, and vice-versa. Land use disputes can't be simply interpreted as one side upholding the right to property and the other side opposing it. They're more reasonably characterized as a complex negotiation over how the rights and interests different parties interact. And, unfortunately, US court rulings on property disputes often tend to have an "ad hoc" quality -- instead of being based on a general, objective set of principles.

Freyfogle gives a fascinating historical overview of how our definition of property has evolved over the past few centuries. He uses a number of actual property-dispute court cases to illustrate the ambiguity of what is (and has traditionally been) guaranteed by the right to property. And he proposes a framework of ideas about how we can understand better what private property should mean.

Whether or not you agree with his answers, Freyfogle is asking all the right questions. There is nothing more mind-expanding than looking at familiar issues from a new perspective by analyzing the key assumptions. And the question of how land and resources are divided is going to be one of the most critical issues of our time as population pressure continues to rise to the nine billion mark. We're not living on the edge of the (supposedly) unlimited frontier anymore, folks, and it's time to think hard about what that means for our society and the world.

I'd like to recommend this book for online discussion. I would especially like to recommend this book for any of you who call yourselves "Libertarians" or "Objectivists" -- if you're going to hold up the right of property as the most crucial right, then it's in your interest to be sure you know what you're talking about. Unfortunately, unlike The Authoritarians (which we discussed earlier), this book isn't available for free download. It costs $16 from the publisher. Worth the money, IMHO, but I hope they'll eventually pasture it as a free (or very cheap) e-book at some point so it can enjoy wider distribution.


Stephen said...

I'll have to look at the book, thanks for the pointer.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

I found the book quite interesting just from a layman's perspective. I'd be curious to know how it looks from a lawyer's perspective. (You're a lawyer, right?)