Monday, February 21, 2011

On Property Rights

Harking back to a previous post on views of property rights, I have boiled down my thoughts:

In a world where everyone clings to Christian love and understanding, and levels of trust are high, property rights aren't really necessary. The tragedy of the commons doesn't exist, everyone does the "right" thing.

However, in a fallen world where few people know God and His love, property rights are a necessary starting point for organizing economic activity. They are clearly approved by God (Leviticus 25, etc.)

In the Piper book Momentary Marriage, I find this quote on divorce helpful:

“there are laws in the Old Testament that are not expressions of God’s will for all time, but expressions of how best to manage sin in a particular people at a particular time. Divorce is never commanded and never instituted in the Old Testament. But it was permitted and regulated—like polygamy was permitted and regulated, and like certain kinds of slavery were permitted and regulated And Jesus says here that this permission was not a reflection of God’s ideal for his people; it was a reflection of the hardness of the human heart. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.”

You can see God's commands regarding the enforcement of property rights as similar to this. That makes Jesus' words in the New Testament more powerful-- give to all who ask, and do not turn from whoever wishes to borrow from you.

One microeconomics textbook example of the importance of property rights is that of a particular university that adopted a bike-sharing program. At the end of the school year, the community bikes were all either stolen or in disrepair. "That which is owned by everyone is owned by no one." However, there are counter examples of similar programs that work fairly well. In some cases they work because incentives are aligned with a property/price mechanism--it works just like the textbook says it should. But in other cases it just seems to be that the participants behave better, they show a love and respect for each other even in the absence of property rights. People in the community maintain the bikes, even though they don't have to.

This doesn't eliminate the problem of scarcity as some claim (to be addressed in a future post) but it does show that in a God-fearing, loving community property rights don't have to be absolute. If everyone is giving up their rights then we can trust each other to do the "right" things.


Ken said...

Not sure I would place private ownership of property in the same class as divorce, slavery, or polygamy.

Scarcity seems to have existed on some level prior to the Fall, if not in terms of material objects, at least in terms of different talents or skills. Eve was created subsequent to Adam's self-recognized limitations. Both of the first two people were needed to accomplish God's intended plan for the task of management and both were needed to fully reflect God's image. This arrangement presumes division of labor and demands trust as a foundation for cooperation.

Further, certain non-material "properties" were clearly possessed by each person. Thus, ownership is inherenlty human. Instincts and traits are non-human features, but personality differences relate to people. No coincidence that social psychologists do not recognize personality as a distinctly invividual human feature. Rather, it is viewed as a social constructed self-hood, based entirely on passive and active learning processes.

Seems to me the failure of trust is the key rather than the disposition of material property. I can own a thing in the context of a proper trust relationship and expect shared use of that thing in good faith. Without that trust, I cannot assume the thing will be properly used, taken care of, or that I will receive proper credit for my contribution as the owner of that resource.

I do believe there was some level of material scarcity at creation, as well. The availability of resources are conditioned upon time and distance factors. In a sense, if the berries are not in my hand, they are to some degree "scarce." I can get them (I know where they are), I just don't possess them. I wonder if the division of talent and energy properties would have evolved into division of physical properties for the purpose of achieving efficiency. It would help me if you retreived the berries and I carried water. We could trade without contract, enjoying full trust.

JDTapp said...

Thanks for the comment. Dealing with pre-fall realities is tricky because we can't imagine a world without sin.

I might disagree that Eve was created due to Adam's "self-recognized limitations." The account in Genesis 2 shows God making the statement "it is not good for Adam to be alone," not Adam. Many argue that Adam didn't see his need of anything.

I agree that trust appears to be the key mechanism. There is no need to be dogmatic about my rights of ownership if I trust others to share my property well. There is less need to be concerned about my property if I'm trusting in God to fully provide.

I think that since work and roles existed before the fall division of labor either did occur or would have occurred to achieve efficiency regardless.

wwje said...


This is a pretty decent summary of our very long winded conversation and I like where you land (or we landed). I'm still interested in talking about scarcity vs. abundance. I know what you're saying about scarcity from an economics perspective (just as you do in relation to property rights and ownership). I'm interested to see what happens when we collide the economic idea with the world of the Bible, just like we did with possession.

Good stuff! Sad I won't be able to interact as often after next week, but you remain in my rss reader. Sounds kind of like a nerdy Valentine. Anyway...

JDTapp said...

Thanks, Lucas. Just wanted to post this summary and get it out of my head. I'm not sure why the scarcity definition is such a hangup for many but will work on a post on that. See Ken's berry example above for an even more broad illustration of scarcity.