The Basics of Liberty and Property
One day, Odysseus noticed that the wreckage of his old ship, which was perched half-submerged on a corral reef, began to collapse and sink. He took out his boat to rescue materials from it. On one of these trips he found chains with manacles. Many years ago, when he set out to conquer Troy, he brought these chains along to secure Trojan captives and future slaves. As he looked upon them again, his eyes became steely as a dark thought passed over his mind.
That night, he crept up on a sleeping Polyphemus, and quickly fettered his wrists and ankles.
The waking giant cried out, “What is the meaning of this?”
“I am finally conquering you.”
“But it would be foolish to slay me! Remember, we are more productive when we divide our labor!”
“Oh, I am not slaying you. I am enslaving you. We will still divide our labor. I’ll focus on some tasks, and you on others, according to our comparative advantage. But it will be under my command. I won’t need to bother trading with you, because everything you produce will be mine. I’ll only provide you with just enough food, water, and shelter to keep you alive.”
Odysseus set Polyphemus to work gathering lumber, building structures, and digging wells, while he focused on other tasks.
Yet Odysseus’s productivity sank. It took great time and effort to oversee Polyphemus, prevent him from escaping, and put down his rebellions.
And Polyphemus’s productivity plummeted as well. Just like during the war, Odysseus’s capital stock began to dwindle due to lack of maintenance. He even started going hungry due to lack of food, and cold due to lack of firewood.
One night as he was shivering on the ground, Athena appeared before him.
“A cold body to match your cold heart, Odysseus?”
“It’s Polyphemus’s fault! He has become so careless and lazy. And when I punish him, he only gets worse!”
“Well, he can’t work as well in those chains. Also, he hates you for taking away his freedom. He doesn’t work hard or carefully, because he doesn’t want to benefit you. And when you punish him, he just hates you more.”
“Then magically change his heart! Make him not hate me!”
“That wouldn’t be enough. Why would he want to work harder to produce more, when the additional stuff he produces doesn’t do him any good?”
“What am I supposed to do, free him?”
“Yes, give him back his liberty.”
“L- l- liberty?”
“Yes, liberty. Let me explain. Remember when you learned about economizing scarce resources?”
“What was the first scarce resource you economized when you were drowning?”
“My body, when I used it to swim.”
“…and not to remove the splinter, right?”
“Yes, my body is scarce, so I couldn’t use it to do both.”
“Now, what if Polyphemus had been in the water too?”
“Back then, he would have wanted to eat me.”
“Yes, and could your body have been used both to swim and to satisfy Polyphemus’s hunger?”
“No, because it is scarce.”
“Exactly, that is what is called a conflict. The two of you have ends for the same means that can’t both be pursued. Either you economize your body, or he does. It can’t be both. Liberty is when you, and only you, economize your body.”
“The way it should be!”
“But, it is also when every other individual, and only that individual, economizes his own body. And that includes Polyphemus. Right now, you are economizing his body by keeping it in chains, and forcing him to work for you. Since his body is scarce, that is preventing him from economizing it the way he wants. You must stop that. You must respect his liberty: his right to be the only one who economizes his body.”
“Even if he’s using his body to attack mine?”
“No, you must demand that he respect your liberty as well. If he initiates force against your body, that is called aggression. This includes crimes like murder, assault, kidnapping, and duress. Part of your right to liberty is a right to self-defense. You can use defensive force against his body to stop his aggression.”
Polyphemus, who had been listening all along, interjected, “But what about my enslavement? He has already committed terrible aggression against me. Shall I not have my revenge?”
Athena answered, “Not revenge, but restitution.”
“What?” responded both Odysseus and Polyphemus in unison.
“You are owed the restoration of what you have lost due to his aggression. He cannot give you back the days of freedom that he has stolen from you. So the next best thing is for him to give you something else of roughly the same value, and then some. For example, he could work for you twice as long as he forced you to work for him.”
Polyphemus objected, “No, restitution is not enough. I demand equality. We will never stop fighting until we have nothing to fight over: until we share everything. Then there will be no conflict, and our productive cooperation will be more harmonious than ever.”
Odysseus said, “Okay, fine, whatever it takes to get food on the table again!”
Athena retired to let the mortals learn from their mistakes.
Odysseus and Polyphemus then shared everything: land, capital goods, and consumers’ goods. But, much to their surprise, production was hardly any higher than it was under slave labor. Land went untilled, crops went unharvested, equipment fell into disrepair, and stockpiles disappeared as soon as they were accumulated.
Odysseus complained to Athena, “It’s just as I told you. He’s just lazy and greedy!”
Polyphemus retorted, “Hypocrite!”
Athena answered, “You are both shirking, that is avoiding work and sacrifice. That is because you don’t get the full benefit of any extra work you do or any other sacrifices you make for production. You are also using up your resources too quickly, because each of you is racing to use it before the other one does. And you are not taking care of your resources, because each of you is expecting the other one to. You need better property rules.”
“What is property?” Polyphemus asked.
“Remember, when resources are scarce, choices must be made about how they are used. Property has to do with who gets to make those choices. Right now, you are following communal property. Those seeds over there and that earth will be under the temporary control of whoever does the planting: say, Odysseus. But when the factors transform into crops, half of their fruits may no longer be under Odysseus’s control, but may be under Polyphemus’s control when he eats them.”
“Right, that’s why I so rarely feel like farming,” Odysseus remarked.
“A much better alternative to this is private property. Under private property, every resource is fully owned by one person. Every seed and every patch of earth can be economized both in the present and into the future by the same person. That way, the person who does the sowing is the same person who does the reaping and eating. And so he has the incentive to work hard and carefully.”
Odysseus queried, “How do we know who fully owns what?”
“When a resource is unowned, and then it is economized by someone for the first time, that first-economizer has established property rights over it. He has title to it, which is his right to be the only person who economizes it. And he has the right to transfer that title to another person. Then the the other person fully owns it in the exact same way that the original owner did. An owner might transfer title to someone in return for title to something the other person owns.”
Polyphemus asked, “Is that an exchange? Like what we did regularly until Odysseus ruined it by shackling me?”
“Oh get over it,” Odysseus snarled.
“Yes, precisely. To continue, violating property rights, just like violating personal liberty, is aggression. This includes crimes like theft, fraud, trespass, and vandalism. Part of an individual’s property rights is his right to defend his property against invaders. Again, a person whose rights, including property rights, are violated is owed restitution by the violator.”
“That’s right, slavedriver. You owe me big time,” declared Polyphemus.
Odysseus looked down at the ground.
Athena concluded, “When an individual’s right to liberty and property rights are respected, that is justice. When they are violated, that is injustice. Pursue injustice, and you will always be embroiled in miserable, wasteful scrambles and tug-of-war bouts over bodies and resources. Pursue justice, my friends, and you will be amazed at what you can do.”
Odysseus straightened his back, marched to Polyphemus, and offered his hand.
“Alright, Polyphemus, let’s figure out what I owe you.”
Shaking his hand, Polyphemus answered, “Yes, Odysseus, and then we can really get back to work.”
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