The most recent offering deepens the pile.
In This Land Is Your Land. Or Is It? Prof. McBrayer tries to demonstrate that the whole concept of private property is — what's the in term these days? Oh, right — problematic. At some level, of course, private property is problematic. It is, after all a human concept,* and one would be hard pressed to find any human concept that isn't problematic in some regard.
Unfortunately, Prof McBrayer goons up basic concepts so badly as to have hit the rocks long before getting anywhere worthwhile.
Since last weekend, armed men have been in control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Incensed by the sentencing of local ranchers to jail time for burning public lands†, the protesters want the federal government out of the land business. Their stated goal is to return the refuge to the locals so that “people can reclaim their resources.” But this raises an important question: Why does justice demand that the land and resources belong to the locals instead of the commons? What makes property private?
This is not a question germane only to a standoff in Oregon. It’s a question that applies to each and every one of us. If you’re reading this, you probably own a smartphone. You think you justly own your phone and that it’s wrong for the government or anyone else to take it from you. But why is your phone your private property? You might say that you are entitled to it because the law says that you are entitled to it. But that’s a bad answer.
Whereupon the good professor presents the paramount example of legal but unjust private property: slaves. When the 13th Amendment passed, a whole category of private property was eliminated with the stroke of a pen. So, following the easy, hence overused, philosophical chain of reasoning, he poses another example to show how our thinking isn't on firm ground. We all presume to own our cellphones (or any other item we call "our own", like, say, guns), because we paid for them with our own money. Clearly, the government could, just as with slavery, outlaw phones, or, if the NYT, Obama and Harry were to have their way, guns.
So far, so good. However, here is where the train of thought starts to leave the rails.
First, he flattens a straw man: "An idea common among conservatives — and surely an assumption of the protesters in Oregon — is that the past fully explains private property."
I've never heard of anyone thinking that. Now, that could be my ignorance rearing once again its ugly, unshaven head, but tossing the word "fully" in there almost guarantees the impending sacrifice of another straw man. Almost nothing, ever, fully explains anything. Which is why I'll bet that a search for said conservatives would yield a null result.
There's another sure sign of a strawman being put to the torch: the effortless refutation of the presumed assertion:
But is that true? Suppose I steal your car and sell it to my friend Dugald. Is Dugald entitled to the car because he paid for it? You probably want to say “no.” Buying something doesn’t give you entitlement unless the seller was entitled to the thing first. So a transfer of property from one person to another is rendered illegitimate if the seller got the property through unjust means.
But wait, there's more.
But now think back to your smartphone. What are the chances that the money you used to buy your phone can be traced backward through your employer, your employer’s customers, and so on back through history without passing through the hands of a serious injustice? Slim to none.
Clearly, Prof McBrayer is completely unclear on one of the two concepts fundamental to his argument. Money is not property in the sense that cellphones, guns, or land are. Money is a universal medium of exchange; money is dimensionless and timeless, all its units are identical, and, anymore, is rarely exchanged in its physical manifestation. To be quite blunt, the concept of tracking numbers back through history is so ridiculous as to make quite certain that the requirements to become a philosophy professor (or the editor the NYT Op-Ed page) do not include any particular grounding in reality.
Sure, one can steal a quantity of cash, or, through identity theft, units of money. But it is the means which taints the quantity gained, not the units themselves.
It is with the other fundamental concept that he demonstrates the need for extensive idea safety training, because it is here where he metaphorically blows his other logical foot off at the hip:
And, as the situation in Oregon makes clear, deciphering the boundaries of private property for real estate is even more troubled. Eastern Oregon was once populated by the Northern Paiute tribe. Like the history of your smartphone, the shift of property from the Paiutes to the white settlers is surely marred with various injustices. And if injustices render a transfer of private property illegitimate, then the protesters in Oregon have little to complain about.
If memory serves, this step, or rather, stumble, is an example of reductio ad absurdum: mode of argumentation that seeks to establish a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial, thus arguing that a thesis must be accepted because its rejection would be untenable.
Unfortunately, Prof MCBrayer is one reductio shy of fully absurd. Yes, the Northern Paiute Tribe once populated Eastern Oregon. But why them, and not another tribe? Indeed, it is as certain as it can be that there was yet another group before them, and the Paiute's themselves obtained, and held, Eastern Oregon by force. Indeed, all ownership of all land is irrevocably tainted. No, wait, he has hurdled that reductio:
And if our property isn’t legitimately private, it’s hard to see how it’s unjust for the government or anyone else to take it from us.
No, professor, that isn't at all hard to see: it makes slaves of us all — remember that unjust property you mentioned above? — and leads directly to parades of horribles so bloody and awful that one would think that any philosophising that ends up here is its own indictment.
Either the ranchers, and all the rest of us, aren't entitled to our titles, or at some point the past is, indeed, past, and ownership is established by a significantly lengthy string of legal transfers.
"… if history explains private property, how does anyone come to be entitled to previously unowned stuff in the first place?"
Really, Scarlett, who gives a damn?
And, I beg to differ, it isn't a hard question to answer. The first person to be able to exert sufficient force to exclude all other claimants was the one entitled to own the stuff in the first place. This is where that asterisk above comes in. Prof McBrayer is missing another clue. Private property is not just a human concept. Almost all animals at some level aim to exert a sole claim to some resource or another, whether it is territory, the female of the species, or a recent kill. And they do it the same way private property is acquired and its ownership maintained: through the threat of force, or if that fails, the real thing.
So, contra Prof McBrayer, we don't need some holy grail of a theory of private property that makes sense. We already have one: reality.
Obviously, such a red in tooth and claw explanation for private property is an exercise in self-justification. It doesn't begin to touch on how in many countries, Brazil, for instance, the initial establishment of ownership led to concentrating so much land in so few hands as to create a situation that should at least disturb the morally sentient, even while causing despair for finding a solution.