An examination of The Ethics and Economics of Private Property, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe

The Ethics and Economics of Private Property, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, has been referenced by capitalists for a justification of private property.

The first section is entitled “The Problems of Social Order”.

Alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe can do whatever he pleases.

Here, in the very first sentence, is a problem that is common among capitalists trying to talk about capitalism - the mixing-up of ability and right - saying he CAN do something, instead of saying he has the RIGHT to do something. Hoppe's very first sentence here is a false statement, because of this mix-up. Crusoe cannot travel backwards in time, or ride a unicorn, or many other things, even if he pleases.

This mix-up appears multiple times in this essay, and in more crucial places than this.

Now, let's assume that Hoppe made the statement without the mix-up, saying Crusoe has the right to do whatever he pleases. From what I understand, private property is about rights, exclusive rights of the "owner" over the "property". So it looks like what we have here is an assertion of at least a partial answer to the question at hand.

But Hoppe does not present it as such. In the next sentence, he shows it as something not to be questioned, as if it is a premise that is already understood and agreed upon.

For him, the question concerning rules of orderly human conduct - social cooperation - simply does not arise.

Here are a few more problems that I see often among capitalists:

Circular reasoning - putting the conclusion in the premise. If what is in question is whether people have these "rights" that capitalists say they have, if they take as a premise that someone has rights, that is circular reasoning. It has not been shown that Crusoe has the "right" to do whatever he pleases.

The illusion of isolation. Hoppe tries to paint, and rely on, a picture of a person in isolation. But science is showing us that there is no isolation. Every thing that exists interacts with every other thing that exists. Especially demonstrated in the study of gravity, the force present between any two objects is dependent on the mass of the objects and the distance between them. Every object in the universe has mass, and every object is some distance away from every other object. So there is a universal field of gravity affected in all places by every single piece of mass in the entire universe. There is no isolation.
Satellite photo of pollution from peat fires on Sumatra, October 2006
If Crusoe makes a huge fire on his island, the smoke and ashes can be blown by the wind to another island that Crusoe doesn't even know about. He is not isolated.

Naturally, this question can only arise once a second person, Friday, arrives on the island.

...as if Friday magically materializes from nothing, or comes from a different universe where they were not both in the same universal gravitational field...

Almost = absolute? Upon pointing out to the capitalist that there is no isolation, we find that what is being relied upon is "almost" isolation. He is "practically" isolated, or "nearly" isolated. But then Hoppe makes an absolute statement ("does not arise") based on that "almost". An absolute does not come from an almost.

Yet even then, the question remains largely

"largely" like "almost" "practically" "nearly"... Then watch as he develops absolutes from this.

largely irrelevant so long as no scarcity exists. Suppose the island is the Garden of Eden; all external goods are available in superabundance. They are “free goods,” just as the air that we breathe is normally a “free” good. Whatever Crusoe does with these goods, his actions have repercussions neither with respect to his own future supply of such goods nor regarding the present or future supply of the same goods for Friday (and vicaversa). Hence, it is impossible that there could ever be a conflict between Crusoe and Friday concerning the use of such goods. A conflict is only possible if goods are scarce.

Hoppe makes a great effort to blur the line between almost and absolute. What is the "Garden of Eden"? Are we talking about something supernatural? In our natural universe, all goods have some scarcity, but many, like air in our atmosphere, have almost no scarcity. But then Hoppe asserts the absolute “it is impossible that there could ever be...”.

Only then will there arise the need to formulate rules that make orderly - conflict-free - social cooperation possible.

This assertion just comes out of the blue and makes some big non sequitur jumps. A need does not come from goods being scarce. If someone needs something, they need it whether anything is scarce or not. Also, rules don't make anything possible. If something is possible with rules, then it was possible all along before anyone made up any rules.

It looks like Hoppe is just appealing to some common ideas of his zeitgeist. Throughout most of human history, people have believed that rules of morality are needed; but throughout most of human history, people have believed that the sun went around the earth, and that diseases came from supernatural demons, and many other things. The zeitgeist can change, so we should not take it as a given that rules are needed.

In the Garden of Eden only two scarce goods exist: the physical body of a person and its standing room. Crusoe and Friday each have only one body and can stand only at one place at a time.

Again, if we're talking about something supernatural (“the Garden of Eden”), then we don't have any reason to think that a body can only be in one place at a time, or that time or space even exist. If we're going to talk about the natural world, then let's talk about the natural world.

Hence, even in the Garden of Eden conflicts between Crusoe and Friday can arise: Crusoe and Friday cannot occupy the same standing room simultaneously without coming thereby into physical conflict with each other. Accordingly, even in the Garden of Eden rules of orderly social conduct must exist - rules regarding the proper location and movement of human bodies.

Here, again, is the mix-up between ability and right. In our (natural) universe, two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. They will not, because it is not possible. This has nothing to do with “social conduct” or what is “proper”. It's just part of the laws of nature. That is about ability. Rules about “social conduct” and what is “proper” are about rights, not ability.

And outside the Garden of Eden, in the realm of scarcity, there must be rules that regulate not only the use of personal bodies but also of everything scarce so that all possible conflicts can be ruled out. This is the problem of social order.

Rules, about what rights people have or don't have, do not regulate. People regulate, according to rules; but that requires a certain behavior from said “people”. So if behavior is what you want to be regulated, then rules are useless, because rules call for a certain behavior to be already in place in order to regulate the behavior that you want to be regulated. If you can depend on that behavior being already in place, then that shows that rules are not needed to regulate behavior. If that behavior is not already in place, then rules are useless because that behavior is needed to regulate behavior.

This is the first section of The Ethics and Economics of Private Property, by Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Hoppe has not demonstrated a need for rules that he states there is a need for. He doesn't understand the problem that he is talking about. For this reason, it's safe to assume that any “solution” he presents is not reliable.

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