Friday, July 20, 2012

My Dog Does Not Own My House

A group of homeowners recognize that they spend too much time, which might be better spent sleeping or working, patrolling and defending the boundaries of their fields and pastures. So they commission a pack of dogs, large fierce dogs, to carry out this rather simple function on their behalf.

The dogs are perhaps smelly, and noisy, and not too bright, but they are quite capable of carrying out the limited function envisioned for them by the homeowners: bark loudly at intruders near the border to warn them off, and bite anyone who actually crosses the border.

The landowners selectively breed the dog pack over time, and the dogs develop rudimentary speech abilities, and opposable thumbs. The dogs are now able to carry out their function at a very high level, conducting night surveillance of property and defending that property against anyone without authorization. In fact, this dog pack is the best, the smartest, and the most dangerous dog pack the world has ever known. The citizens feel very secure.

One day, a homeowner returns to his house and finds the dogs sitting on his couch, eating his food, and watching his television. Outraged, he confronts them: “How dare you violate my property, which you are supposed to protect?”

The head dog is utterly unashamed. In fact, he says, "You didn't earn this house."
The dog points out that the only reason that the homeowner is able to leave his house to work and earn money is that the dogs protect the house. Thus, in the dog’s view, the dogs have a better claim to ownership than the putative “owner,” because without the dogs there would be no ownership, no roads, no businesses. The dog says it again: "You didn't create that business, you didn't earn this house."

(More below the fold)

Now, the dogs aren't bad dogs. In fact, the dogs tell them man, "We are GOOD dogs. We agree to continue to allow you to use the house, and the grounds. But it is only because the we are magnanimous, and fair-minded. In fact, all the property in the community is a creation of, because it is contingent on, the good will of the dog pack."

If one simply substitutes “state” for “dog pack” in this narrative, one has the now-standard account of contingency in property in most societies: the state creates the very possibility of legal title, and the state further protects that title, because the state finds it in the collective interest to do so.
Here's the thing: it's true that we need roads, and defense, and other public goods, for business to thrive and prosper. That's why we have taxes. The business, and the homeowners, pay their taxes, and the dog-state provides public goods. We're even-Steven, we paid already, at the office, at the house, at the property. For the dogs to come around now and say we owe more is crazy. For the big dog to say, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that!" is the sign of a misunderstanding so fundamental that it should be a disqualification for public office. If I produce public goods, and you pay for them, we're done. You don't owe me more because the public goods proved to be as useful as you thought they were when you contracted for them in the first place.
Suppose the grocer knocked on your door. He asks if you bought water. You agree, you bought some water.
The grocer says, "Well, water is really valuable. You would die without water. You didn't bottle that water; I bottled that water! You owe me more money. You didn't pay me enough."
I don't see how a bunch of dogs demanding more money for public goods we already paid for is any different.With thanks to Tony de Jasay, who came up with the idea of the fable. I adapted it a bit, but it's his idea.
UPDATE: Oh, and another thing. Bob Nozick has this wonderful essay on why intellectuals hate capitalism. You can hear it in President Obama's sneer, "There are a LOT of smart people out there." He thinks you should get paid for being smart, and making good grades. That's just the sort of nonsense that Nozick hammers in the essay.

UPDATE II:  If you don't like my fable, you might consider Jason Brennan's more serious route to the same conclusion.

UPDATE III:  Good lord, commenters.  You can defend your belief that your dog owns your house, if you want.  But you can't really believe that the left doesn't believe exactly what I say it believes.  Here is Elizabeth Warren, famously saying that her dogs own your house.

“I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever. No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.
“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.
“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”


Phil said...

First of all, you are interpreting Obama's remark as uncharitably as you can, and there's no real reason to do that. See this Language log post:

Second, it is striking how whenever you make this point (which is often), you never discuss the aspects of policy that are truly integral to market transactions: namely, a legal basis for contract, a sound currency, and a court system that resolves disputes. Are all these things no more relevant to market exchange than the dogs of your fable? I don't really buy it.

Now, look, I agree that Obama's point does not prove what he says it does, but I think going to the other extreme (in which really you have to treat property rights as some kind of divinely-based property of human life, and not the result of a well-ordered society) isn't very productive. I don't really think it is a necessary part of the classical liberal position, either.

Norman said...

The head dog's rhetoric is certainly unhelpful. But is the alternative you present that, because the dogs are providing a public good, they never have the right to renegotiate their price for future provision of services?

Whatever level of taxes were in place under the previous head dog, or ten head dogs ago, must remain in place even if the service itself has changed? That doesn't sound any more free-market than the head dog's idea.

Anonymous said...

So kill the mutant dog you created and don't breed another. Who owns the house now?

Mr. Overwater said...

It's so disappointing when you descend into bogus demagoguery. You know what he meant and how it differs from your dog story.


Also, Adam Smith has President Obama's back:

Cowboy said...

It is not that the contract can't be re-negotiated, but rather it cannot be negotiated under coercion. The problem that every society faces is that a state that is powerful enough to protect your property adequately is also powerful enough to take your property indiscriminately. The trick is to find a way to limit that power and temptation.

Eric said...

About those precious roads and bridges the state maintains--what if it fails to maintain them, but still charges us for doing so? And law and order, too--if the state doesn't provide it, or provides it poorly, do we get a refund? What about if the state finds a cheaper way to build and maintain roads and enforce laws--will it return to us what's left of our taxes, or reduce them to reflect the savings? Or how about this: if poor state services yield depreciated assets like worn out roads and bridges and crime-ridden cities, will it charge us a rate reduced to reflect that depreciation?
Governments do build roads and bridges and they do keep the peace, but they are under no obligation to do any of those things in the best or most efficient way. That tells me the dogs do own our houses, at least to a degree greater than most people think.

zimaroll said...

Well, I know there's been some recent neuroscience reports on how conservative and liberal brains differ. So with that in mind, how about you paraphrase Warren's comment in way that best illustrates your objection...
...because from my end of the spectrum, there is nothing objectionable to what she says. I 'get' it. I'd like to see why you don't.

Jim said...

The Warren Rant would be a reasonable answer to someone who had said, "Successful people should pay NO taxes." But no one's saying that.

The crux of why she's wrong lives in Dr. M's "even-steven" construct. Warren refers to roads, education, police etc. that "the rest of us" paid for. There's the fallacy.

A more accurate statement would cite roads, education, police etc. that *everyone* paid for, including you, Mr. or Ms. business owner, who likely paid a disproportionately high share.

Warren singles out a group that puts more than its share into the system, treats it as if it puts in nothing and only takes, and treats that group as an Other distinct from Us. There's your class warfare right there.

SheetWise said...

The State only pretends to be "us" when it benefits "them".

The State proclaims itself the exclusive broker of a service the taxpayers want, negotiates the necessary contracts, collects the money, pays the vendors, and then takes credit for the creation.

Even ignoring the toxic spills from their leaky bucket, the State awards itself handsome fees for providing this "service", as well as continuing revenue by awarding itself a perpetual maintenance contract.

Given the States arrogance when self-appointing themselves as the sole arbiter of specific goods taxpayers choose to purchase -- such as schools and roads -- we shouldn't be too surprised to find out the State (as custodian) thinks they own these goods, and that the taxpayers only have use of them through the good grace of the State.

Goodness gracious!

Great story Mungowitz!

Michael said...

When he messed up and said the public sector is doing fine, his staff had the wisdom to take it back and say that's not what he meant.

This time the argument seems to be that he is being misunderstood, but said nothing wrong. The unwavering supporters of the president are trying to twist what he said into something more moderate.

Good grief, give it up people. The president said something stupid, don't blame us.

Monkeyman said...

Sorry Mungo, but this is stupid. No one's arguing the dogs own your house. What the left says is that people with exceptionally high income should pay more because they benefit more from use of publicly provided goods. You don't agree with that, you think that these people already pay enough or too much - fine. But that's no reason to delve into garbage arguments like your dog story.

Angry Alex said...

What is trying to say is that Obama can't spend a single penny until someone first goes out and generates wealth that can then be taxed. For him to spend it someone has to go out and earn it.

Anonymous said...

I can see how this story would appeal to Social Darwinists. It's appeal comes from the fact that the story is framed as a story about dogs. And, of course, dogs don't own property.

But change the term "dogs" to "slaves," and your story takes on a more sinister aspect.

In effect, you are defending slavery.