Brief response to Matt Bruenig on property

If the state can distribute consumer goods, why can't it redistribute them?

Matt Bruenig has returned to the property discourse in his newly revived blog, which I think you ought subscribe to if you haven’t. His latest jumps into the recurring debate over “private” versus “public” property and ends by weighing in on my discussion from a few weeks ago.

Matt and I have some disagreements here, among them how to parse a few passages from Marx; but one thing we do agree on is that these debates over what various people have thought about property in the past are ultimately, at best, a second-order concern. So I am going to set that aside — along with the claim about what the “typical socialist view” on property is — and lay out some criticism of my own.

First, a quick recap of my position. When people use the phrase “private property,” they usually have in mind a kind of property where one person gets to tell the rest of the world, “you can’t use this.” This includes 1) a right to tell this to other individuals, and even 2) a right, in certain cases, to tell this to the state. When people talk about socialism and wonder what will happen with property, they are usually thinking about what will happen with both of these rights.

Matt and I agree that in a socialist state people should be able to keep right (1) for certain kinds of property. I think his specific argument for “individual ownership of consumer goods” is very strong insofar as we are talking about right (1). Obviously the whole point of talking about how consumer goods should be “distributed” is to establish who will get to wield right (1) over what property; it would (for example) be silly to establish a diaper distribution program for new parents without adding, “oh and by the way, people can’t just steal these new diapers we’ve given you and sell them.”

Where Matt and I may disagree is whether, for consumer goods, there should also be something resembling a right (2). It baffles me why such a right should exist. Certainly the process of distribution does not imply it as it implies right (1); there’s nothing inconceivable about the state saying “here is this consumer good, and other people can’t take it from you, but there may be situations where we need to take it back.” In fact, all of the arguments for why the state should be able to distribute consumer goods in the first place work as arguments for why it should at least have the right to redistribute them as needed.

Perhaps there are good arguments for retaining a right (2) for consumer goods, but I don’t think that Matt’s really works unless you conflate that right with right (1). And once we get rid of right (2), I think that we have abolished a crucial part of what people have in mind when they ordinarily talk about “private property”.