That’s my bowl of turtle soup

March 28, 2013 § 16 Comments


A recent discussion got me thinking about how prescinding from claims about the origin of a thing is often represented as undermining a claim about the essence of a thing. In other words, the idea is that if we can’t clear up controversy about how a thing came to be, that undermines our claims about what it is now.

This is an example of the genetic fallacy.

The discussion in question was about property and ownership. I’ve been very critical of libertarian conceptions of property rights in the past, and remain so today. But just because liberalism misapprehends the nature of property, it doesn’t follow that property is arbitrary, or is a creation of the sovereign. The relation between owner and property is a part of the natural law, prior to any government:

For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. […] The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from the law of man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair. — Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum

… and …

That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: “For man is older than the State,”[34] and also “domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity.”[35] Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. – Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno

Ownership is an example of a kind of authority, and I would suggest that modern concepts of authority tend to totalize will and eliminate nature. “Ownership” thus means either libertarian individual demi-godhood over specific material things or it means socialist government (sovereign) demi-godhood over material things.

Part of what gives this totalizing-eliminative view its apparent force is appeals to origins:

I am trying to imagine how, just exactly how, you came to own a piece of land. Did you make the land? Dig it up out of the river or the ocean? If so, well then maybe it really is “yours”. But no, you (with 99.99% probability) bought it. From whom? Oh, from some other guy who made, invented this land? No. He got it from someone else and so on. A sovereign entity once granted squatting rights on this land, and since he was sovereign no one challenged him.

The “turtles all the way down” approach here is thought to cast doubt upon Church doctrine that private property ownership precedes the sovereign, as opposed to following the sovereign as a creation of the sovereign will. But what that indicates to me is a problem with the reasoning process which produced the approach, not a problem with the reality of ownership as a legitimate authority which – like fatherhood – precedes the State.

At the present time we have no idea how (for example) single-celled organisms came to be in general; and we certainly can’t give a specific account of precisely how a specific randomly chosen bacterium came to be. It does not follow that therefore single-celled organisms don’t exist, and that our knowledge of their properties is in doubt. For any real thing we can play the curious child’s game of asking where it came from, repeating the question for each answer given, on into infinite regress, until we hit the wall of silence. But in general, lack of a definitive and comprehensive account of the specific origin of a specific thing doesn’t cast doubt upon our knowledge of the nature of that thing.

Turtle regression doesn’t cast any more doubt upon private property ownership – as an authority which legitimately precedes the authority of the State – than Zeno’s Paradox cast’s doubt upon our ability to cross all the way to the other side of the room.


Standard disclaimer: When I swipe commenters’ words as a springboard for discussing ideas I am not attempting to paraphrase the views of commenters. The fairest authority on the views of any commenter is the commenter himself; followed by his own words in the original context.

§ 16 Responses to That’s my bowl of turtle soup

  • Vanessa says:

    “A sovereign entity once granted squatting rights on this land”

    Genesis. God gave the land to Adam.

    Taking property of unclaimed land (or women, as formal property rights are derived from husbandry) is an natural human habit, separate from the machinations of a sovereign. What a sovereign does is regulate this act, he doesn’t instigate it. Property aquisition and management, like marriage, exists independent of the state.

  • Scott W. says:

    Check out Bishop Sheen’s “Psychology of Temptation” about 2:30 were he describes the legitimate desire for property as a desire for an external guarantee of inner freedom.

  • alcestiseshtemoa says:

    Those turtles seem to get bigger and bigger, with no way out.

  • Scott W. says:

    Off-topic: what was the final Sisters of the Poor tally?

  • Chris says:

    @V. The colonial period had two types of settlement, both seen in NZ. In the south island it was generally Terra nullius : most of the land had been abandoned during the (genocidal) musket wars of 1805 –30 before the Settlers arrived in 1840-1. In the North Island, most of the land was settled, and the Europeans settled the areas that were empty (such as Auckland, which had been a battleground during the war and the original tribal group had been wiped out — or to be more precise, conquered and eaten)m and then the remainder was conquered in a series of Land Wars from 1860 — 1881. (which is why my family came out.. btw: we were in one of the regiments recruited to fight this war). The land that was confiscated was then given to the soldiers who had fought for the crown.

    Kindly note that this lasted longer than the US civil war. And like the civil war, we are still working through the consequences of this. And not all the Maori (native) people fought against the crown. Those who did not still have most of their land.

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    Obviously property, the right of ownership, parental authority, and clan authority precedes the state. They precede the state insofar as they precede civilization.

    In all civilized, i.e., advanced, systems, such as those that began to arise with the invention of agriculture, there must be a final arbiter who decides, in contested cases, whose property is what. That arbiter we may call the sovereign. He is not the only authority in a polis, but only the highest. (If he weren’t the highest, then someone else would be sovereign.) He, the sovereign, not being infallible, may in even the best circumstances, occasionally offend the cause of justice and grant property to one with no right to possess it, or similarly fail to prosecute theft.

    In which case, we do what exactly…? Throw copies of the Summa at him??

  • alcestiseshtemoa says:

    “Ownership” thus means either libertarian individual demi-godhood over specific material things or it means socialist government (sovereign) demi-godhood over material things.

    The whole “demi-godhood” thing scares me a bit. Isn’t that the Nephilim from Genesis?

  • alcestiseshtemoa says:

    And I think those creatures, the Nephilim, were cursed.

  • Zippy says:

    The post has been updated with the totals.

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    Every square inch of land in the USA is either deeded property or claimed property of a sovereign government. Most of that deeded land was indeed, no pun intended, granted by a sovereign (usually USG). There are, of course, multiple ways for land to become “owned” but in regions with > epsilon demand for valuable land, it is bound (over the past couple millenia at least) to involve the actions of a sovereign actor.

    None of this is to deny private property exists, nor is it to suggest that there was an unnamed magistrate collecting taxes in the Garden of Eden.

  • alcestiseshtemoa says:

    Ownership is an example of a kind of authority, and I would suggest that modern concepts of authority tend to totalize will and eliminate nature.

    If we want to move past modernity, should authority have both nature and will in them, or should the will be subordinate to nature? Or something else?

  • Chris says:

    Steve, what about Indian land? The Indians are not THAT sovereign.

    And, given the rapidity with which you lose your land if the property taxes are not paid, you are renting the land from the state: you do not have clear title.

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    Steve, what about Indian land? The Indians are not THAT sovereign.

    Well that’s the 800 lb (sorry… calculating… 360 kg) gorilla in the room. It seems an unavoidable fact of human history that land is “owned” by people who a) claim that it is theirs, and b) have the force, their own (in the case of less civilized situations) or that of some sovereign corporation, to back up that claim. If that claim is, or fails to be “intrinsically just”, let God sort it out. But if you say that mere men should sort it out, then expect eternal war… like for example what we see in Israel… erm… “Palestine”. It lowers the body count all around simply to accept the status quo irrespective of the perceived justice of the situation.

    The strong tend to win. Often, it is just. Usually, it is serves the common good. If it were not so, human history would be very different.

  • Steve Nicoloso says:

    you are renting the land from the state: you do not have clear title.

    Sorry if you haven’t been following the topic through two weeks and 100s of comments </sarc >, but… yes, that’s pretty much what I’m saying. So there’s a problem with that?

  • Gian says:

    A right is a conclusion to a series of arguments.
    The right to own something is a conclusion from some series of arguments, and ultimately from the moral premise that a man must eat of the sweat of his labor.

    I find that one must distinguish between ownership in land and ownership in other things (called “chattels” hereafter).

    The chattel ownership may be discussed without reference to the political nature of man by which mankind is organized into particular self-ruling morally authoritative communities that we may call “nations”.

    Now by Aristotle, the material cause of a City is land along with the people and thus the ownership in land can not be dissociated with the politics.

    The distinction between “territory” and “property” is necessary. A territory is secured by force, i.e. animals have territories and so do nations.
    A property is secured by arguments, the kind of arguments that one makes in a court of law.

    Thus, the property (in land) can only exist in a state of laws. Recall, by Locke, there is a state of nature (in which Princes exist), a state of laws (in which individuals exist) and a state of war (when the civil peace between the Princes breaks down),

    Thus, one’s property exists in a national territory. The error of economists lies in ignoring in the political nature of man, starting as they inevitably do with solitary individuals that exist with no relation with each other.

    We own fruits of our labor but land is not a fruit of one’s labor and thus land can not be owned in an absolute sense. Your ownership in land exists relative to the national territory and all ownership claims are rendered moot when your national territory is conquered by another nation.

    A theft is always wrong, since a thing owned is secured or justified by arguments, thus a theft is a lie.
    But a conquest of a territory is not wrong in itself. Since a territory is justified by the force of arms, it is by the force of arms, a nation might be dispossessed of a territory.

  • Gian says:

    Steve Nicoloso,
    “land is “owned” by people who a) claim that it is theirs, and b) have the force, their own (in the case of less civilized situations) or that of some sovereign corporation, to back up that claim.”

    I re-word your points as
    1) Sovereignty is Pure Assertion
    2) Nations “occupy” some territory. They do not “own” it.
    The economists do not allow for the political nature of man and thus do not discriminate between “owning a property” and “occupying a territory”.
    The economists regard nations as at best administrative (in)conveniences but with Aristotle, I regard nation is an irreducible, along with individual and family.

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