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The Causal Theory of Property

Week 7

The Causal Theory of Property

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Week 7

Robert Tracinski, “The Causal Theory of Property”

Executive Summary

Robert Tracinski, a philosophy graduate from the University of Chicago, is editor of Symposium and publisher of The Tracinski Letter.

1. John Locke’s Second Treatise defense of property rights has been influential. A man’s labor belongs to himself, so when “he hath mixed his Labour with” something from the state of nature the result becomes his property. Tracinski is sympathetic but finds this “inexact and inadequate.”

2. He looks to Ayn Rand’s “What Is Capitalism” for an updated argument and notes her question: “Is man a sovereign individual who owns his own person, his mind, his life, his work, and its products?” Her answer is Yes, and Tracinski comments wryly: “Now there is a Lockean formulation if ever there was one.” 

3. But why exactly should one have property in the products of one’s work? Tracinski points to Rand’s identifying the principle of cause and effect: values are an effect of a causal process of production, so identifying a property right is identifying the producer’s value-creation. Hence, Rand in Galt’s Speech from Atlas Shrugged:  “The source of property rights is the law of causality.”

4. Tracinski uses the example of a settler who transforms an untamed bit of land by fencing, plowing, and planting. “By means of his labor, he has turned a grassy field into productive farmland.” A value has come into existence via his labor, and the right is a recognition of that: “the right of property is the right of the creator over his creation.” 

5. Following Rand, Tracinski highlights that human productivity is intelligent: “The cause of a useful good is not mere physical labor but also mental labor.” The mental contribution lies along a range from values we protect with intellectual property rights to those requiring minimal mental input, say, ditch digging. But even here, “a man digging a ditch has to know where to dig it, how wide and deep, and in what direction.”

6. Consequently, he holds that Rand is correct to identify thinking as the fundamental source of value and thereby of property rights: “a man’s right to the product of his own mind” is “the base of all property rights.” 

7. In a modern economy, “the causal chain connecting our work and the goods we create has become more complex and indirect and involves a thousand trades we implicitly engage in every day.” But for each producer who contributes causally to the creation of value, the concept of property rights is key to maintaining the connection “between work and reward.” 

Read Robert Tracinski’s full essay here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2021.


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