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On Decolonizing Property Rights

One of the most destructive aspects of the “decolonize” movement is its insistence that scientific principles are as subjective as cultural beliefs. Decolonizers argue that the natural sciences—physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology, along with computer science—should be analyzed from different ethnic and racial perspectives.

For example, students in a field designated as “Afrochemistry” are taught to “implement African American sensibilities to analyze chemistry.” It is said that science must be decolonized because, “as well as colonising the world physically, Europeans have dominated the world by promoting the ‘European paradigm of rational knowledge.’”

Similarly, the principles of individual liberty and private property are said to be culturally determined and therefore simply a matter of cultural preference. The right to self-ownership is said to be “Eurocentric” and “androcentric.” Decolonizers consider property rights to be constructed in the image of white men and therefore unimportant for those who are not white men.

In an age dominated by identity politics, it would follow that there is no need for decolonizers to respect the right to private property. Their view is that “decolonizing liberal justifications for property would necessitate an undoing of the grip that the liberal individual has on the imaginery of private property.”

In response to those claims, this article highlights the economic benefits of property rights and justifies property rights with reference to the universal nature of the right to self-ownership.

Go Woke, Go Broke

The first response to decolonizers who aim to dismantle property rights is to warn about the consequences of rejecting property rights. In From Subsistence to Exchange and Other Essays, Peter Bauer shows that cultures that reject property rights consistently fail to make economic progress. Bauer attributes the poverty of the third world to cultural values inimical to productivity:

In much of the Third World the political, social, and personal determinants of economic performance are often uncongenial to economic development. And the policies of many governments plainly obstruct economic achievement and progress. Again, people often refuse to abandon attitudes and mores which obstruct economic performance. They are not prepared to give up their established ways for the sake of greater prosperity. This is a preference which is neither unjustified nor reprehensible.

There is significant resistance in the developing world, and in many immigrant communities in the West, to any concept deemed to reflect the culture of the “colonialist.” In stating that the choice to cling to obstructive values is “neither unjustified nor reprehensible,” Bauer is expressing the view that if people prefer their own cultural values to prosperity, their choice is a legitimate one. Crucially, however, if they do decide to retain customs that interfere with prosperity, they are not entitled to the benefits of prosperity.

Two implications follow. First, it would be wrong to force underdeveloped countries to make economic progress should they choose not to do so. The Victorian view of the white man’s burden—a moral duty to spread commerce and civilization around the globe, by force if necessary—was misguided. The Victorians failed to appreciate that the choice to reject property rights, and indeed to reject participation in free trade and capitalist enterprise, fell within the prerogative of the peoples they subjugated.

Second, it must also be acknowledged that a defense of property rights requires support from legal rules and impartial adjudication, an institutional framework that varies from one cultural context to the next. For example, many African cultures were historically resistant to ideas of private property because they adhered to a communitarian rather than individualist worldview. As Tom Woods points out, the benefits of free market exchange may not seem equally intuitive to everyone:

This is not to say that the philosophical principles the market embodies come naturally to every cultural milieu. Peter Bauer always insisted that a people’s religious, philosophical, and cultural values could have important consequences for their economic success or failure. A people who believe in fatalism or collectivism, rather than in personal responsibility, will be less likely to undertake the risks associated with capitalist entrepreneurship, for example.

For Bauer, the important issue is not whether people may choose to reject property rights but whether they can nevertheless expect to make economic progress upon rejecting property rights. Having chosen to opt out of property rights, thereby rejecting the very foundations of productivity, they cannot then claim entitlement to wealth transfers from productive societies nor demand that governments in the West must enforce these people’s socialistic views in the guise of multiculturalism.

Moreover, in cases where a communitarian culture collectively chooses a path inimical to economic progress, it would be wrong to conclude—as some decolonizers have done—that this means property rights are of no interest or importance to anyone from that culture or that cultural preferences are binding on all members of that culture. A choice to remain mired in poverty and deprivation is not a choice that any “culture” can impose on people who do not subscribe to it.

There is a further problem with collectivist cultures where communal instincts are dominant, namely that individual members of these societies have no real choice about pursuing their preferences. Their individual preferences are forcibly subsumed within those of the collective. Those who argue that their culture does not recognize property rights are therefore discounting the importance of individual liberty—if a “culture” does not value property rights, all that means is that individuals in that society who wish to make economic progress lack the freedom to make the choices necessary for human beings to flourish. They are trapped in poverty by their culture, which is a form of tyranny. Those who profess to be unconcerned about economic progress may not act in such a way as to impede others in their productive activities because that violates the right to self-ownership.

Universal Human Nature

The slogan “go woke, go broke” can take us only so far in a defense of property rights. To paraphrase Friedrich von Hayek’s words: if decolonizers were concerned about going broke, they wouldn’t be decolonizers. Nor would highlighting the hypocrisies of woke capitalism be enough to deter them. Far from worrying about economic decline, they view economic collapse as the perfect opportunity for them to “build back better.” The destructive consequences of undermining the foundations of capitalism simply do not concern them, many of them being in any case avowed communists.

It is therefore necessary to go further and defend property rights from an ethical perspective. While economists consistently show that rejecting property rights is unwise and indeed disastrous, they often do not address the underlying concerns of those who suppose property rights to be constructed in favor of white men with the aim of excluding all other people from social and economic participation. As Norman Barry observes, “Utilitarianism, however sophisticated a formulation, is inadequate to generate a comprehensive liberal social philosophy” and limited in its ability to “construct a classical liberalism of a universal persuasiveness.” Hence, the importance of the natural law foundation of property rights arises.

Natural law is founded upon universal principles, which conceptualize self-ownership and private property as absolute rights that vest in all human beings and apply equally to all. The principle that property rights apply to all human beings regardless of race or creed is held true by both classical liberals and libertarians. As Murray N. Rothbard writes, this principle is reflected in “the age-old universalization principle contained in the so-called Golden Rule as well as in the Kantian Categorical Imperative: that all rules aspiring to the rank of just rules must be general rules, applicable and valid for everyone without exception.”

Cultures are indeed not universal, but human nature is universal. There is more to human beings than our different cultures, skills, preferences, or talents, namely the very condition of being human. There is a core element of humanity that all human beings share in common, regardless of culture. While cultures are not equal in any meaningful sense nor are different individuals equal to each other in any substantive sense, human beings are equal in a formal sense. That is the foundation of equality before the law. All have equal rights, and the right to self-ownership is “absolute, immutable, and of universal validity for all times and places.”

It is therefore wrong to treat property rights as Eurocentric or androcentric. The institutional framework and incidents of property rights may vary from one jurisdiction to another, but the normative foundations of property rights are rooted in universal ethical principles:

To be a valid ethic the theory must hold true for all men, whatever their location in time or place. . . . For every person, at any time or place, can be covered by the basic rules: ownership of one’s own self, ownership of the previously unused resources which one has occupied and transformed; and ownership of all titles derived from that basic ownership—either through voluntary exchanges or voluntary gifts. These rules—which we might call the “rules of natural ownership”—can clearly be applied, and such ownership defended, regardless of the time or place, and regardless of the economic attainments of the society.

In attempting to “decolonize” the principles of self-ownership and property rights, the agents of multiculturalism prove themselves to be unconcerned about human nature and the well-being of all humanity.

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