Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Tangled interpretation of property rights

The brief intro of Tangled contained so many economic assumptions that I had to take a moment to untangle and discuss them. Scrutiny of such a simple event in a children’s story can help us reexamine the systems of power we take for granted in our complex, adult world

The movie makes the hag out to be a terrible person, but the king stole her flower!  What right did he have to it?  If it wasn't wrong for him to take her flower, why was it wrong for her to take his child?
Property Rights
The hag was the first to find the flower. The first to find unowned property has a legitimate claim of ownership. She had nearly 400 years to secure a title on the small piece of property that contained the flower.  That she didn't is a sign that the kingdom had serious property-right issues.
It could be, perhaps, that the king owned all the land, and the people were forced to live as permanent serfs and tenants, unable to purchase their freedom by becoming landowners.  Such has been the case in our own history (in Soviet Russia and periods during the Middle Ages). Whatever the issue, it is doubtful that a person could not, in 400 years, amass the wealth necessary to purchase a square foot of land unless there were some arbitrary legal restrictions on property rights.  In the light of the means she went through to secure her stolen property (the child), it is doubtful that she would act similarly with her legitimate property (the flower) unless the king denied her the right.
But the flower was taken as if it was unowned property.  Tangled explains this away by preaching that wonderful things must be shared with everyone, and are therefore not subject to property rights.  I will explore the implications of this flawed logic, and argue that the king had no rightful claim on the flower.

What were the king’s claims to ownership?

Claim #1 — The flower belonged to the whole world, and no one person, because it was a free gift from the sun.

First of all, all life, and almost all energy, is traceable to free energy given from the sun. All animals and fungus maintain their lives by consuming energy that originally came from the sun in the form of plants. All other inanimate matter existed before any human was born, and therefore was a free gift. The flower, which came from the sun, is no different in this way from any other property.

 Claim #2 — The flower should not have been hoarded by one person, because it was so unique and remarkable
The flower’s uniqueness would definitely make it more valuable. Value is determined by A) how much people want it, and B) how much of it there is—

A) Both the king and the hag wanted the flower very much, meaning the king would pay a lot to get it, and the hag would require a huge payment to exchange it.

B) The flower was also extremely rare, being the only one of its kind. Because there was no other alternative product, its price would be high. (For example: Diamonds, which are rare, are expensive.  Air, which is superabundant, is cheap).
We have established that the flower would cost a lot on a free market. The king, being the owner of a castle, expensive jewelry, an army, and probably lots of real estate and perhaps some peasants, had plenty of possessions to barter with. You’ve heard the phrase “I’d give half my kingdom.” This king decided he’d be better off if he kept that half of his kingdom and got the flower. A pretty sweet deal on his side of the equation, but you can see the hag was left holding the short end of the stick.

The communistic idea that because something is precious, it should belong to everyone, is completely opposite to common sense, and destructive to society. Communal ownership of rare resources leads to the tragedy-of-the-commons, wherein everyone takes as much as they can before the next guy can. This tragedy of unclear property rights leads to disasters like overfishing and desertification (a recent example is Zimbabwe, which communized several large farm plots, which soon became barren wastes).

You’ve probably experienced this tragedy of unclear property rights yourself. Have you ever put a lunch into a communal fridge at work, only to find that some anonymous jerk has eaten it, or worse, just taken a bite? Your jerk coworker had difficulty understanding property rights. He assumed that because he was hungry, his need merited your delicious sandwich. Imagine once you put something in the fridge, it in fact belonged to everyone at the company. The fridge would be a free for all. People would dig through each other’s lunches looking for snacks and good stuff. Pretty quickly people would stop using the fridge altogether, and would turn to a “black-market” of storing their lunches under desks and behind the water cooler.

The argumentthat it is too precious to hoardcondemns, rather than justifies, the king. He acted just as selfishly as the hag.  He took the flower and used it up, sharing it with no one outside of his family.
This “my need merits ownership” line of thinking leads us to the king’s next possible claim.

Claim #3 — The king’s need merited ownership.

The king needed the flower badly. Hardly a sadder case could be presented. His wife and child would die without it. But does his need confer ownership?

The worth of something is determined by its supply (discussed above), and its demand.  A higher need is reflected in a higher price.  The king, if anyone, was most able to pay a high price for such a desired good.
Let's ignore this economic law, and pretend that need determines ownership.  Let us spend a few minutes deciding on who needed the flower most, since the movie took such great pains chastising the hag for being a miser.

The king’s family would have died without the flower, but the hag would also have died without it. We could venture upon the morbid and impossible task of calculating whose life was worth more, the royal family’s or the hag’s. An econometric comparison of marginal utilities would inevitably lead to the condemnation of the old woman, who already had five lifetimes under her belt. But comparisons of utility are actually impossible, though many economists waste a lot of time doing it.

Though it is impossible to compare the utility of the royal family with that of the hag, we are leaving out a vital part of the equation: the entire population of the rest of the world. To simplify, let’s talk about the kingdom.
Were there no other sick mothers in the kingdom? No other stillborns, who could have been saved had they been royalty? Surely the queen was not the first to face death in childbirth. Shouldn’t the flower have been divided equally among all sick mothers?

We all need to eat. But our need does not mean we get to consume the crop that a farmer toils all year to grow. We must trade with the farmer to obtain property rights for a portion of the food he has grown.
The hag was accused of being a miser. But we need to draw a line somewhere for property rights. Without them, the farmer wouldn't bother sowing, or the builder building.  Society would crumble. There was not enough flower for everyone in the world. Some individual would end up being the final consumer, and therefore owner, of the flower.
Should it belong to the king or the hag? This question cannot be settled on the basis of need.

Claim #4 — The flower grew on the king’s land.

If the flower grew on the king’s property, and the hag trespassed in order to use it, the king might have a case for ownership.

But the cartoon depicts the flower growing outside of the kingdom, “hop skip and a boat-ride away” from it. If this isn’t an error, then the king sent an army to steal from a neighboring kingdom, which would make his claim completely illegitimate.

For argument's sake, we’ll assume the boundaries of the kingdom probably extended beyond the city walls, and the king probably claimed to be the owner of everything within the borders of the kingdom, which would include the flower. It appeared that the flower grew on unused property in the middle of nowhere. That the flower was not discovered by anyone else for 400 years strengthens the argument that the land was abandoned and unused. It seems that the flower was up for grabs.

But if the flower grew on land that the king had not improved, purchased, or fenced off as his own, it could not justly be called his, unless we also pretend that the lunatic who points at the stars and says, “They are mine,” has a legally binding claim.  That the hag had not claimed the land as her own is evidence of a lack of property rights in general (as discussed above), and evidence that the king was more a tyrant than a ruler.

The greed of men knows no bounds. While they may desire to own everything they lay their eyes on, like the conquistadors who claimed the Indian-inhabited continents of America in their entirety by planting a few flags and saying, “It is mine,” ownership is conferred only through trade, gifts, or homesteading. Because the earth existed before men, the whole earth was once unowned. All property that is now traded or gifted was originally possessed through homesteading.

The king may claim to own a piece of land he has never seen or laid foot on, because, as king, he is both legislator, executor, and judge, so his word is law. But this is tyranny, a miscarriage of justice, law in name only. Any government that does not protect the lives, liberty, and property of the people has no divine sanction, is innately unjust and unnatural, and the people have every just right to overthrow it.
For this reason I do not make legal argument, because if the king makes the laws, he can change the legal rules. My argument stems from natural law, or God’s law. Not the way things are, but the way things ought to be in a just world.

It appears that the king did not own the land.  It is doubtful that a person could not, in 400 years, amass the wealth necessary to purchase a square foot of land unless there were some arbitrary legal restrictions on property rights.  In either case, the king's claim was illegitimate by this standard.

Claim #5 — The king deserved the flower because he was good and the hag bad.

Rights are only meaningful if they protect all people, good and bad (though criminals can forfeit their rights, as punishment, if tried and convicted).

This is easily understood in the case of free speech. Laws that don’t protect undesirable speech are meaningless and powerless. It’s only objectionable speech that needs protection. No one minds unobjectionable speech.

So, too, it is with property rights. During witch hunt hysteria (and in the current terrorist-hunt hysteria), a person can accuse his neighbor of being a witch, get that person killed under the authority of the law, and then easily take the dead neighbor's property.

If an accusation of wickedness is all that is needed to legally plunder, property rights no longer exist.  A criminal can have their property forfeited to compensate his victim, but generally accusations of greediness are not enough to forfeit property in a free society.

If property rights are arbitrary, instead of absolute, it creates unpredictability in the market. No one wants to save, because savings may be stolen (It’s like the communal fridge at work: imagine that your bank account was that insecure). No savings mean no capital for investment, which means no business loans for entrepreneurs. No savings mean no safety net if a business or family encounters an unforeseen catastrophe. Society begins to crumble and spiral into a poverty-creating depression unless property rights are again established.

The flower was stolen from the hag before she had committed any crime. Crimes cannot be punished before they are committed. It would be just to take the child back from the hag, and perhaps to punish her for the kidnapping. But it would be unjust to forcibly take the flower of an old hag who had not yet committed a crime.

That the hag had to sneak around to get a cut of the child’s hair, and then resort to kidnapping, is strong evidence, not of the hag’s inherent wickedness, but of a lack of a court-system that could handle crimes involving the royal family. The hag obviously felt that there was no legal recourse for the theft committed upon her, so she took the law into her own hands.

It seems the king had no claim on the hag’s flower.
1. Its origin did not render him ownership.
2. Its rareness did not render him ownership.
3. His need did not merit ownership.
4. He did not justly own the land it grew on.
5. The hag had not forfeited her right through criminal activity.

It bears repeating, that if anyone could have afforded the flower, it would be a filthy rich king. But instead of buying it, he sent his armies to forcibly confiscate it.

It may be argued that the king did not know that anyone owned the flower. But one does not become the ruler of a nation through naïveté. Even in a hereditary monarchy, the more cunning brother will often off his siblings in order to get to the throne.

Did the king truly think that the most valuable object on earth was unclaimed property, or did he, being above the law, think that his claim overruled all others? Were the soldiers too rushed to notice the ornate flowerbox tipped-over next to the flower, or were they just accustomed to covering up evidence of ownership when confiscating property from the citizenry? It seems Rapunzel’s boyfriend, a thief, found himself in good company when he joined the royal family.

All of this hypothetical talk of cartoon kings applies directly to us. For if the government wants your house, it claims imminent domain, and takes it. If it wants the money in your bank account, it passes an unconstitutional amendment, and takes it; or, that not being enough, it steals it secretly by inflating the money supply through the mechanism of the Federal Reserve. The government, in other words, is that anonymous jerk at work who takes secret bites from your sandwich. This movie does not upset me because it portrays pretended injustices, but because it is a fitting metaphor for thefts suffered by people I know. Citizens are treated like peasants by politicians who consider themselves above the law. Disney’s Tangled perpetuates a disrespect for property rights which must be fought if we are to preserves our society. 

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