Property rights and the extended phenotype.

It is not that hard to recognize an animal's body, nor to recognize its parts as parts. It is pretty clear to everyone that looks at a puppy in a pet shop that the head, the ears, the paws, the tail, the hair of the puppy all are part of the puppy's body, and it is equally clear that the cage, the glass, the carpet, and the hand of the person holding the puppy are not part of the puppy's body. It is, in short, pretty easy to divide the material world into that which belongs to the puppy's body, and that which does not.

This point can be extended to the things that animals make; primarily, their homes. A bird's nest and a rodent's burrow are recognizably distinct from the surrounding environment. There is an important common element shared by an animal's body and its made things. Both the body and the made things are made. The body itself is manufactured molecule by molecule, cell by cell, by a mostly invisible process that takes weeks, months, and years to produce a visible result. The made things that lie outside the body are made quickly and crudely in an easily viewed, macroscopic process of digging, carrying, carving, tamping, and so on. There are processes which are partly microscopic and partly macroscopic. A spider produces the material of its thread by a chemical process in its body, and then builds a web from the thread in a knitting process that is easily viewed and filmed.

Both the spider's legs, and its web, unmistakably belong to the spider. Both a bird's wings, and its nest, unmistakably belong to the bird. Animals' bodies and made things “belong” to the animals in a biological sense. The ownership is not a matter of opinion, it is not a matter of an observer's whim, but is a biological reality, and a failure to observe it is a failure on the part of the observer.

This is no less true of humans. People own property in a biological sense. Take away the state, even take away the laws, and biological ownership remains. It is independent of law, and law can be judged good or bad in reference to it. In particular, predation and parasitism are biological ideas that can be applied not only to the bodies of animals, but also to their made things, and therefore, also, to the made things of humans. Just as property is objectively real and independent of law, so are predation and parasitism objectively real. Law, then, can be judged by considering how well it minimizes predation and parasitism.

The body of an animal is what is violated by a predator or parasite. The distinction between what is and what is not part of an animal's body is therefore fundamental to the very ideas of predation and parasitism. This can be extended to an animal's made things, and applied, in particular, to humans. It follows that if we are to judge a system of law by considering how well it minimizes predation and parasitism, then the fundamental obligation of law is to protect property. By “property” I mean property in the biological sense of ownership mentioned above. I do not mean whatever the law considers property.

Human existence is almost completely symbiotic. An individual human makes almost nothing for himself, almost everything he makes he does so for others in exchange for something they make for him. So, as with other symbiotes, we must take this into account when identifying what an individual human owns. He does not only own what he himself has made for himself; he owns what his symbiotes have made for him. For example, to take a bee's store of nectar is predate upon the bee, even though the nectar was made for the bee by a plant. Similarly with things that a human has purchased on the market. (I wonder whether the term “symbiosis” is reserved for inter-species relationships; but even if I have misused the terminology, the point is unaffected.)

While we're on the topic of symbiosis, one way of harming both sides of a symbiotic relationship is to block that relationship. For example, to erect a glass partition between a beehive and the plants it visits. Human law may be judged by considering how well it defends (and refrains from interfering with) symbiotic relationships between humans. That is, law should defend and permit freedom of trade and freedom of association.

Background: There is an idea that law is the arbitrary creation of political will, and that, for example, the 'propertarianism' of libertarianism is arbitrary and whimsical, a matter of the weird taste of those nasty libertarians, a mere personal choice, an act of self-expression, rather than any sort of statement about the way things are. I'm talking about legal positivism, which seems to me to still be the reigning ideology among those who consider themselves to be politically savvy. The political views of libertarians are, from this point of view, above all expressions of the kind of people that libertarians are. The contrary position to legal positivism is the natural law position, which is pretty much were I stand. From the natural law point of view, the recognition that natural law is X and not Y is no more a personal choice or an expression of a person's character than is the recognition that gold does not tarnish or that running a current through water will separate it into oxygen and hydrogen.

Note on the title: The title, which alludes to Dawkins, is intended to avoid pretending that I originated the idea that an animal's made things can be thought of in much the same way as its own body has typically been thought of. I don't claim that I am rigoriously following or explaining Dawkins's thinking on the extended phenotype.

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