Why Property Doesn’t Require The Same Justification As Authority

Time and again I’ve seen people argue that while Michael Huemer’s argument against state authority is strong, he fails to recognize a similar burden of justification for property rights. Here I’ll explain why there is less need for a justification of property in Huemer’s argument.

This is how Huemer typically sets up his argument:

“Sam has a problem. He has a number of very poor nephews and nieces. He has been working with a charity organization to help them, but the organization needs more funding. So Sam goes out and starts demanding money from his neighbors to give to the charity group. If anyone refuses to contribute, Sam kidnaps that person and locks them in a cage.

Though charitable giving is laudable, as is the effort to care for one’s nephews and nieces, almost everyone who hears this story finds Sam’s extortion program impermissible. This includes both Democrats and Republicans, people who believe in a personal moral obligation to donate to charity, and even people who have a theory of “distributive justice” that says the current distribution of wealth in our society is unjust because the poor have too little.

Interestingly, however, many of the people who agree on the impermissibility of Sam’s behavior nevertheless support seemingly analogous behavior on the part of a certain other Uncle Sam. Some think it not only permissible but obligatory for the state to coercively seize funds to aid the poor.”

If you simply don’t see a problem with Sam’s behavior then Huemer’s argument will have no force for you. Huemer observes that nearly everyone finds Sam’s behavior morally impermissible for a private individual and addresses his argument to those who do recognize it as impermissible.

And that’s what puts the burden of justification on those who agree Sam is wrong, if they propose similar behavior for the state. If you agree that it’s wrong for Sam to take money from people by force to give to charity then the burden is on you to explain how it would be justified for another party, in this case the state.

Huemer is certainly not arguing here that since it is wrong for Sam to do X it must be wrong for the state to do X, he’s merely identifying the burden of justification.

When it comes to property though, it’s simply not the case that nearly everyone would find it morally impermissible for Sam to keep property and do with it as he sees fit, thus no similar burden of justification arises.

Huemer has no need to persuade people that what Sam did in the example is wrong, because almost everyone immediately recognizes it as wrong. If you think property is immoral you do need to offer an argument to convince people of that, because it’s not something people overwhelmingly believe.

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