Three Types of Property

The other day I was trying to break down some of our theories of power interactions within empires to simpler and more mechanical dynamics that would be easier to study, and I realized I was implicitly relying on a model of property and property rights. So let's get clear on what property is, and how it works.

The division of types of property I came up with are these:

  • Primary Property is independently secured by its owner. You own your wallet in that you keep it in your pocket, and it is difficult for me to take it from you without defeating you in a contest of force. Similarly, the Russian State owns a large chunk of Eurasia simply because they are militarily capable of repelling most invaders. Similarly, some companies are owned not just by legal contrivance, but because the owner has detailed knowledge of the domain and the personal loyalty of his coworkers such that it would be difficult or impossible to replace him without his cooperation. Similarly, if I have a skill, or only I know where something is, these things are primary property.

  • Consensus Property is secured by general agreement among local forces about who owns what. For example, if I leave my laptop on the table while I go order a sandwich from the counter, and you try to steal it, the other people sitting around may notice that it is not yours, and intervene on my behalf. Also, if we are longtime friends, we can freely leave our stuff with each other because any defection on the implied agreement to give it back would result in a costly termination of the friendship. Also, if I try to take your wallet and you punch me, no one will question your use of force, because you were obviously in the right.

  • Secondary Property is dependently secured by the grace of some higher power. For example, if you take my wallet at gunpoint in a cafe, you may be able to overpower me and the other patrons, but you will have a harder time with the police. If my neighborhood organizes a mob to go smash up and loot your neighborhood, the military will come and smash me up on your behalf.

Harsh, but there it is. These are the forces that hold society together. I notice while writing the above that the reliability of Consensus and Secondary property are getting awfully questionable in some circumstances these days. The theoretical possibility of law remains, though, and that is what we are studying.

The types of property are not mutually exclusive. They usually complement each other: My wallet is in my physical possession protected by my own potential for force. Failing that, it is protected by general agreement to respect each other's property and apply the common potential for force against defectors. Failing that, we can always call the police and the military. But they are not always in sync. Sometimes the local authorities will act against consensus, or some force will bend the consensus out of equilibrium.

These probably also exist on a spectrum, rather than being hard categories. The degree to which I securely own my skills and relationships is different from the degree to which I own my wallet - it is physically possible for you to steal the latter from me - but I've placed them in the same category. This kind of thing makes me suspect the model is a bit rough around the edges, and needs work. It seems a good start, though.

Also, credit where it's due, the above is mostly a mashup and restatement of James Donald's account of natural law, and Mencius Moldbug's account of sovereign property. Perhaps they got it from somewhere else. Do let us know if there are other good resources on these ideas.

I mentioned "law". Property rights are a type of law. In The Law of the Jungle, we used the poem as a jumping off point to develop a theory of law that proposed three different types of Law:

  • The Laws of Reality, which are enforced by the nature of the world, and not by social consensus or authority.

  • The Laws of Society, which are enforced by our peers in a distributed manner, parts of which are known variously as social norms, natural law, culture, and custom, representing or attempting to approximate a peer-enforceable game-theoretic cooperative near-equilibrium between multiple self-interested agents.

  • The Laws of Authority, imposed by the local dominant power to steer the behavior of its subjects in ways that are good for the asset-value of the whole. In particular, to conduct the whole in accordance with the laws of reality.

Notice the parallel with the types of property: We have Primary Property, which is the simple reality of who has and can themselves defend what; Consensus Property, which is very obviously enforced by the laws of society; and Secondary Property, which is enforced by authority.

I wasn't thinking of my attempt to understand property rights when I came up with the three-part theory of law, and I wasn't thinking of the theory of law when I came up with the three types of property, but they fit together nicely. That they both make sense on their own, and also fit together is a good sign that these may actually be useful ways of carving up reality, rather than just crackpot theories.