A Propertarian Analysis Of Your Bedroom Activities

John Quiggin of Crooked Timber writes another misguided criticism of libertarian methodology in Keeping the state out of your bedroom.

A standard theme in (propertarian) libertarian thinking is that personal freedom in matters such as choice of sexual partners goes naturally with economic freedom, defined as the lack of state interference with property rights. To summarise this in a slogan, “If you want to keep the state out of your bedroom, you should support keeping it out of your (and others) business as well”. But this is not only a false equivalence, it’s self-contradictory, as can be seen by example.

Suppose A rents a house from B, who requires, as a condition that no-one in class C (wrong race, religion, or gender) should share the bedroom with A. Suppose that A signs the lease, but decides that this contractual condition is an unreasonable violation of personal freedom, and decides to ignore it. B discovers this, and seeks the assistance (or at least the acquiesence) of the state in evicting A. On a propertarian/contractual view, B is in the right, and is entitle to call in the state into the bedroom in question.

And, this is the fundamental problem. Is it A’s bedroom or B’s? If we understand the phrase in its normal sense, no-one including a landlord, has the right to tell you what to do in your own bedroom. But, from a propertarian viewpoint, C’s ownership rights over the bedroom, derived from and ultimately enforced by, the state, trump all other considerations.

If you really want personal freedom, you can achieve it only by constraining property rights.


A propertarian would argue that A (renter) entered a contract with B (Owner), one of the terms of which was that no C (Undesirable) would cohabit access the property. And therefore it was a theft and fraud by A (renter) who tried to obtain a rental space at a discount through the use of deception.

A propertarian would argue that A(renter) should have and could have obtained an apartment elsewhere, and done so honestly, and either paid more for the privilege of having C (undesirables) on the property. (Or more likely lived in a lower caste area, or lower quality building.) Instead, A (renter) committed fraud and therefore theft, in order to obtain a better property or better caste area at a discount.

A propertarian would argue that the state is unnecessary, and that a private court (an insurance company for example) would serve the function as well as the state.

There are no vague moral statements in Propertarianism that act as a cover for involuntary transfer from one individual or group to another. The only moral statement is that all transfers should be voluntary. Although most libertarians still use the older terminology: The Non-Aggression Principle. (Which I find, well, unclear or maybe just imprecise.)

Propertarians follow from one to three criteria:

      1) All libertarians follow the set of transfers in any interaction, to determine whether the transfers are voluntary or involuntary. Typically the transfers include, and are limited to a) Risks, b) Opportunities, c) Property, and d) Status Signals. Although it isn’t intuitive that property, is a broad category that can include things like affections and information
      2) Some of us also determine whether a hazard is created that also creates an involuntary transfer of risk (property) from one to the other, (Block and Rothbard disagree. I am on the side of the Christian “Market” Ethic, and Rothbard and Block on the nomadic “Bazaar” ethic which I have addressed elsewhere as the christian difference in the necessity of holding land.)
      3) And some others of us, determine whether knowledge is symmetrical, and as such whether the contracts is honest or a fraudulent attempt at involuntary transfer. (Block and Rothbard disagree. I disagree with them. I am on the side of the Market ethic again, because it is more likely to avoid violence and fraud, and focus efforts on honest market competition in the interest of consumers. )

So we follow the transfers we let the evidence speak for itself. If there are involuntary transfers it’s bad (immoral) and if there are not it’s good (moral). And the entirety of the human experience can be analyzed and understood using propertarian methodology, using the one criteria of voluntary transfer.

We follow the transfers because all human behavior is economic. Even emotions. Emotions are reflections of changes in state of property (including opportunity). Emotions are just the animal’s way of informing us about what is happening to our property (that which we acted on in order to accumulate) – whether that property was obtained voluntarily or by theft, violence or fraud.

Your bedroom exists within whatever contract you’ve signed. If you own your property outright then you can do whatever you want in it, as long as it’s not visible or audible or evident to anyone else. If you obtain your SPACE (not property) conditionally, by a contract, then you don’t own it. And if you do something no one likes, then if it’s not in the contract, they cant add it later, they can only choose not to renew your lease.

This isn’t complicated. It’s basic. It’s easy. It also forces people who have impulsive or extraordinary behaviors to adhere to local norms, or seek areas with norms that appeal to them. And, for what it’s worth, people with impulsive behaviors are usually equally damaging to property, which is also an impulsive behavior.

That’s why lenders (owners) filter borrowers (renters): to protect themselves from unnecessary transfer of repair costs from lenders to borrowers.

So, quite the opposite of what John suggests, if you really want personal freedom, you can achieve it only by respecting property rights – which by definition means rejecting involuntary transfers, no matter whether they are contract violations, or violations of the contract you WOULD impose, if it were not that the state forced you to subsidize those people who are willing to violate contracts, or who are, because of impulsiveness, and high time preference, a high risk to your property, and consequential risk to those who have assisted you in collecting control over property by lending you money.

Property is universal to human societies, and must be, for an economy consisting of a division of labor to exist. Different societies determine who is a shareholder and what is a shareholder object and what is an individual object and all that lies in between, and those societies are usually prisoners of that Shareholder Agreement for good or bad. We call this Shareholder Agreement by the Archaic, and pre-propertarian name of ‘Cultural Values’. But that is what cultural values are: a Shareholder Agreement.


(From the backlog.)
(I have a backlog of something like a hundred postings to publish, and some are a bit long in the tooth, but I’m posting the useful ideas as part of the process of keeping record of what I write.)

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