An account which is both amoral and alegal

Monday, December 4th, 2017

Scott Alexander describes David Friedman’s A Positive Account of Property Rights as maybe the single most mind-opening essay he’s ever read. I came away with much the same impression. Read the whole thing, but here’s the last bit of the introduction:

For all of these reasons, I believe it is worth attempting a positive account of rights — an account which is both amoral and alegal. In part I of this essay I present such an account — one in which rights, in particular property rights, are a consequence of strategic behavior and may exist with no moral or legal support.[3] The account is presented both as an explanation of how rights could arise in a Hobbesian anarchy and as an explanation of the nature of rights as we observe them around us. In Part II I suggest ways in which something like the present structure of rights might have developed.

One puzzling feature of rights as we observe them is the degree to which the same conclusions seem to follow from very different assumptions. Thus roughly similar structures of rights can be and are deduced by libertarian philosophers trying to show what set of natural rights is just and by economists trying to show what set of legal rules would be efficient. And the structures of rights that they deduce seem similar to those observed in human behavior and embodied in the common law. In Part III of this essay I will try to suggest at least partial explanations for this triple coincidence — the apparent similarity between what is, what is just, and what is efficient.


  1. David Foster says:

    “I agree but in the long run it doesn’t matter how incompetent these stores are. They have access to capital and purchasing power that a small business can only dream about.”

    So did Sears.

  2. Sam J. says:

    Did Sears lose to other stores,to Amazon or some combination? If Amazon was a major part of the problem, and I believe it is, then what I said still is true. It’s my understanding Amazon operates at a loss. That one set of stores, the weakest, succumbs to the abuse doesn’t change anything. Big K I think is right there with or behind Sears. Amazon should be closed for uncompetitive practices. Why should a company be allowed to run a deficit for a decade?

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