[Martin Taylor 940628 21:10]
(As soon as I post this, I'm gone. I'll see any responses after July 11,
For some years, particularly but not only in the USA, there has been
serious talk about a concept labelled "property rights." Both in Canada
and the USA there has been a movement to install such rights into the
national Constitution. On CSG-L, Bill Leach has mentioned the idea from
time to time, and has speculated that it might be one of the structurally
stable principles that arise in the interaction of hierarchic control
systems (i.e. people). In other words, "property rights" are speculated
to be inherent rights, and moral, and derivable from PCT.
How can this be? "Property" is not one of the fundamental constructs of
PCT, as are "Loop Gain," "Disturbance," "Perceptual signal," and
the like. So far as I am aware, the whole concept of ownership has no
analogue within PCT. And yet...
The basis of PCT is the idea that our systems have evolved so that they
can control our perceptions in the face of the disturbances and conflicts
of the world. We have enough strength and perceptual capacity to make
the changes in the world necessary to bring our perceptions near enough
to their reference values that many people can live to propagate their genes.
We need strength not only because things in the world that we need to
affect are heavy and strong, but also because other living things are
also trying to affect the world in ways that might counter our attempts
to bring our perceptions toward their reference values--conflicts.
Conflicts, in the PCT sense, are defined as situations in which two
control systems with non-zero gain have reference levels for their
perceptions that because of some condition in the world outside cannot
simultaneously be satisfied. Usually that means that the actions of
one directly affect the same piece of the world that is affected by the
actions of the other. Each control system in a conflict has a non-zero
Conflict leads to error that cannot be reduced so long as both control
systems maintain their references and gains for perceptual signals that
affect the same part of the world. Sustained error in a hierarchy tends
to lead to reorganization. As we discussed a few days ago, reorganizations
that occur while multiple control systems interact will almost inevitably
lead eventually to a quasi-stable state. Stability means that there cannot
be so much error in so many people that much change is going on in the way
people interact. But if there is much conflict, many control systems in
many people will experience sustained error. So, one of the factors, if
not the only factor, that influences the development of a social convention
is that the convention reduces the extent of conflict.
Conflict is likely to be reduced if there is a convention that says: "You
can influence that piece of the world and I won't try to affect it, but
in turn, you musn't try to influence this piece of the world." What else
is property ownership but the right to affect something that others agree
not to influence? So it seems that SOME kind of property right is likely
to be a convention in most stable societies.
But is this right a general one in the sense that stable societies would
normally develop ownership conventions for all things? Is property
ownership an "inherent right?" Would the reorganization mechanism lead
usually to reduced conflict if ANYthing could be property? We agree that
people can't be property, but not all societies agree to that. But we
also seem to have a convention that some people may be partly owned by
others (factory workers, for example). Are there degrees of ownership
that might be conventional, consistent with a stable society?
In particular, let us consider two cases, land and large commercial
enterprises. In both cases, if there is an owner, the actions of the
owner that affect the property are not isolated from the controlled
perceptions of other people, even if those other people do not control
perceptions of the property itself. Land outlives all of us, so at the
very least, any damage one person does to the land by, say, building on
it is potentially affecting the perceptions of subsequent proprietors.
But more to the point, air and water flow into and out of most land, and
to change the character of the air and water by actions within the land
is potentially to disturb the controlled perceptions of people with no
controlled perception of the land itself. So do changes in what is
placed on the land, such as buildings that affect the view from outside.
That leads to error and potential reorganization, and possibly to changed
convention. It seems unlikely that a stable society can exist in which
there is a convention "This is MY land, and I can do what I want on it."
In that sense, I do not think there can be a stable society that has an
absolute property right for land ownership.
The same applies to large commercial enterprises. Indeed, any enterprise
that involves more than one person introduces the potential for conflict,
but the larger the enterprise, the more people outside the enterprise are
likely to have their perceptions disturbed by the actions of the "owner"
of the enterprise. As with the land, there is much opportunity for
conflict, and the likelihood of reorganization. I take it, therefore,
that no stable society can exist that allows unregulated ownership of
large enterprises. "Free enterprise" must result in changing conventions
that reduce the freedom of the owners of the enterprises. "Free enterprise"
is a self-destructing convention.
These are not moral judgments based on PCT. They are intuitions about
what is likely to happen when many hierarchic control systems interact
through effects on a commonly shared world. Conflict is likely to be
reduced by conventions that assert "ownership" of small and personal
things, but it is likely to be increased by conventions that allow
"ownership" of land or large enterprises.
Accordingly, stable societies are unlikely to have conventions that
prohibit ownership of (in the sense of having exclusive permission to
affect) small and personal objects, and are equally unlikely to have
conventions that allow that kind of exclusive ownership of land and
So what seems most likely is what we in fact observe in most Western
societies--regulated ownership, in which the owners of land or large
enterprises can do much of what they want to do, but not everything
they want. Owners of small and personal things should be expected to
be allowed to do essentially what they want with their things--to exercise
true "property rights."
If there is any truth to the above speculation about what conventions
should reduce conflict and therefore the likelihood of reorganization,
there should be no "inherent right" to property. An "inherent right,"
if such a concept makes any sense, is a convention that is compatible
with, or is required for the stability of the set of conventions that
define a "society." An unrestricted right to property ownership seems
not be compatible with that kind of stability.
I admit that there is a lot of speculation here about what conventions are
likely to minimize conflict, and I'm sure that with different conventions
in other aspects of interaction the effects of different ownership
conventions will be different. Nevertheless, the main point of this
posting is not to ascribe to PCT a moral or political position, but to
explore a kind of question one can ask about a social issue, from a pure
PCT standpoint. I could well be wrong about property rights, but the
approach should not be too far wrong, except in its imprecision.