Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Property is Theft!

Well, only the type of property that derives both internationally and domestically from the principle: "might is right".

Leif Wenar has written a gem of a paper, Proprety Rights and the Resource Curse. There's a good summary of it here.


The resource curse afflicts poor countries with valuable resources like oil and diamonds. Such countries are prone to repressive governments, civil wars, and slower growth. The article argues that the resource curse often results from a failure to enforce property rights: the property rights of each country's people in that country's natural resources. This right is widely affirmed in international law, but violated when dictators and civil warriors sell off a territory's resources in circumstances where the people could not possibly authorize those sales. Firms that buy resources from repressive regimes are therefore receiving stolen goods, and passing these stolen goods on to consumers. Using a widely accepted metric, the article shows that at least one in every eight barrels of oil currently entering the United States has been stolen from its country of origin. [snipped]

The jist of the paper is that the system of property rights cited by dictators and corporations is a relic of the Westphalia era of international law. It does not take into account the modern development of a bars on aggression and human rights violations. The international community should enforce these rights, especially property, in order to prevent good title passing from dictators to corporations. Corporations can extract oil, but they know they may be subject to legal action, since no bona fide title has passed. They will be presumed to be put on notice when international monitoring agencies report back that there are grave human rights violations in the relevant country.

Some extracts:

Because of a major flaw in the system of international trade, consumers in rich countries unknowingly buy stolen goods every day—gasoline and laptops, drugs and jewelry, cars and magazines. The raw materials used to make these goods are taken from the poorest people in the world—by stealth and by force.

The plainest criticism of global commerce today is that it flouts the first premise of capitalism. Firms currently transport huge quantities of stolen goods to consumers, violating property rights on an enormous scale. The first priority in reforming global commerce must be to replace theft with trade.

On Nigeria

Between 1965 and 2000, Nigeria received a very substantial percentage of its GDP from oil revenues that totaled about $350 billion. However, in the 30 years after 1970, the percentage of Nigerians living in extreme poverty ($1/day) increased from 36 percent to almost 70 percent—from 19 million to 90 million people. The oil revenue contributed nothing to the average standard of living, and indeed the period of oil exploitation saw a decline in living standards. Moreover, inequality in Nigeria simultaneously skyrocketed. In 1970, the total income of those in the top 2 percent of the distribution was equal the total income of those in the bottom 17 percent. By 2000, the top 2 percent made as much as the bottom 55 percent

There is also no reason why the ideas proposed should not also be applied to domestic corporations. As I've argued earlier, Enclosure Acts stole the common property of people to a wealthy elite who could then profit off them. This is the route of all capitalism, at least in the UK. So, why is this property not theft? It is exactly the same as the paradigm example Wenar cites - Equatorial Guinea. There Obiang had political opposition jailed, tortured and killed and officially proclaimed himself as a god who is "in permanent contact with the Almighty". Is this so different to the judicial murder carried out on capital statutes in England for customary behaviour such as wood taking? Or transportation as punishment for gleaning, which usually involved torture at the hands of slave owners in the colonies? Or any different from the Monarch of England claiming their authority from God? I'd say no.

Of course there is a wealth of difference to where the UK is now compared to Equatorial Guinea. However, the principle still applies - corporations garnered their power illegitimately and need to make restitution.

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