The Lesson of Grab What You Can

Adam Gurri has invited comments on difference between the "no" of a private property owner and the "no" of the government. In his invitation, he briefly mentions the concept of the Grab What You Can World ("Grab World"), which is the name of a hypothetical economic system (really non-system) that I first discussed here at Demos.

Grab World

The Grab World has one basic rule: you may not act upon the bodies of others without their consent. This is the basic rule that springs from the normative ideas of self-ownership, negative liberty, and non-aggression. This is the policy conclusion that springs out of the normative principles most libertarians claim they follow.

The Grab World has no economic rules, by which I mean rules governing the use of the material world. It leaves the economy totally unregulated and unrestricted. Everyone is free to do whatever they like with the material things of this world.

Not only does the Grab World therefore lack any property law or property rights, but it must lack property law. Property law violates the basic rule that you may not act upon the bodies of others without their consent. A property right is not a right over a piece of the world, but a right over other human beings: a right to physically restrain and interfere with their bodies. Without property law, people are free to move about the world as they please, avail themselves of any material resources they find around them, and so on. But with property law, people find themsleves dramatically restricted. Should you move about the world as you please, you will find your body acted upon without your consent. Coercive threats to attack you swirl around you every day.

The basic goal of the Grab World as a concept is to provide a much better baseline for thinking about economic policy as a normative matter. We shouldn't need baselines at all, but people seem to like them. They must serve some important psychological function. The baseline people tend to utilize is one where tons and tons of economic institutions are already assumed into the background for some reason. That world, generally a world with the set of government-imposed economic institutions often called "laissez faire", is depicted as the default. Everything else is thus some kind of departure or deviation from this natural institutional set. And all of those deviations are cast as restrictions or infringements on liberty.

But the Grab World baseline allows us to see that all economic institutions are restrictions and infringements on liberty. Property is the most liberty-destroying and all-encompassing of the restrictive economic institutions, but contracts, patents, copyrights, securities, corporations, and so on do the same thing. With Grab World as the actual blank slate starting point baseline, it's clear that all we are debating about is what set of liberty-infringing restrictions are the best ones (unless you actually advocate the Grab World).

Comparative Analaysis

As Spinovist wrote in response to Gurri: "The question, at least to me, is one of comparative institutional analysis." Spinovist then continues:

Under which system is our hypothetical customer more likely to starve or be beaten: one in which the state retains all veto power, or one in which buyers and sellers are jointly accountable to each other?

I am not totally sure what the "one in which the state retains all veto power" looks like. But if we stipulate that Spinovist is correct on this narrow point, there are other questions to be answered. For instance, under which system are children most likely to grow up in materially secure conditions with very little poverty (which devastates their development)? Under which system are people least likely to die preventable deaths from lack of health care and insurance? Under which system are people least likely to be food insecure?

And, according to the best empirical evidence I am aware of,  the answer to those questions appears to be the so-called "social democratic" systems extant in Northern Europe. Universal health insurance programs have shown themselves to cover more people at cheaper costs and with better outcomes. Universal social welfare systems for families have shown themselves to produce far less child poverty. And these systems also have per capita GDP growth rates that are equal to those of the more liberal market systems like the one the US utilizes.