… is from page 124 of Deirdre McCloskey’s insightful 2022 volume, Beyond Positivism, Behaviorism, and Neoinstitutionalism in Economics:
True, property can be guaranteed by government. But the evidence is crushing that property much more usually is taxed or stolen by government and that anyway property arises easily and repeatedly in history without government at all.
DBx: My favorite modern example of property rights emerging spontaneously – that is, without design – occurs in college cafeterias. A person who puts his or her books or backpack on the table in front of an empty chair in a cafeteria, or who drapes a coat or sweater on an empty chair, establishes his or her property right to sit in that chair, and to use the adjoining table space, when that person returns several minutes later from buying lunch. People who spot that empty chair with the books or backpack placed in front of it are disappointed to discover that that table space is already taken – despite the fact that, at that moment, no human being is actually seated in that chair. The property right is respected.
The cafeteria-table example doesn’t itself prove that all worthwhile rights to property emerge spontaneously, or that government recognition and enforcement of property rights cannot or will not further strengthen property rights. But this quotidian example does prove that we humans, without being directed by an authority, at least sometimes (and I would argue very often) not only naturally recognize the difference between mine and thine, but that we also stumble upon useful signals to distinguish mine from thine, as well as respect these signals as legitimate markers separating mine from thine.