Sunday, August 05, 2007

What does it mean to own a "right"? Was Gandhi a thief?

From the Wikipedia entry on Gandhi's 1930 Salt March:
The British monopoly on the salt trade in India dictated that the sale or production of salt by anyone but the British government was a criminal offense punishable by law. Salt was readily accessible to coastal area dwellers, but instead of being allowed to collect and use it themselves for free, they were instead forced to purchase it from the colonial government.

In other words, the British government owned the right to produce and sell salt in India.

And another page says:

On April 5, 1930 Gandhi and his satyagrahis reached the coast. After prayers were offered, Gandhi spoke to the large crowd. He picked up a tiny lump of salt, breaking the law. Within moments, the satyagrahis followed Gandhi's passive defiance, picking up salt everywhere along the coast. A month later, Gandhi was arrested and thrown into prison, already full with fellow protesters.

Was Gandhi stealing salt from the British government, or was he simply breaking the law which gave the British the exclusive right to produce salt?

Since Gandhi wasn't actually taking the salt away from the British, and the ocean contained a practically infinite supply of salt (so it can't be claimed that he was taking it from anyone else), I'd argue that he was not stealing anything.

Did Gandhi steal the legal "right" to produce salt? Not really. A right has no substance or physical reality, so it is difficult to outright steal one (you could perhaps trick someone into signing a contract transferring the right, but clearly that's not the case here).

Gandhi's actions DID decrease the value of the British right to produce salt, but many actions could have that effect. For example, he could have convinced the people of India to switch to a lower salt diet, thereby decreasing the demand for salt and the value of the British monopoly. I don't think that anyone would call that stealing.

In fact, I've never seen anyone claim that Gandhi was a thief. It seems like a somewhat silly argument.

So what's my point? Owning a "right", which is a form of "Imaginary Property", is not the same as owning real property. If someone violates your exclusive rights, they may be breaking the law, but they are not stealing. To claim otherwise is silly and dishonest.

Update: Some people have interpreted this post as meaning that I'm opposed to Imaginary Property, or that infringing on other's legal rights is ok. That is not the case at all -- IP can serve an important and beneficial role in society. My only point is that Imaginary Property is not the same as Real Property, and that infringing on someone's legal rights isn't the same as theft. Pretending that they are the same has caused a lot of unnecessary trouble.

12 comments:

Nomenklatura said...

An extraordinarily contrived and unconvincing argument, even to someone who sympathizes with where you presumably want to go with it.

Taking the salt 1 second before it is turned into cash by its lawful owner is the same as taking the cash proceeds 2 seconds later. Theft in both cases.

You can argue there was something seriously wrong with the law (as Gandhi did), but that's a different argument.

Paul Buchheit said...

Nomenklatura,

I don't think I understand your argument. Are you saying that Gandhi was in fact stealing salt?

If he took it away from someone else (the lawful owner), that would indeed be theft. However, that was not the case. He was producing his own salt (in violation of the law).

Peter said...

Property has no rights. I can't imagine why 'Imaginary Property' would, either.

Evan said...

Does a person own real property or do they have an exclusive right to use it?

Bosky said...

hey i just stumbled upon this post,and your blog today .And what coincidence to read about Gandhi.

Today, is India's independence day 8 )

Keep Clicking,
Bhasker

jeremy s said...

Peter hit it on the head. "property has no rights." it frequently is treated as though it does, however ("rights of a corporation" etc).

Property is an economic thing. Rights are political. a right can never be stolen; only denied and violated. what the british did was essentially steal material resources from the locals who lived there. i guess you could argue that they violated people's political rights in the process.

nomenklatura: a large corporation, emboldened by their military power, declares that they own the air. therefore, if you breathe without paying for the air, you are stealing from them. do you believe that argument at all? i think there is a large difference between rule of law and rule of force - declaring ownership of a resource does not automagically make it mine.

Nomenklatura said...

How quickly people forget that officially-asserted monopolies over both natural resources and production processes used to be a major, very common form of government finance.

And yes, if the government asserted that it owned the exclusive right to produce salt then it generally was asserting that if you produced some and either consumed it yourself or sold it you were stealing, as you would quickly have discovered had you been caught.

There's nothing odd legally about a government asserting this sort of right. Third world and other governments for instance routinely assert ownership of all oil and gas reserves on or near their territory (see the current flap over Russia and the North Pole). Where is the relevant difference between oil and salt?

In any case, most of the world's governments routinely manage to do three things more absurd than this before breakfast.

Krishna Kumar said...

The major problem with your argument is that Gandhi was willing to go to jail and undergo consequences because of doing this.

He understood the law and he knew that he was willfully breaking it. The concept was "civil disobedience".

If you are equating this with breaking existing intellectual property rights, it fails because those who do it don't accept the fact that they are in fact breaking laws. Nor are they willing to face the existing consequences under the law to prove their point.

What is happening now is "convenience" rather than "disobedience".

James said...

Define "real." What is real?

Sameer said...

Thats a really contorted and overstreached argument. You may want to rethink the analogies you draw.
First the British were not a legitimate power, so their laws were invalid (Its like debating if the French were criminals to oppose German occupation).
And second, it was a form of political protest.They didnt "own" anything, it was imposed by force on an unwilling people. Would you say the same for the civil rights movement in the US and Rosa Parks-breaking the unjust or imposed laws ?


Lets see you draw out that analogy to "Imaginary Property" and what Rev Sharpton may say to that :)

JR said...

A couple of things here. According to most contemporary property law theorists, 'property' is imaginary.
Since Hume, I think it was, the equation of 'property' with 'things' has been the layman's view, and not in accordance with the way of things in law.
Property is rights, usually rights to the exclusive use of things (whether physical or conceptual.) Property in the view of law is really about the relationships between people, and the rights to negotiable items are the fulcrum in that relationship.

The salt itself is largely irrelevant in this situation. It could have been the means of production of the frequency 440Hz, or of images of the Egyptian pyramids (topical reference!), as general examples.
Modern governments do the same thing all the time with controlling the means of production of simple things such as alcohol, or if they give up and realize that those laws aren't going to work, they'll take the next step and try to control the means of distribution.

What Gandhi achieved was to make the Indian people realize that if they refused to be intimidated, the unjust law against salt production would be exposed as foolish and unenforceable.
There was no ownership of salt. there was only a legislated right to control the alienability (ie. sale) of the salt.
I can see a certain market argument could come into play here - if you put in the labour to extract the salt from seawater, you could be expected to be recompensed for that labour by those who desire the salt. But to forbid people the right to exert themselves at labours of their choosing, when the raw materials those labours depend on are well-nigh inexhaustible? Madness!

JR said...

A couple of things here. According to most contemporary property law theorists, 'property' is imaginary.
Since Hume, I think it was, the equation of 'property' with 'things' has been the layman's view, and not in accordance with the way of things in law.
Property is rights, usually rights to the exclusive use of things (whether physical or conceptual.) Property in the view of law is really about the relationships between people, and the rights to negotiable items are the fulcrum in that relationship.

The salt itself is largely irrelevant in this situation. It could have been the means of production of the frequency 440Hz, or of images of the Egyptian pyramids (topical reference!), as general examples.
Modern governments do the same thing all the time with controlling the means of production of simple things such as alcohol, or if they give up and realize that those laws aren't going to work, they'll take the next step and try to control the means of distribution.

What Gandhi achieved was to make the Indian people realize that if they refused to be intimidated, the unjust law against salt production would be exposed as foolish and unenforceable.
There was no ownership of salt. there was only a legislated right to control the alienability (ie. sale) of the salt.
I can see a certain market argument could come into play here - if you put in the labour to extract the salt from seawater, you could be expected to be recompensed for that labour by those who desire the salt. But to forbid people the right to exert themselves at labours of their choosing, when the raw materials those labours depend on are well-nigh inexhaustible? Madness!