Rights in emergencies

Perry de Havilland of Samizdata makes an interesting case for different approaches to property rights during emergencies.

Without a common law right to go where you must when faced with a clear and present danger, a "libertarian" social order will simply fall apart the first time it faces a collective threat (be it a war, forest fire or plague). People will not sit and watch their families burn because someone else has interpreted what Murray Rothbard or Hans Herman Hoppe wrote about the right to defend private property. I am all for private property and the right not to have people kicking down your doors in the middle of the night, but the reality is that much of the world does not look like the relatively tranquil civil societies of the First World. To see the peaceful and mundane logic that does and indeed should pertain in Islington, Peoria and Calgary as applying to Basra, Baghdad and Mosul in the violent aftermath of a war is not just wrong, it is perverse.

While I agree in sentiment with his point, I am wary of giving anyone the power to decide what is, and what is not, and emergency. In 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in response to losing her grip on political power, and in turn justified her imprisoning thousands of political opponents, students, and media. She also censored the press, demolished the private property of slum dwellers, and forcibly sterilized almost a million men. All of this was necessary in her eyes, and in those of her willing executioners, for the emergency situation that faced them. (For a vivid fictional account of this period of India's history, I highly recommend Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.)

Although I confront many 'real world' and 'practicality' arguments against property rights in debates, I am never completely satisfied with them. As many of the commenters to Perry's post proposed, there are voluntary rights-based contractual solutions to such problems. I would rather seek such solutions within the property rights framework, rather than abandon it altogether for somewhat arbitrary declarations of emergency.

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