Libertarians speak often of private property, but to people not educated in libertarian philosophy, this notion can be confusing and seemingly subjective. In fact, the opposite is true: the concept of private property is objective and quite simple to understand.
Before understanding man’s ability to own other objects, one must understand man’s ownership of himself (or herself).
Each human being is the sovereign owner of him or herself. While this conclusion seems fairly obvious, we can arrive at it several ways. I will focus on the method used by Murray Rothbard and others below because I think that it is the easiest method for the common person to understand. For a more detailed and completely different approach, take a look at Ludwig von Mises’ “action axiom,” and Hans-Hermann-Hoppe’s “theory of argumentation.” This piece by Gennady Stolyarov II also summarizes the point as well.
One way to prove self-ownership is by assessing three possibilities of who owns a person: that everyone in the world owns fractions of everyone else in the world, that some group of elites own everyone else, or that every person owns him or herself.
The first such possibility is that everybody has an equal claim to ownership over everyone else. Murray Rothbard (page 36) explained that this scenario
“holds that every man should have the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else. If there are two billion people in the world, then everyone has the right to own one two-billionth of every other person. In the first place, we can state that this ideal rests on an absurdity: proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone
else, yet is not entitled to own himself. Secondly, we can picture the viability of such a world: a world in which no man is free to take any action whatever without prior approval or indeed command by everyone else in society. It should be clear that in that sort of. . . world, no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish.”
Thus, we are able to reject any notion that people can be co-owners of each other. Seeing that it is impossible for humans to all own equal shares in each other, we must now examine the notion that one group of people owns all of the rest of the people (page 28).
“a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B…. Th[is] alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, th[is] alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.”
Thus, we are left with our third option, that every human is the sovereign owner of him or herself.
Property can be acquired in three different ways–two of the methods are just, while the third is unjust.
The concept of acquiring property through homesteading has a long philosophical tradition. In 1690, John Locke famously wrote (page 71):
“Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature has placed it in, it has by his labor something added to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to…”
Under homesteading, a person who improves or makes use of a natural resource becomes the owner of that resource. For example, if a person landed on an uninhabited island, and picked an apple off of a tree would become the obvious owner of that apple. No one else could rightfully claim ownership to the apple. Similarly, if this man were to cut down several trees on the island and use the lumber to build a home, this home and the land surrounding it would become his property.
Homesteading has its limits–one must improve or change the resource to be considered a just owner of that property. For example, if a man were to simple build a large fence around an area the size of Texas, he could not seriously claim to be the owner of all land inside of the fence. Similarly, if I were to claim ownership of the planet Saturn, I would be ridiculed, and when the time came that humans visited Saturn, my descendants could not expect to collect rent from these astronauts.
Murray Rothbard explains this concept (page 170):
“If Columbus lands on a new continent, is it legitimate for him to proclaim all the new continent his own, or even that sector ‘as far as his eye can see’? Clearly, this would not be the case in the free society that we are postulating. Columbus or Crusoe would have to use the land, to ‘cultivate’ it in some way, before he could be asserted to own it…. If there is more land than can be used by a limited labor supply, then the unused land must simply remain unowned until a first user arrives on the scene. Any attempt to claim a new resource that someone does not use would have to be considered invasive of the property right of whoever the first user will turn out to be.”
Under voluntary exchange, a person can trade any of their justly acquired resources with another person in exchange for some of that person’s justly acquired resources. For example, the man above who took an apple off of an unowned apple tree could trade his apple with another person for a product of that person’s, as long as the trade was voluntary.
This right also derives from the right of self-ownership. I own myself and I may sell my labor to another person for a wage or a product (I could sell 8 hours per day of my time to an employer for a fixed rate of $10 per hour). At the end of the day, I now own the $80 (meaning that the employer no longer has any claim to this money), which I am able to trade with a different merchant for some of his products.
Thus, any resources which are acquired justly can be traded for any other resources that are acquired justly. In completing such a transaction, original owners must completely give up their right to the property that they have sold.
Theft is taking things by force (including fraud or threat of violence). Theft is immoral and unjust, and one who acquires resources by theft should not be considered to be the legitimate owner of that resource.
If I were to take $10 from a person without their permission, it is obvious that I have stolen from them. If this person is paid $10 per hour by their employer for their labor, I have effectively stolen an hour of this person’s life.
Similarly, if a food merchant were to market a meal as “non fat,” knowing that the meal contained 10 grams of fat, he would have acquired the money from that trade through fraud. Thus, the person who purchased the meal would have a strong claim against the merchant and should be entitled to receive a refund or some form of compensation.
Additionally, if a man with a gun were to demand that unless you pay him 1/3 of your income he would lock you in a cage, he would be guilty of initiating the use of force with the intent of committing theft. It would not matter if the man promised to use this money to pay for a school for your children, for a new highway, or for a missile defense program. Taking things from a person without their permission is, by definition, theft. Silver-tongued rhetoric may be employed to obscure this fact, but it cannot change it.
Taking something from another person without their permission is always theft and should be condemned as theft. It does not matter what the “reason” or “justification” for this action is. It does not matter who committed this theft, what was stolen, or how many people told the aggressor to act.
People often use majority support as a justification for increases in taxes, large new social programs, war, and government debt because “the people overwhelmingly support them.”
Rothbard (Pages 57-58) shoots this idea down as well.
“even if 90% of the people decided to murder or enslave the, other 10%, this would still be murder and slavery, and would not be voluntary suicide or enslavement on the part of the oppressed minority. Crime is crime, aggression against rights is aggression, no matter how many citizens agree to the oppression. There is nothing sacrosanct about the majority; the lynch mob, too, is the majority in its own domain.”
Unfortunately, our current system does not always respect private property rights. Remember, that property rights are inviolable, and that action taken against a person’s property without their permission is aggression. It is a sad fact that property rights (often including the right to self ownership) are regularly discarded by the very government which was instituted to protect our liberties.
Also, check out this video for a great explanation of private property.
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