What kind of external property rights are consistent with self-ownership?
It seems to me that once one acknowledges self-ownership, one cannot acknowledge any other rights unless those rights are themselves grounded in self-ownership.
How so? Well, the difference between rights and other moral claims is that rights are legitimately enforceable. So any limits that self-ownership sets to the use of force will also be limits to the existence of rights.
Self-ownership would seem to license the use of force in self-defense against the aggressive force of others; if I own myself, I surely have the right (i.e., the legitimately enforceable claim) to exclude others from subjecting me forcibly to their uses. (In Locke’s words, we are not “made for one another’s uses.”) Likewise one can arguably use force in defense of another’s self-ownership by acting as that person’s agent.
But any use of force that goes beyond such defense would seem to be prohibited as a violation of the other party’s self-ownership. And that in turn means that the right to use force in defense of self-ownership (one’s own or another’s) rules out all other enforceable claims.
So in order to justify external property rights of any kind, one has to ground them in self-ownership; which in turn means that any property rights that cannot be construed as an extension of self-ownership rights must be rejected. (This in turn is why external property rights have to be fairly stringent; they must either be grounded in a stringent foundation – self-ownrship – or rejected entirely.)
A broadly Lockean conception of acquiring property by “mixing labour” would seem to pass the test. After all, if I own my self, then I must own the particles of which my body is composed; thus the means by which I acquired those particles (most of which were acquired post-birth) must be a legitimate means of acquiring internal property. Labour-mixing is an analogous means of acquiring external property; in both cases I transform external material in such a way as to make it an instrument of my ongoing purposes.
Such a derivation will justify not only private property, but in certain cases public property also (since an unorganised public can acquire property by mixing labour too, as when members of a community create a trail through repeated passage).
But some forms of property will be ruled out. In particular, any claim that the public at large has a residual claim not based on labour to land and unowned resources will be ruled out – which disqualifies the Lockean Proviso and the various forms of Georgism, as well as the so-called “left-libertarian” position defended by Hillel Steiner. (I say “so-called” because I prefer to reserve the term “left-libertarian” for an earlier and still active use.)
Herbert Spencer argues that private ownership of land would render permissible a situation in which the entire earth is owned, and thus the non-owners, having nowhere of their own to stand, would exist at the sufferance of the owners. But Spencer implausibly assumes that the right to evict trespassers is unlimited by all considerations of context and proportionality; absent that assumption, his argument does not go through.
Other property claims that would be ruled out by the approach I’ve just defended include:
- the claim that we own only the improvements to land, not the land itself (since if we analogously owned only the improvements to our ingested particles and not the particle themselves, we’d have no right to move our bodies in any way, given that we can’t move our bodies without moving the particles they’re composed of)
- the claim that society has a right to the individual’s land on the grounds that its value depends on social factors beyond the individual (since the right to benefit from the value of one’s property derives not from ownership of the value (whatever that would mean) but from ownership of the property; after all, the value of my own personal services depends on social factors beyond myself, but that doesn’t make me partly a collective asset)
- intellectual property rights (since these would interfere with the individual’s right to transcribe information from her own brain onto her own external property)
- all existing claims to land that has never been transformed by labour – which today includes most of the land in the u.s. west of the Mississippi
For fuller (though still in-need-of-work) defenses of the arguments I’ve rather breezily rushed through here, see some of my earlier pieces:
The Paradox of Property
This Land Is Mine
Why Libertarians Believe There Is Only One Right
Left-Libertarianism, Class Conflict, and Historical Theories of Distributive Justice
A Plea for Public Property
Abortion, Abandonment, and Positive Rights
The Irrelevance of Responsibility
Twelve Theses on Libertarian Eudaimonism
- A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarian Thought
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