The Philosophy of Property Rights

By: Daniel Engerer

The concept of property is incredibly important to human society.

What is Property?

The concept of “property” is the idea that an object or piece of land “belongs” to a certain person or group of people, and these people have the “right” to use force to exclude others from using, occupying, touching, etc. said property. Most people have a fairly intuitive sense of property. If something is rightfully “yours”, then only you have the “right” to use said property. Other people must obtain permission from you before touching or trespassing on your property.

Simple enough. But is property a morally just concept? Who determines ownership of an object? Can an object or land even be owned? All property claims require physical violence to enforce. Is that fair? Why should some people be allowed to use things and others not?

These are all extremely important questions, and we must answer them all.

Why Property?

Why do we even bother with a concept like property? Wouldn’t it be simpler to allow anybody to do anything, period? To help us establish why property is important, honestly consider the following scenario as thought experiments:

Scenario: Somebody walks into your home, opens your fridge, and helps themselves to your groceries before taking a shower, napping in your bed, and driving off with your car.

Now you’re left in a bad situation: You worked hard for nothing. The thief, on the other hand, is thrilled because he didn’t work at all yet now enjoys your stuff.

If you’re like most people, something about an uninvited guest using and consuming “your stuff” feels wrong and unjust.  But why? Generally, the reason most people don’t like to have their objects taken from them is because they are made worse off as a result. However, even deeper than that is the fact that you had to work hard to obtain these objects, and to have that work erased is painful. Let’s put these feelings into a concrete, objective description.

Locke’s Labor Theory of Property

Property Stems from Self-Ownership

Philosophically speaking, the concept of property stems from self-ownership. The logic, originally laid out by John Locke in his labor theory of property, is more or less as follows:

Only you are in direct control of your body. As a result, other people hold you responsible for the effects of your actions. If you punch somebody, we don’t blame the person standing next to you, or the clouds in the sky, or a dog walking by. No, we blame you. By the same logic, if you create something, you are responsible for said creation. For example: If you go into the forest, cut down some trees, and build a log cabin, you are responsible for the log cabin’s existence and nobody else. You have taken your labor and poured it into unused, unowned physical objects. Without your actions, the log cabin would not exist. It seems intuitive, then, that you would have a higher claim to this log cabin than other people, and that you have a right to exclude other people from using your log cabin. Applying this principle to land is known as “homsteading”. Of course, it almost goes without saying that for practical reasons, you cannot claim ownership over property that already belongs to another person (first-use principle).

One may notice that this way of defining property means that you must actually do something to land in order to own it. That is, you cannot simply “claim” land by pointing to it and saying, “that’s mine, nobody can go here”. That would be an arbitrary imposition of unjustified authority. Right away, we see that this arbitrary authority is at the nature of the state, which claims to have authority over a given geographical territory which is has not actually homesteaded. Of course, the state is even worse than an arbitrary claimant, because the state claims to have the authority to override existing property rights. See: Arguments for State Legitimacy Rebutted. You must build a house, plow the land, or do something significant. Otherwise, you have no more legitimate a claim to a given plot of land than any other random passerby, other than the fact that you were there first. Being first is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite to owning property.

Property is theft?

Again, the Lockean labor theory of property resonates with most peoples’ intuition. But for others, the transition from labor to exclusive property rights may seem somewhat tenuous, especially considering the usage of scarce resources, such as land.  A popular rebuttal to Locke’s LTOP is that “property is theft”. That is, the exclusion of others from using objects or entering certain areas of land is analogous to theft because it “steals” people’s ability to use something that was once open to them. This argument goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the Earth is held in common ownership by all humans and that therefore, for one to claim exclusivity, is theft from the rest of society. Land is a somewhat special natural resource because we humans must exist on land.

The “property is theft” argument does seem to contain a nugget of truth. After all, nobody “created” land, so why do they get to exclude other people from accessing it? Furthermore, we humans and other land mammals are more or less bound to exist and live on terra firma. Ideally, in a perfect universe with infinite land area, this challenge would not exist. But sadly, scarcity of land is a simple fact of life. So, how do we mitigate this situation?

First, we must realize that there is no perfect way to manage any scarce natural resource; it is impossible for everyone to have 100% access all the time within ANY coherent social order. Generally speaking, physical matter can only be occupied by a limited number of people at the same time.  So, exclusion will inevitably be employed in any society (Unless, of course, one advocates for a society with truly no rules, in which people are free to do or take anything at any time for any reason. Virtually nobody advocates for such chaos). The question then becomes: How can exclusion be employed in the most just, sensible way?

As mentioned, people cannot create land. But, this is not necessarily an argument against land ownership. Again, to the log cabin example: Should you be allowed to exclude other people from accessing a cabin that you built? After all, you did not create the trees which compose your cabin. I would say yes, it seems intuitive that the original creator has a higher claim to the log cabin than any random person, and as such may exclude others from the cabin. Likewise, if you catch a fish, who should get to eat the fish? You, or a random person who wants it? If your answer is “yes” to these questions, then you have just proven that it is not necessary to have created land in order to exercise ownership over it for the same reason as the log cabin and fishing examples: We do not create trees, fish, land, or any matter, but we DO create the labor that becomes trapped within matter, unlocking and adding to their natural utility. What good would ownership of trees or a fish do if you were not permitted to use them?

To many people, this notion of private property seems well justified. But those who prioritize egalitarianism propose different property ownership systems:

Alternative Property Norms

An easy way to test the relative strength of the Lockean LTOP argument is to compare it to other property norms.

Extreme 1: Unrestricted Open Access

Wouldn’t it be great if people could go literally anywhere, into any building, without being excluded? For the wanderer, yes, this would certainly be nice. And while it is our goal to create a free society, that freedom cannot be unlimited. People should not have the freedom to murder, pillage, and destroy whatever they want. To allow people to go literally wherever they want means that people should be able to walk through your living room, take a nap on your couch, poop in your toilet, etc. It’s intuitive that trespassing on the creations of others is a form of aggression.

Extreme 2: Democratically Controlled Usage

In an attempt to make a more “fair” and equal society, many have proposed democratic control of resources. That is, if humans own the earth in common, then humans should all have an equal voice in determining how scarce resources like land are used. This concept is an attempt to put everyone on a level playing field. However, promoting equality as the end goal comes at a cost to individual freedom:

  • No individual or small group is permitted to exclusively own land
  • Democratic voting is the only way to actually get anything done

It certainly seems contrary to the idea of freedom to have to obtain permission from the group to use land how you would like. This approach is dangerously close to a totalitarian state, and feels particularly ridiculous when there exists relatively abundant land, which is still the case even with today’s world population. The voting approach is also fraught with practical issues: Does the entire world need to vote on everything? If not, where and how do you draw the line for who gets to vote on what?

 Occupancy and Use

‘Occupancy and Use’ norms, the supposed middle ground promoted by communists, syndicalists, and other left-leaning ideologies, are straightforward enough. O&U norms posit that the only valid way to establish legitimate property is through the occupancy and/or use of land and/or man-made objects (buildings, machinery, etc.) After all, it does make sense that somebody using land has a higher claim than a random passerby, right? Generally speaking, O&U is a reasonable starting place to establish property rights, as it is a necessary component of the Lockean LTOP. But, upon scrutiny, we see a major flaw: What about occupying and using something that somebody else made? Would it be just and reasonable for a person to claim exclusivity of tools, food, or a home that somebody else created? For most people, the answer is a resounding “no”; you don’t get to simply walk up to somebody else’s creation and use it for yourself without permission. Again, this amounts to trespassing; to do so would be a form of theft and exploitation of the original creator. Clearly, O&U violates the most basic intuitions of property and social order.

Anarcho-communists and similar anti-capitalist ideologues attempt to draw a distinction between “private property” and “personal property” through the use of O&U norms. “Private property” is absentee property, such as a factory, office, “means of production”, house/apartment, etc. that the owner (usually a capitalist entrepreneur) retains control over and allows others to use conditionally despite not being physically present. Anti-capitalists argue that private property is illegitimate, primarily because it is used to exploit workers. That is, the capitalist is supposedly not actually using said private property, yet extracting wealth from those who do. They view the owner as a simple gatekeeper to “the means of production” and nothing more. As such, these people advocate physical seizure and takeover of said private property. As laid out in the Flagship Freedom article Is Profit Exploitative?, we see that that the employer/employee relationship in Capitalism is not inherently exploitative. Regardless, “seizing the means of production” is blatant theft; the act of employing others to use your property in no way invalidates your claim to your property. Anarcho-capitalists argue that the distinction between personal and private property is arbitrary in the sense that how a piece of property is used does not change the fact that it is still legitimately owned property. In my personal experience, no communist has ever been able to refute this claim.

Complete Privatization?

Opponents of private land ownership claim that as open land becomes more and more scarce, people are “trapped” in a web of private property, unable to escape and act as they please. They claim that capitalism is not voluntary because of this inability to escape. The refutation to this argument is that scarcity is not a feature endemic to capitalism, but to nature itself, and any social order will suffer from the exact same problem. If the human population meets the Earth’s capacity in a capitalist world, then it will do so in a communist world as well. Land will be allocated in any form of society, eventually reducing the ability of the individual to “escape” into the wilderness to live on their own. Thankfully, we are not anywhere near this point yet, as there exists over 30 acres of land area per human in the world at the time of this writing. This, coupled with the fact that most humans prefer to live in densely-populated cities or urban areas, means that there is still plenty of land to go around. But, even if all land is eventually used up (something I doubt will ever happen, but regardless), I would much rather live in a society where the individual has sovereign reign inside their own property, where they can do anything that they want (within the limits of the non-aggression principle) and not have to bow to the faceless majority or the state.

In Conclusion

The concept of property exists to avoid conflict in the allocation of scarce resources in human society. At this point, I conclude that private property rights, obtained through first-use LTOV/homesteading is the only consistent, non-contradictory theory of property. We all wish that resources and land were infinite, but they are not. As humans living in human society, we must be able to live while still respecting the individual rights of others. And, let’s be frank: private property rights just make sense. Don’t take other people’s shit without their permission. Don’t walk into private land or buildings without permission. Don’t use people’s shit without their permission. If people have found a way to use objects or land productively, just leave them the fuck alone!