The Exigent Duality
On Property - 11:01 CDT, 10/17/15 (Sniper)
My brother recently struck up an email conversation with me regarding the nature of property. He rested on the Murray Rothbard position. This is the only position I've ever heard American libertarians take, yet it's always seemed suspect to me.


The Murray Rothbard Position

Murray Rothbard's entire world view regarding property stems from the axiom, "you own yourself." From there he derives, "you own your labor", and from there he concludes, "if you 'mix' your labor with an object, you now have full property rights over that object."

Immanuel Kant defines ownership as, bold emphasis is mine, "the mode of having something external to myself as my own." Indeed, in the case of so-called "self-ownership", what is doing the owning, and what is being owned? My brother said that the brain owns the body. I've heard other libertarians say that it is the consciousness that owns the body.

Most American libertarians-- and indeed, Murray Rothbard himself-- are atheists. It seems very peculiar, and perhaps indicative of contrived reasoning, that American libertarians suddenly resort to highly theistic, dualistic notions when the issue of property comes up! Needless to say, I have a physicalist view of the nature of man.

Next, he concludes that you "own" your labor. But "labor" is an abstract thing-- does one also "own" his love, his hate, his frustration, or his leisure? Second, this is circular-- Rothbard attempts to define "ownership" (which is essentially a synonym for property) by assuming that "ownership" is already defined (i.e. "you own yourself", "you own your labor", etc.) This is like the time when I asked my daughter, "what is a wish?", and she responded, "well, it's when you wish for something."

And from there, he concludes that since you are mixing a "part of yourself"-- your "labor", which you own-- that now you "own" the thing with which it is inextricably mixed-- and voila: property rights! But even setting aside my above criticisms, he doesn't differentiate between "the thing" and the value that was added to "the thing"; according to Rothbard's theory, merely scraping some tree bark off of a tree with one's fingernail is enough to gain full property rights over that tree, forever.


The Noam Chomsky Position

The traditional anarchist position on property, as espoused by people like Noam Chomsky, is that someone has the right, in nature, to not be aggressed upon. If one is holding a tool, for example, and another comes to rip it out of his hands, then that is an act of aggression. If one sets the tool down and is no longer using it, then it is fair game for someone else to use. After all, if one is allowed to "own" property indefinitely, such as Murray Rothbard proposes, and can therefore forcefully eject someone from that property, is that not contradictory with the goal of having a non-coersive society?

This seems like a much more sensible and consistent position than Rothbard's. But my background in economics gives me some consequentalist reservations; for instance, without any form of property ownership, how would things be priced? And absent a pricing valuation mechanism, any society of even moderate size is doomed to collapse.


Use-Right Theory

This notion is described in great detail here. I shall attempt to distill it into a list of deductions:

  1. Man has the natural right to live his life as he pleases, so long as he does not inhibit any other man's right to do the same.

  2. Man has values that he wishes to achieve. He takes actions to fulfill his values.

  3. To fulfill his values, man interacts with objects in the world around him. This creates an implicit claim on the given object, for the specific purpose required to fulfill whichever value he is then pursuing.

  4. Another person taking a subsequent claim on that same object, in such a way that interferes with some prior claim by someone else, is a violation of the axiom in bullet number one, and is thus wrong.

  5. Another person taking a subsequent claim on that same object, in such a way that does not interfere with some prior claim by someone else, is ok.

  6. When someone has achieved a given value, they automatically abandon the specific claims they had previously made against objects that were utilized in order to achieve that value.

This solution makes deductive sense to me, and it also is a nice compromise between the hard-line "you touch it, you own it" views of American libertarians, and the "you can never own anything" perspective of anarchists.

In addition: in nature, man can create contracts with other men. This is perfectly valid in a world of universals. Inevitably, a system would emerge whereby people would exchange claims-- for example, to mining a cave in a mountainside, or to the construction of some living abode-- with other people who share their values, creating a de facto pricing mechanism.