The Roots of Property and Libertarianism
libertarians don’t own their own bodies
By Peter Cresswell
I’ve been intending for some time to
respond at some length to the libertarian-bashing of Richard Chapple from the ‘Philosophy
et cetera’ blog, about which I referred here. So I have. At some length.
Richard has been having fun. “It's so fun
to mock libertarians for their inconsistencies, ha,” says Richard. The most
absurd conclusion to which the mocking Richard has come is that ‘libertarians
are in favour of state intervention.’ He says so, right here, see.
Let me just give you a summary of some of his recent, similarly dumb,
pronouncements on libertarians:
vs. Utilitarian Justice
The problem for
libertarians of inter-generational justice
for Confiscation of Property!
for State Intervention!
Libertarians for devil worship …
Okay, you get the point: Richard doesn’t
think libertarianism makes any sense.
It’s no surprise to find that Richard is a
philosophy student. Idiocy seems to go with the territory doesn’t it -- just
look at this idiot for
instance. Or this one. As I pointed in my
original blog, it’s not surprising that Richard
doesn’t think libertarianism makes any sense, because all he seems to have seen
of it is the ‘libertarianism’ espoused by Harvard academic, the late Robert
Nozick. This version of libertarianism exists nowhere except in university
What Richard and Robert have both missed is
the rights-based argument for libertarianism on which many libertarians (myself included) rest our case. The concept of rights is
historically relatively recent – developed fully only in the late-seventeenth century
-- and is still unfortunately poorly understood. In fact it’s understood less
now than it was in the sixteenth-century.
I explain the concept in very simple form here in
the Cue Card Libertarianism series, so in keeping with the present context I’ll
be a little more philosophical in this presentation of the case. (If you want
more, I suggest you repair to Ayn Rand in her
article ‘Man’s Right’s’ in her book Capitalism:
The Unknown Ideal, and Tibor Machan in his book Classical Individualism
-- in both places the case is put way, way better than I do here, and Tibor’s account gives you plenty of history to boot.)
I’ll cover the arguments in brief here then,
and I’ll put numbers on the paragraphs so you can keep up if you lose your
place, and so you can easily ask questions and abuse me about the right bits.
Richard bases his understanding of
libertarianism on what he calls the ‘self-ownership principle’ – “despite the
name, the core value of "libertarianism" is not liberty,
but rather, self-ownership,” he says – so let’s start there.
Self-ownership isn’t what it’s cracked
up to be
- The argument of ‘self-ownership’
that Nozick puts up and with which Richard wrestles is a metaphor, but a
very poor one. It begs the very question it seeks to prove: it uses the
principle of ownership to prove the principle of ownership. D’uh.
- On this question, as on so many others (and as Sean Kimpton from Auckland Uni’s
Politics department argues here)
Nozick is just wrong, and his
arguments are unhelpful. And not only unhelpful, but also unclear as we
have to go to Nozick-interpreters such as G.A. Cohen to find out what
Nozick might have meant, and as Richard has done.
- As Sean
Kimpton puts the case against Nozick, “Why is an explicit
discussion of self-ownership needed? It is needed because it can be a
misleading subject. This is because the self-ownership thesis is
traditionally, and correctly, viewed as a metaphor. As you are not a separate entity from your body, it
is not strictly speaking true, that you own your body. Rather, you are
your body, and must take certain actions in order to sustain yourself.
Self-ownership is merely an analogy between the control you are entitled
to have over yourself, and the control you have over private property.
Thus, you are fully entitled to exercise such control over yourself, as
you could over a chattel slave, except that, unlike the slave, you are not
owned. Taking this metaphor literally can lead to intellectuals playing
all sorts of mind games with the concept, including using slavery to
justify freedom! It's a very slippery slope, down which intellectuals are
very happy to push libertarianism.”
- The fact is, we do not own our bodies, we
are our bodies. That is a
crucial distinction. Ownership follows from that point, as Ayn Rand
“There is only one
fundamental right ... a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of
self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the
right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action - which
means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a
rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfilment and the
enjoyment of his own life.” Nozick fails to
realise that the primary purpose of rights is to allow Man to live by his
nature. Rights allow Man to live as
Man. Rand again: "The source of rights is not divine law or
congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A - and man is man. Rights
are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper
survival." A meaningful life is only a secondary consequence of this,
and not the primary. Of course, a meaningful life does require a system of
rights based on the thesis of self-ownership, but it does not of itself
give us the whole argument.
word from our sponsors
- Let me explain all this in much greater detail, but first, a message
from our intellectual sponsors: ‘context-keeping,’
- When examining a field of endeavour, particularly one such as
this one that encompasses all of human existence and potentially all human
enterprise, it is important to examine the whole field and to retain the
whole context while doing so.
- It is not desirable, particularly when discussing such an
advanced concept as human freedom, to choose a starting point that is some
way down the track, and to make rationalistic
deductions therefrom that ignore and drop the wider context.
- Context and Starting
Points: A ‘starting point’ is useful in
deduction, but deduction is only part of the intellectual chore needed to
make a case. Specifically, in the present case, it is not enough when
examining human enterprise to observe that
people produce, and then to ask how that production (those ‘resources’)
should be distributed. To ignore how
those resources were produced and why
they were (and by whom) is to drop the whole context required in
understanding what human freedom is, and why and how we need it if we are
to live as human beings.
now, back to our programme …
- We human beings are living beings with a specific nature; in order to understand how we must live, we
first have to understand the nature of ourselves as human beings.
- We must realise, first up, that all life is contingent. Like
all living beings we are faced with the fundamental existential alternative
of life or death. That is the
fundamental issue faced by all living things.
- To die we need only do nothing. But to live, we must take the action necessary for our survival.
- What is necessary for the survival of a human animal? Unlike
other animals, we can’t survive as we were born. Unlike other animals we
are not born with fur to keep us warm, with claws with which to fight,
with sharp teeth or great strength to protect us. Unlike other animals, we
are not free to pluck from the things that exist all we may need for our
survival – unlike them we must produce what we need, and the
idea and the tools with which to do so.
our own business
- Our human means of
survival is our minds; specifically our minds put to use to reshape the things in
the world into a form in which they can further our life – in a form in
which they we make them valuable
to us. This is the fundamental difference between ourselves and other
animals: unlike them we have to produce the things we need in order to
survive and to flourish – we must produce our own values -- and we must
use our minds to guide us in what
we produce, and how we may
produce it. We must identify our
values, and produce them ourselves.
- It is in this sense that, as Aristotle identified, we are in
essence the rational animal – what sets us apart from other animals is
this unique use of the mind.
- This point is perhaps most evident following the Industrial Revolution, in which the
human mind applied to the material of existence was revealed as making
human flourishing possible on a scale never before seen – it is at this point
in human history that human populations began to expand at a rate never
before seen. Interestingly, Jared
Diamond concluded his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ at this point, as it is
here that his thesis just cannot begin to explain the results of history.
- The Industrial Revolution was an expression of the mind applied
to human flourishing
- We have no collective
brain, nor any collective stomach or collective ‘life.’ No utilitarian
calculation can help us then if what we have produced is taken from us
against our will in order to make someone else happy.
- In order to survive and flourish therefore, we must be free to make our own decisions
about our own lives; we must
be free to make our own plans.
- Reality does not guarantee us success in our plans however, nor
does it guarantee us the things we need in order to be successful – not
does it guarantee that we will recognise what we need for our success when
we see it right in front of us. Neither our success nor the efficacy of
our choices is guaranteed: in order to be free to succeed, we must also be free to fail, just
as others must be free to deny our choice(s) for themselves and to pursue
their own path using their own mind.
- What we cannot ignore if we are each to survive
and flourish then is the fact that in order to do so we each need to either
produce the food, shelter and so on that
is necessary (or produce something that may be trade for these things), or
(if we are a child, for example) to have someone free to produce on our
- To produce we need to be able to plan ahead, to keep the things we’ve produced and
are using to produce them, and to
trade the things we’ve produced, or promise to produce
- Which means if our lives are to be safe and secure, then we need the
security of knowing that the things we use to further our lives are themselves
safe and secure. This is what Ayn Rand
means when she says that the right to one’s life is the “source of their
rights, and the right
to property their only implementation.”
- Only ghosts can
survive without property. Human beings can’t.
is just another word for …
- In order that we may live as human beings then, we need our rights protected -- and we need to
they are, and where they come from.
- We also need to understand the concept of freedom,
which is what the concept of rights ratifies and makes possible. Freedom
in the political context is simply
freedom from physical coercion.
- Rights themselves may not be removed except by physical force; whenever a man is
made to act against his voluntary consent, his right has been violated.
- This insight allows us to draw an objective division between
the rights of one human being and those of another: As Rand puts it, “No
man has the right to initiate the use of physical force to against another
- All our legitimate rights – our rights to life, to liberty, to
the pursuit of property and happiness -- all include as a necessary
corollary that we must respect these same rights in others.
- In this way, ‘rights’
set up ‘boundaries’ between individuals and the results of their
actions – parameters within which we are free to act, and able to do so by right. Such is the human means
of survival and flourishing in
- This means that we are free to pursue our values within the
constraint of respecting the same rights in others: we are free to act to
achieve our values. This is the nature of rights: a right to pursue the values necessary for life, including the
pursuit of our property and our happiness etc, not a guarantee we will
values into the world
- When we do pursue our values and produce what we need to
survive and flourish, we bring into
the world something that didn’t previously exist. Specifically, we
reshape the material of the world (such as a pile of rocks) and by so
doing bring into existence something that did not previously exist (a
- Once something is brought into the world, we cannot then ignore who produced it; we cannot divorce
either the produce or the means of production from the producer.
- In this sense it can be understood that resources are not ‘held in common.’ They never were in any
case, and never are. A ‘resource’
is an identification of the human mind – nothing was a resource until
a human mind identified it as such – before it was so identified, a
‘resource’ was just a bunch of rocks or trees, or so much swampland, or
just so much dirty black liquid oozing from the ground.
- A ‘resource’ then is
an element of reality that a human mind has identified has having value
for human life if used – iron (from rocks) to
make tools; a branch (from those trees) to hold up the roof of a shelter;
peat (from the swamp) to make a warm fire; oil, which needs an advanced
mind and advanced technology for any use to be made of it.
- Which leads to a further development of this point: 1) a ‘resource’ has value only when it
that element of reality is utilised in a manner that a human mind has
identified as making it a value – oil for example is useful when cracked
and refined to make petrol (but only when there are engines available to
put it in) but otherwise it’s not a resource, it’s just a big mess on the
carpet. And 2) a resource isn‘t a
resource if one is not free to use it.
- A common misconception is
that ‘property’ only relates to raw land, and of this ‘there is only
so much to go around.’
- In fact, we may have property
in many other things, including
for example, intellectual property, in tools and equipment, buildings
we’ve leased, or land that we’ve transformed
so that it is irrigated and grows crops, or land that is serviced and has
a new house. In each case, the product of our effort is transformed from
what it was.
only what we own
- John Locke’s ‘state of
nature’ argument for rights requires that we explain how property
ownership developed from a mythical Garden of Eden. However, at this stage
in history how land was initially acquired is only really an academic
argument – one rather over-used by our friend Nozick.
- However, the US Homestead Act of 1862 and common law rule of
acquisition by prescription rightly recognise that using land unchallenged for nineteen years
gave one rights in that land. I think that’s fine, and makes perfect
- As Ayn Rand pointed out,
“Any material element or resource
which, in order to become of use or value to men, requires the
application of human knowledge and effort, should be private property - by
the right of those who apply the knowledge and effort.”
- What that would mean is that we can only own what we own. Robinson Crusoe for example would
have no moral claim to the entire island on which he lived – he would have
moral claim only to that which he had been using as of right.
- That said, rights in land aren’t just
exclusionary as is often thought. Land itself has a ‘bundle of rights’ associated with it that may for example include
rights in the land in harvesting, hunting, logging, tramping. We may have
occupancy rights but not ownership rights – or vice versa. There are many
rights that inhere in land, but not all property rights relate to land.
- A most important point to make here is that as a corollary of holding
rights ourselves, we must recognise those same rights in others, and we
must therefore take responsibility for our actions that impinge on these
same rights in others. All rights include with them these concomitant
responsibilities recognising the same rights of others,
and in doing so our actions over time form that ‘network of boundaries’ within which we may each act as of right. That’s the whole
where things come from: the payoff
Now, to conclude, let me go back to the
start – to paragraph 8 – where I said, “it is not enough when examining human
enterprise to observe that people
produce, … To ignore how those
resources were produced and why they
were (and by whom) is to drop the whole context required in understanding what
human freedom is, and why and how we need it if we are to live as human beings.”
To see an example of this, let’s see the
pay-off involved if you can pull it off. Richard analyses
money, or at least, quotes Nozick-interpreter G.A. Cohen doing so in what
passes for sophisticated analysis in a philosophy department these days:
- [B]egin by imagining a society without money, in which
courses of action available to people, courses they are free to follow
without interference, are laid down by the law. The law says what each
sort of person, or even each particular person, may and may not do without
interference, and each person is issued with a set of tickets detailing
what she is allowed to do. …By hypothesis, these tickets say what my
freedoms (and, consequently, my unfreedoms) are.
But a sum of money is nothing but a highly generalized form of such a
But of course a ‘sum of money’ in reality does not spring into existence
fully-formed. That ‘sum of money’ represents the fruits of your own
production that you have available to save, or to trade with others. Not having a ‘sum of money’
certainly gives one less freedom
of action, but it should hardly need saying that the lack thereof makes no
demand on anyone else, and certainly makes no demands that you be given
some value without you offering some value in return. If you have failed to produce any value
yourself, you may not then seek to live by mooching off the values produced
- Continuing: A sum of
money is a licence to perform a disjunction of conjunctions of actions -
actions like, for example, visiting one's sister in Bristol, or taking
home, and wearing, the sweater on the counter at Selfridge's…
A ‘sum of money’ may give you this licence, but only if those who own the
sweater, or the transport by means of which you may get to Bristol,
recognise your sum of money as being sufficient in their eyes to pay for
their products and services.
- Suppose that someone
is too poor to visit her sister in Bristol. She cannot save,
from week to week, enough to buy her way there. Then, as far as her
freedom is concerned, this is equivalent to 'trip to Bristol' not being written on
someone's ticket in the imagined non-monetary economy. The woman I have
described has the capacity to go to Bristol. She can board the
underground and approach the barrier which she must cross to reach the
train. But she will be physically prevented from passing through it, or
physically ejected from the train, or, in the other example, she will be
physically stopped outside Selfridge's and the
sweater will be removed. The only way that she will not be prevented from
getting and using such things is by offering money for them…
Here’s the payoff. This assumes that need is somehow a claim on the
production of others, and represents a Disneyland view of existence.
‘A train to Bristol’ does not exist on a tree somewhere that we may all
pick from it when we feel like it – that train (and Bristol itself)
represents the sum of a number of choices, efforts, insights and sheer
hard work that brought into the world a value that never previously
existed: ‘a train to Bristol,’ and we may not wipe out the producers of
those values simply by refusing to acknowledge their existence.
Equally, that sweater (and Selfridges’ itself) represents the concrete
form of values brought into existence by human minds, human efforts and
human ingenuities. My bringing that sweater into existence makes no
difference at all to your freedom, unless you are able to offer me some
value for it. If you cannot, then your freedom is unchanged by the
sweater’s existence. Taking the sweater without payment does however
diminish my freedom, since a value of mine has been taken away – a value
that I brought into the world in order that I may use it or trade it, in
other words that it might give me the ability to pursue further values.
- The purported conclusion: Money provides freedom, and to lack
money is to lack freedom. If the poor man tries to pursue his ends in life
without the money to pay for them, then others will forcibly interfere
with him. The thief interferes with the liberty of rich to dispose of
their holdings as they please; but likewise, the security guard interferes
with the liberty of the thief to take from others' holdings as he pleases.
This is a genuine clash of liberties, and it cannot be decided without
appealing to some other,
non-freedom, value (such as self-ownership).
Or to put it another way, ‘I want the freedom to do whatever the hell I
like, but reality doesn’t let me. I want a comfortable living, and I
insist you provide it for me.’ This is really an infant’s view of freedom –
or that of a modern philosopher.
As I say here,
“Freedom is freedom of action, not the subsidised “freedom” from
disagreeable circumstances promoted by statists.”
And as I say here,
freedom in the political context is freedom from physical coercion.
‘Freedom’ is being used in the above conclusion in the political context, but then collapses
the distinction between the concept of freedom in the political context,
and what freedom means in the existential
Lacking money certainly gives us fewer existential choices – and so does
lacking the smarts you were born with -- but if your political freedom is
protected (ie., if you are protected against physical coercion) then
you have the freedom to make money yourself, and so to expand your own existential
So there you have it. Libertarians
aren’t for state intervention after all. Wouldn’t be right.
But philosophy students and their heroes are
it seems all-out for foolishness.
The concept of rights underpins
the philosophy of libertarianism: rights
ratify our freedom, and make it possible to live together peacefully by protecting
each of us from each other. It behoves all of us to understand the concept, and
to treat it with the respect and admiration it deserves.