The Roots of Property and Libertarianism

Or, Why 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 ceterablog, 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:

Libertarians for Infanticide!

Libertarian vs. Utilitarian Justice

Poverty as Unfreedom


The problem for libertarians of inter-generational justice

‘Thin’ freedom

Initial Acquisition

Libertarians for Confiscation of Property!

Libertarians 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 philosophy departments.


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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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 explains:
    “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.


A word from our sponsors

  1. Let me explain all this in much greater detail, but first, a message from our intellectual sponsors: ‘context-keeping,’ and ‘existence.’
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Where to start?

  1. 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.


So now, back to our programme …

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. To die we need only do nothing. But to live, we must take the action necessary for our survival.
  4. 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.


Minding our own business

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The Industrial Revolution was an expression of the mind applied to human flourishing
  5. 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.


Producing the goods

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 behalf.
  4. 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
  5. 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.”
  6. Only ghosts can survive without property. Human beings can’t.


Freedom is just another word for …

  1. In order that we may live as human beings then, we need our rights protected -- and we need to understand what they are, and where they come from.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 man.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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 society.
  7. 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 achieve them.

Bringing values into the world

  1. 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 small house).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. A common misconception is that ‘property’ only relates to raw land, and of this ‘there is only so much to go around.’
  7. 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.


Owning only what we own


  1. 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.
  2. 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 sense.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 point.


Ignoring 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:

  1. [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 ticket…

    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 by others.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 context.

    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 freedom.


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.