Saturday, June 25, 2005

Original Appropriation

(The post title just refers to the problem of initial acquisition by another name.) I've been having a rather unproductive discussion over at Not PC on this issue, and thought I would try to clarify matters in this new post. To recap: the question is how one can rightfully appropriate (i.e. acquire absolute ownership rights over previously unowned) land or other natural resources. (An excellent real-life example is provided by PC's own discussion of claiming ownership over whales.)

The problem for the libertarian here is that any such appropriation necessarily violates the liberty of others, for it prevents them from making use of what they previously had free access to. (As previously noted, the enforcement of property rights involves physical coercion, and thus conflicts with others' freedom from interference.) For example, if I appropriate the only local food source, and refuse anyone else access to it, then my actions have clearly harmed them -- indeed, a consistent libertarian ought to say that I have violated their rights.

So it seems that the only way you could acquire an absolute right over a natural resource would be if everyone else consented to the appropriation, i.e. if they voluntarily sacrificed their liberty for your sake. (Perhaps you could offer them some incentive, e.g. a share of the profits, in exchange for this sacrifice.) But since the "everyone" in question includes future generations, this is a condition that can never be met.

Put another way: we have a moral obligation, when taking from the world's natural resources, to leave "enough and as good" for others. This 'Lockean proviso' would prevent any absolute property rights from ever being granted, once we took future generations into account. At best, one might acquire a conditional property right that limited the ways one could dispose of the resource -- it might require responsible and sustainable consumption, or the subsequent transference of the right to others in greater need, and so forth. One could appeal to utilitarianism to establish such a (prima facie and conditional) right. After all, we'd all soon die if we were never allowed to use natural resources such as food sources. But such a foundation will also justify redistribution of surplus wealth to the needy, so that won't help the libertarian.

PC instead employs the standard libertarian argument that individuals own their labour and thus rightfully own the products of their labour. But their work products are not created ex nihilo, so this begs the question of how they could come to own the natural materials that went into the finished product.

Absent any other explanation, we must conclude that they don't have the prerequisite natural right over the natural materials used. As such, the acquisition violates others' rights. This provides a libertarian justification for a universal basic income: it is the 'ground rent' or compensation that is owed to each human being for the land and natural resources that have been deprived them by others' illicit appropriations. All property derives from these ill-gotten gains, and compensation must be paid accordingly.


  1. I think many theories have similar problems. For a rough example - in order to set up a system with maximal freedom one may need to temporarily reduce freedom.

    ... given any example I can probably construct somthing.
    Presumably the argument is that it doesnt matter as long as once the system is running it is optimal.

  2. No Genius, (natural rights) libertarians are deontologists not consequentialists. What matters to them is that people's rights are respected, not that we get an optimal result.

  3. Actually, we argue that when people's rights are respected, that is when we achieve an optimal result. :-)

    As I say in a recent post on my site:

    Given the growing concern over the diminution of property rights, and the recent and ongoing arguments here on that question, it seems timely to post Tom Bethell's chapter on 'The Blessings of Property' (taken from his book 'The Noblest Triumph'), and Tibor Machans's authoritative piece on the 'Right to Private Property'. "The institution of the right to private property," says Tibor, "is perhaps the single most important condition for a society in which freedom, including free trade, is to flourish."

    I have to say Richard that you and your readers might benefit from following the above links, since it seems you haven't actually understood a thing I wrote. Maybe that's my fault for being unclear, I don't know? I do know however that this is not precisley what I argued:

    "PC instead employs the standard libertarian argument that individuals own their labour and thus rightfully own the products of their labour."

    That is a complete caricature of what I actually wrote, and ingnores that 1) I repudiated that particular Lockean argument as being insufficient, and 2) you ignore amongst many other things the extensive entrepreneurial argument I made in favour of property rights.

    Frankly, I don't think you've got to grips with the thread of my argument, so you've tried instead to get it to fit with what you're already familiar, a common practice amongst philosophers.

    If you wish to taste the flavour of my actual argument, please read:
    Why libertarians don't own their own bodies
    The ‘problem’ of initial acquisition, and
    Freedom, through thick and thin

  4. It's true that a lot of your arguments were irrelevant to the present point, so I employed the "principle of charity" in trying to interpret what you said in the strongest (most charitable) manner.

    Anyway, your quoted argument is merely utilitarian (property rights are good as a means to human flourishing), which, as I explained in the main post, cannot provide a principled basis for libertarianism (as opposed to utilitarian with some weaker/conditional forms of property rights).

    "you ignore amongst many other things the extensive entrepreneurial argument I made in favour of property rights."

    Here is your entrepreneurial argument:

    "when new values are created and brought into the world, they rightfully belong to the person who performed that entrepreneurial action."

    Here is my response:

    "But their work products are not created ex nihilo, so this begs the question of how they could come to own the natural materials that went into the finished product. Absent any other explanation, we must conclude that they don't have the prerequisite natural right over the natural materials used. As such, the acquisition violates others' rights."

    If you take issue with my responses, please specify exactly where you think I go wrong.

    If you have any other arguments, please state them in a clear and concise manner so that I can respond. (I am not going to trawl through pages of irrelevant ramblings in search of your hidden arguments.)

  5. Richard, I actually thought you were interested in honest debate rather than dishonest pigeon-holing.

    It is surely not possible that you could have honestly ignored everything I said.

    I apologise, I must have mistaken you for someone who cared about getting to the truth.

  6. You've said a lot, for sure, but precious little that amounts to any sort of rational argument. And spare me your misplaced and sarcastic rhetoric. Like I said before:

    "If you have any other arguments, please state them in a clear and concise manner so that I can respond."

  7. Ah, no Richard, I won't be repeating what has already beeen either ignored by you or misreperesented. If you want to re-read what I've already actually written, then go ahead.

    I'll just invite your readers to consider for themselves why you'd rather continue with your caricature of libertarianism, rather than to deal with libertarianism as actually espoused by libertarians like Tibor Machan or myself.

  8. Very well, this exchange has made matters clear enough. I'm sure other readers will have no difficulty reaching their own conclusions about which of us lacks intellectual honesty.

    Moving on then... does anybody else have any arguments to offer?

  9. Well from a non-consequentialist. Point of view there is no problem with you acquiring property as long as you are not taking it off anyone and there is no assumption of initial collective ownership. In a sense even if there was collective ownership that only existed as a form of theft from the origional discovery. No inconsistancy there - AND collective ownership implies either if dicovery is ownership the theft of property by a group or if usage is ownership then the theft of property by any new users. Theoretically each person would discover some property (or use it) and claim ownership (like one might say about maori owning NZ) and then the game begins.

    I dont see any logical argument against it in principle since it doesnt care in the sligtest whether the result is fair or not. You pointing out it isnt fair or isnt hte value you, or most poeple, would choose - doesnt really hold any weight at all to a non-concequentialist at least not a a philosophical level.

    Of course I think being a non-concequentialism is moronic but i say so from a concequentialists point of view.

  10. I think you're misunderstanding non-consequentialism. At least, the sort I have in mind here (i.e. the libertarian) thinks that people have rights and it is wrong to violate them. As explained in the main post, original appropriation violates others' rights because it bars them access to what they otherwise could make use of. It infringes on others' formal liberty, imposing costs on them against their will, which the libertarian must hold to be impermissible.

  11. It seems to me the property argument can be made coherently and consistantly despite being very unconvincing.
    the rights argument is somewhat convincing (to many) but difficult to make consistantly because there is no particularly rational dividing line between interfearance and non interfearance HOWEVER if it is ONLY to government and not to individuals it might make sense but then such a division would have to be jsutified it would have to fall upon a secondary sort of logic and htat would probably be in the end utilitarianism.

  12. That's an interesting possibility. But note that libertarianism as a political philosophy is (defined as) the view that the free market is inherently just, and that capitalism would thus be justified even if some form of redistributive welfare state would have better consequences.

    Some people support capitalism and property rights solely because they have good consequences, like you say. Those people are not philosophical libertarians, they are philosophical utilitarians with some particular empirical views about how best to maximize utility.

    Now, all of my recent arguments have been targeted at the philosophical libertarian (as opposed to a philosophical utilitarian who happens to support libertarian politics). If you are correct that PC is really, deep down, a utilitarian, then these arguments would not apply to him. We are in agreement about questions of ultimate value - we both agree that all that really matters is human welfare. We would merely disagree about how, in practice, to best realize this common goal.

    Now, I'm not convinced that PC really is a utilitarian. He seems to take "rights" as being more important than utility, whereas a utilitarian (like myself) sees rights as having merely instrumental worth.

    For instance, there are excellent utilitarian reasons to prefer the institution of conditional property rights (allowing for some degree of redistributive taxation) rather than absolute ones. There are good utilitarian reasons to support an unconditional basic income, and to value substantive rather than merely formal freedom. But PC hasn't shown much interest in those arguments. A deontologist could dismiss them as violating people's rights. A consequentialist cannot: he must carefully consider which option would have the best consequences. PC has shown little interest in such considerations, so it seems unlikely that he is really a consequentialist at heart.

    Note that I discussed the difference between (philosophical) libertarian and utilitarian conceptions of justice in greater detail here. PC has read that essay, and he didn't object to my definition of libertarianism as holding the free market to be inherently (rather than instrumentally) just.

    Perhaps you're right that PC is not really a deontologist. But he doesn't seem to be a consistent consequentialist either. One wonders whether he has any coherent political philosophy at all.

  13. I would also point out that PC (like most libertarians) is a staunch believer in the "doing/allowing" distinction. From the discussions we've had, he has made it clear that he does not believe that people have obligations to positively help others (as opposed to merely refraining from doing them harm). This is not a distinction that consequentialists have any time for. If you allow someone to die when you could have saved them, you have (in consequentialist terms) as good as killed them.

  14. Most of what I said applies just as well to any consequentialist theory. As further criticism, I'd add that ethical egoism isn't even consistent. (If you disagree with the linked argument, I'd invite you to respond in comments there rather than here.)

  15. To avoid the confusion, the guesswork, further pigeonholing and more mischaracterisation of my position let me say that I'm neither an advocate of a deontological approach to rights nor of a consequentialist approach -- in fact I'd view that very distinction as a false dichotomy.

    If you wish to use that sort of jargon, I'd call myself a supporter of teleological rights, what Tara Smith calls "robust full-blooded rights [that] remain thoroughly target-oriented, rooted exclusively in service to an objective." These are rights that are contextually absolute.

    As I've said before, if you're going to criticise, at least try and make sure you're criticising the real thing, and not a caricature thereof.

  16. So you use the moral failures of society to validate further failures? If libertarians would be held by your argument against absolute property then they would conclude that this system should be abolished, not that we should become robin hoods. Your point comes to this: how do non-consequentialist libertarians defend the social institution of ownership, which can only be defended with utilitarian based arguments. A valid recycled question.


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