FINISH Property Rights

Libertarianism - Property Rights

Property Rights

Human beings are not “are not floating wraiths; they are not self-subsistent entities” as Rothbard puts it, therefore they need to interact with the world around them but will need to do standing the on the ground. Rothbard expands: “They must, for example, stand on land areas; they must also, in order to survive and maintain themselves, transform the resources given by nature into “consumer goods,” into objects more suitable for their use and consumption. Food must be grown and eaten; minerals must be mined and then transformed into capital and then useful consumer goods, etc. Man, in other words, must own not only his own person, but also material objects for his control and use.”

To begin to make the property point, let's start by looking to our own lives. Setting aside justified and routine foreclosures due to lease and/or contract breach, think of housing for example: would you put a down-payment on, or take a mortgage out for, a piece of property and/or house if someone could come along at any time and take it away from you? Safe to say, no in almost every case. This would also be true for many folks even if fair compensation was provided; 'a woman’s home is her castle' as it were. For those who have rented at some point in time: how willing were you to add to the dwelling things you wanted but were not forthcoming from the landlord, things that would have to remain upon moving? Beyond those things for which money had less value than the item itself (ie: items you could get from a dollar store or things that are at a very reduced price), safe to say not very.

There is also the idea of handling: generally speaking, are we as careful with things that we don't own compared to the things we do? If the owner was family or a friend perhaps, but if it was a stranger or corporate entity?

It's a good time here to also make a bit of an economic point: whether it's gifted or worked for, what's yours should be yours. Again, generally speaking, which do you care for more, treat better, the gifted item or the one you have sweat and effort invested in, ‘skin in the game’? I would wager the latter. We can see this too in how many children handle and care for their possessions: often the gifted toys are toast but the ‘skin in the game’ toys are still a going concern.

Property in the form of land has added some complexity to the issue and some differing viewpoints. Locke again lays out some excellent reasoning in this area. Locke has however added what is referred to as the 'Lockean proviso'.  Rothbard and some Austrian economists split from him here. I'll try as best I can to paint both portraits here so it's for you to decide as you see fit.

What is meant by property?

The term property is fairly straightforward, but as the concept is a cornerstone of successful human existence I've elaborated a bit further to ensure we're all on the same page terminology wise. This idea is part of a chain of definitions starting with the word 'own':

Own Own:
(adj) of, relating to, or belonging to oneself or itself (usually used after a possessive to emphasize the idea of ownership, interest, or relation conveyed by the possessive)

(verb) to have or hold as one's own; possess

Owner Owner:
(noun) a person who owns; possessor; proprietor.

Ownership Ownership:
(noun)(1) the state or fact of being an owner.

(2) legal right of possession; proprietorship.

Property Property:
(noun) that which a person owns; the possession or possessions of a particular owner

Property Rights Property Rights:
Property (or property right) is a general term for the rules that govern people's access to and control of things like land, natural resources, the means of production, manufactured goods, and also (on some accounts) texts, ideas, inventions, and other intellectual products.

Private Property Private Property:
(noun) land or belongings owned by a person or group and kept for their exclusive use


Where does this property come from?

Humans can't yet conjure things from thin air (money being an exception) so property has to start somewhere, come from something. This appears to be yet another foundation of human existence: all consumer goods are produced using nature given materials that either grow from the land (full literal meaning of the word), lay on the surface of the land or need to be dug from below the land therefore, the obvious starting point is ownership of land property. Ownership allows for utilization of resources with the dual goals of achieving desired ends (AKA profit) and striving for the most efficient manner in which to do so.

Good opportunity here for pulling the train of thought into the station for second: I've often read and heard the statements: "that just provides a motivation to pollute the environment instead" or "they'll just screw over the workers!" etc. in the context of striving for efficiency in business and production. While this may be true in our current reality, we're getting far enough into the rabbit hole here now that we can no longer view actions/reactions through the lens of the here and now.

Production is not exempt from the legal process in a libertarian gig therefore there is a stronger motivation in not engaging this process than there is to attempt to irresponsibly/criminally cut costs, dumping waste in a waterway for example. The costs to the entity for cleanup and possible reparations (ie. the action(s) cause damage to private property) are higher than the costs to operate in an environmentally friendly manner.

Another angle is lumber. As a species, we still utilize wood fairly often in society. A limber miller who is required to use their own property vs say, govt land leases, to grow their raw material will take far better care of it with a goal of a balance between efficiency and the health of the acreage. I recently watched an episode of a home improvement show where one of the hosts visited a saw mill that was in 3+ (IIRC it was 5 but not 100% certain) generations of ownership and with the exception of acquiring specialty wood for custom projects, they had not been required to purchase lumber on the open market as they owned and carefully managed their own forest tracts thus always maintaining a steady supply of quality raw material, a supply that in turn was also environmentally responsible simply due to (property) ownership.

Murray N Rothbard said

 When the government owns the land and permits private individuals to use it freely, the result is indeed a wasteful overexploitation of the resource. More factors are employed to use up the resource than on a free market, since the only gains to the users are immediate; and if they wait, other users will deplete the limited resource. Free use of a governmentally owned resource truly inaugurates a “war of all against all,” as more and more users, eager for the free bargain, attempt to exploit the scarce resource. To have a scarce resource and to make everyone believe (because of the free gift of use) that its supply is unlimited, causes overuse of the resource, favoritism, figurative queuing up, etc. A striking example was the Western grazing lands in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The government prevented cattlemen from owning the land and fencing it in, and insisted it be kept as “open range” owned by the government. The result was excessive use of the range and its untimely depletion. Another example is the rapid depletion of the fisheries. Since no one is permitted to own any segment of the sea, no one sees any sense in preserving the value of the resource, as each is benefited only by rapid use, in advance of his competitors.

Leasing is hardly a superior form of land use. If the government owns the land and leases it to grazers or timber users, once again there is no incentive for the lessee to preserve the value of the resource, since he does not own it. It is to his best interest as a lessee to use the resource as intensively as possible in the present. Hence, leasing also depletes natural resources excessively.

In contrast, if private individuals were to own all the lands and resources, then it would be to the owners’ interest to maximize the present value of each resource. Excessive depletion of the resource would lower its capital value on the market. Against the preservation of the capital value of the resource as a whole, the resource owner balances the income to be presently obtained from its use. The balance is decided, ceteris paribus, by the time preference and the other preferences of the market. If private individuals can only use but not own the land, the balance is destroyed, and the government has provided an impetus to excessive present use.

Man, Economy, and State, with Power and Market

OK, back on track :)

So we've observed that property originates with land resources; how do land ownership claims come in to being then? There is some passionate discussion that goes on surrounding the nuances of this question so finding a reasonable foundation to stand on sounds like a sensible goal at this point. Bringing John Locke back up on stage, Wikipedia has this section on his entry page:
Theory of value and property

Locke uses the word property in both broad and narrow senses. In a broad sense, it covers a wide range of human interests and aspirations; more narrowly, it refers to material goods. He argues that property is a natural right and it is derived from labour. In Chapter V of his Second Treatise, Locke argues that the individual ownership of goods and property is justified by the labour exerted to produce those goods or utilise property to produce goods beneficial to human society.[42]

Locke stated his belief, in his Second Treatise, that nature on its own provides little of value to society, implying that the labour expended in the creation of goods gives them their value. This position can be seen as a labour theory of value.[42] From this premise, Locke developed a labour theory of property, namely that ownership of property is created by the application of labour. In addition, he believed that property precedes government and government cannot "dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily." Karl Marx later critiqued Locke's theory of property in his own social theory.
So Locke is saying that it's one's labour being mixed with the raw materials, geographic land included, that gives something value and a claim of ownership. Many libertarian thinkers diverge from Locke here due to what is called the Lockean Proviso: "The Lockean proviso is a feature of John Locke's labour theory of property which states that whilst individuals have a right to homestead private property from nature by working on it, they can do so only "at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others." (

Murray N Rothbard said

Man is born naked into the world, and needing to use his mind to learn how to take the resources given him by nature, and to transform them (for example, by investment in “capital”) into shapes and forms and places where the resources can be used for the satisfaction of his wants and the advancement of his standard of living. The only way by which man can do this is by the use of his mind and energy to transform resources (“production”) and to exchange these products for products created by others. Man has found that, through the process of voluntary, mutual exchange, the productivity and hence, the living standards of all participants in exchange may increase enormously. The only “natural” course for man to survive and to attain wealth, therefore, is by using his mind and energy to engage in the production-and-exchange process. He does this, first, by finding natural resources, and then by transforming them (by “mixing his labor” with them, as Locke puts it), to make them his individual property, and then by exchanging this property for the similarly obtained property of others. The social path dictated by the requirements of man’s nature, therefore, is the path of “property rights” and the “free market” of gift or exchange of such rights. Through this path, men have learned how to avoid the “jungle” methods of fighting over scarce resources so that A can only acquire them at the expense of B and, instead, to multiply those resources enormously in peaceful and harmonious production and exchange.