A question of justice

People of libertarian persuasion are often very keen on the idea that Government should "defend property rights". Their view is that the assets they own are theirs by natural right, and it is the Government's job to defend that right.

I find this view bizarre. As I've noted before, there are no "natural" property rights. The law of the jungle, which is the law that holds when all other laws are unenforceable, says that the only property you "own" is what you can defend. If something bigger and stronger than you comes along, points at your property and says "I'm having that", you may put up a fight, but in the end you will lose, and then it is no longer your property. Humans have operated like this for thousands of years, particularly over land. Nearly all wars start when a country that thinks it is bigger and stronger than other countries points to a neighbouring country and says "I'm having that", and the neighbouring country says "You try it and see what you get". Both sides then call in favours from friends, and the result is an ugly and expensive spat with far-reaching economic consequences.

Territorial wars are, of course, the most extreme example of "law of the jungle" fights over property. But in fact disputes over the ownership of property occur all the time, and the law of the jungle still operates. Yes, these days the battleground has become the courtroom, and swords and guns have become money: but those who have money are still able to defend their property far better than those who don't. Small businesses, for example, can be bankrupted by the failure of their customers to pay on time: they can take their customers to court to obtain settlement, but they need money to do that, and if they don't have any money (because they haven't been paid), their right to payment for the goods & services they have provided can't be enforced. The law of the jungle says that if you aren't big enough and strong enough to take something from another person, you don't own it. In our modern, non-violent world with lawyers and judges, that means if you don't have enough money to enforce your property rights through the courts, you effectively don't own your property. There may be a law that says you do, but if it can't be enforced, it is not the law actually in operation. What is actually in operation is simply a less violent version of the law of the jungle.

But Government doesn't "defend" property rights, anyway. It creates them. The natural law is "I'm bigger and stronger than you are, so I'm having that". Government, pressured by people who believe that things they have are theirs by right even if they can't defend them, creates laws that say that what you have, you own, and no-one else can have it however big and strong they are. And it creates the legal infrastructure to enable those laws to be enforced. Well, more or less. Too often those laws are not enforceable in practice, not just because people don't have enough money to enforce them, but because it isn't easy to define what we mean by "ownership" or "property".

The legal infrastructure created by Government to protect individual "rights" incorporates within itself the right for Government to take some of the property of its citizens in order to fund itself.  But our libertarian friends are horrified by the idea of taxes, especially capital taxes. Government taking your property from you by force is a betrayal of what they regard as the primary function of Government, namely to "defend property rights". This is illogical. Without taxes, Government could not function and the laws created by Government could not be enforced - including the "property rights" beloved of libertarians. Confiscation of property by Government is necessary if it is to "defend" the right to own property.

Of course, a dysfunctional Government may confiscate far more of your property than it needs to function, with the balance going into the pockets of corrupt officials. But as I've already explained, the only "natural" property right is "It's mine because I'm bigger and stronger than you". And Government is unquestionably bigger and stronger than you. So in taking more of your property than you think it should, it is acting in accordance with natural property rights. In fact it is really being quite kind by only taking some of your property. The law of the jungle would allow it to take everything you have.

What our libertarian friends really want is for Government to "defend" the property rights that they would LIKE to have - namely that what they have, they own, and no-one - not even Government - can take it from them.  I don't have any problem at all with the idea of Government defining and enforcing an alternative set of property rights that are more "just" than the law of the jungle, if that can be done. But to claim that these are "natural" property rights and Government is merely "defending" them is simply wrong. If property laws are more "just" than the law of the jungle, it is ONLY because Government makes them so. And if Government can impose "just" laws regarding property ownership, why should it not impose "just" laws in other areas too? The problem is, of course, that the "just" property rights beloved of the libertarian right conflict with other "just" laws, such as the right of workers to a living wage, and the right of those who cannot work to the means to live. But why should laws that primarily benefit the rich override laws that primarily benefit the poor?

There are many things that people consider to be their "right" that have no basis in law. Positive returns on savings, for example. There is no "right" to positive returns on savings: in fact, as I discussed here, there is not even any right to return OF savings. It may be "just" for Government to protect people who have planned their retirement income on the basis of positive returns on savings that fail to materialise. But there are many equally "just" causes - such as the need for people on low incomes to be able to afford a place to live. Securing "justice" for savers by raising interest rates would mean injustice for people struggling to afford over-priced houses and high rents. And this brings me finally to the entire question of "justice" in property rights. This is a huge topic, and I shall only scratch the surface of it here: but I hope that it will encourage debate about what "justice" means in relation to ownership and property. It is nowhere near as simple as our libertarian friends like to think.

Our libertarian friends consider it "just" that laws should defend their right to assets they have acquired through their own efforts and/or inherited. But consider the following.
  • Is it "just" that an industrialist should become very rich while paying starvation wages to his employees and expecting the state to top up employees' wages with in-work benefits? 
  • Is it "just" that an employer should expect the state to provide a highly skilled and educated workforce while squirrelling away profits in tax havens to avoid having to pay for the education and training of that workforce?
  • Is it "just" that a country's creditors can demand, and receive, payment at the expense of the well-being and even the lives of the citizens of that country? For that matter, is it "just" that lenders can "dip into" the bank accounts of people to whom they have lent money, leaving them with insufficient money even to buy food?
  • Fred Goodwin was hounded by the press and by public opinion until eventually he was forced to relinquish part of his pension - a funded pension that was his property according to his employment contract. Is it "just" that public opinion should override contractual employment rights when an employee behaves recklessly but not illegally?
  • Is it "just" that a fit and able person of 65 should be able to stop work and live off the taxes of others, including people who are considerably less fit and able but just happen to be younger?
  • Many elderly people who own valuable houses want their care when frail to be provided by the State so that their houses can be inherited by their children. Is it "just" that the taxes of those who are too poor to buy property of that value should support these elderly so their children can be enriched?
  • Most inherited land was at some time seized by force from others. Is it "just" that inherited land should be regarded as the rightful property of the descendents of those who seized the land? What about the "just" property rights of the descendents of those from whom the land was seized? 
  • When slavery was abolished, the UK government compensated slave owners for the loss of their property. Was it "just" for it to do this? Did those slave owners have any "just" right to property acquired through owning and managing slaves?
I could go on  - there are so many areas where the "justice" of property rights is questionable. Please add your own in the comments.

To sum up, though: the libertarian notion that the primary purpose of government is to "protect individual property rights" is partisan and illogical. If a government is to create and enforce "just" property rights as the libertarians would like, then it should equally create and enforce other "just" laws - including some that might involve forcing the holders of property to share what they have with others. To do otherwise is to prefer the haves over the have-nots, to construct law that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, the powerful at the expense of the weak. And that is not the hallmark of a just society.

Related reading:

The extent of evil - Coppola Comment
Libertarian Party Platform
The Nozickian case for Rawls' difference principle - Matt Bruenig
Non-aggression never did any argumentative work at any time - Matt Bruenig
The problem of ownership - Frances Coppola, Pieria
Lender, beware - Frances Coppola, Pieria
Leviathan - Thomas Hobbes

(h/t Unlearning Economics for the Bruenig links)


  1. It is astonishing that you would write on a topic about which you know less than nothing.





    1. On the contrary, I know rather a lot.

      Mises' "homesteading" argument fails to recognise the claims of indigenous populations, or indeed of other people who might also lay claim to that land. Enclosures of any kind - the turning of the commons into private property - inevitably create injustice. See Matt Bruenig http://mattbruenig.com/2013/10/03/non-aggression-never-does-any-argumentative-work-at-any-time/.

      Regarding the Libertarian Standard link: I am well aware that many libertarians are anti-war. Indeed non-violence is one of the tenets of objectivism. My point though is that the non-violent stance coupled with the insistence that personal property "rights" should always be protected, even at the expense of other "just" claims, is not rational. I'd suggest you have a look at Matt Bruenig on this, too: http://mattbruenig.com/2013/10/03/non-aggression-never-does-any-argumentative-work-at-any-time/

      The Lew Rockwell link simply does not address the points I make in this post at all. I have not subscribed to any of his five "myths". And I really don't see what relevance the Scott Horton link has to any of this.

      If you have a rational argument that stands up to my criticism of the libertarian stance on personal property, by all means give it. But telling me I know "less than nothing" and putting up links containing arguments that I demolished in the post and/or that were demolished in other work to which I have linked does not constitute a rational argument. It's dangerously close to a personal attack, and I don't publish those. Be polite, or be deleted.

    2. Sorry, the first Matt Bruenig link (on homesteading and justice) should be this one:


    3. In no particular order:

      1. I apologize for my tone, but your questions about business people seeking government subsidies (workers trained by government school etc..) suggest a level of hypocrisy that does not exist among libertarians. Business people ALWAYS seek subsidies and protection and NEVER (or rarely) support laissez faire. This has been noted for decades and decades by libertarian writers over and over.

      I quote Butler Shaffer on the subject:


      "The Triumph of Conservatism" by Gabriel Kolko demonstrates that it was the Robber Barons themselves who pushed for the "progressive" reforms that allowed them the monopoly power that eluded them in the market (and I recognize that Kolko is not a libertarian).


      Business people who preach "the free market" while seeking subsidies and protection are true hypocrites. Libertarians are not.

      2. For lack of a better term, Randians (IMHO) are generally a bunch of nuts. Rand herself expressed hostility to indigenous people due to their primitive technological situation, a position which it outrageous. In 40 years, I have never seen non-Randian libertarians claim that indigenous people did not have property rights in land they have homesteaded.

      3. In this painting, Spaniards are slaughtering indigenous people in Colombia in the early 1500s. I say that the problem that has always plagued mankind is the lack of personal safety for one's body and property. If these indigenous people do not have a natural right to their bodies and land, why can't the Spanish kill them? I'm not trying to funny.


      4. Mike Norman is hostile to me because I am an effective critic of MMT from an Austrian School perspective and Mike Norman knows less than nothing about Austrian analysis.


    4. It looks like I've already answered Bruening.


      Children already own no land to "land" on when they are born. What's to stop everyone now from shooting their children into space, or just leaving them out in the snow?

      Bruening's is a pathetic and vicious argument baselessly made against libertarians for having PROPOSED that people meticulously refrain from engaging in fraud or the initiation of force against each other.

    5. Do you think you could refrain from emotionally loaded terms like "vicious" and "pathetic"? Using words like this may make you feel better but it doesn't advance your argument.

      The libertarian conflation of life and liberty rights with property rights is in my view irrational. Property "rights" do not have the same standing as the rights to life and liberty. Let me explain why.

      If a bulldozer flattens my house, it has destroyed my property. But it has not destroyed me. Whereas if the bulldozer flattens me, it has destroyed ME. I cease to exist. The right to life is much more than just a question of property. I do not "own" myself. I AM myself.

      If someone takes my money and uses it for their own purposes, they have stolen from me. But they have not stolen "me", nor changed my nature. I am still a human being. However, if someone incarcerates or enslaves me, they have reduced me to something less than human. They have made of me a "thing", an object that has no rights. The right to liberty is a defining characteristic of a human being. It is far more than a simple matter of "property". Property has no rights.

      Property rights can relate only to "things", not to people. And property rights cannot be exercised without injustice. In order to have value, property must be scarce: if sufficient property existed for everyone to have as much as they wanted, it would be worthless. Therefore, for you to exercise your "right" to have property, someone else must be denied the "right" to have property. If a "right" cannot apply to all humans, it cannot be described as a "human right".

      Conflating personal and property rights in effect implies that people who do not have property are less than human. Indeed your comment to Bruenig implied this:

      "The fact that the entire planet might be owned as private property simply means that people would be safe in their bodies and things. How they then treat the under-privileged is another matter. But the resulting affluence and safety of a private property regime suggests that people will feel safe and secure in dealing with people of other cultures and classes."

      The way you describe the underprivileged and the people of other cultures and classes in this paragraph makes them sound as if they are not really people at all. I'm sure you don't mean it in this way, but you really need to think through your libertarian arguments a bit more. Conflating personal and property rights inevitably leads to some people - those without "things" - being regarded as less than human. The ownership of property does not give someone any more right to existence or liberty than anyone else, but your paragraph makes it sound as if it does.

      Conflating personal and property rights of course enables libertarians to claim that property rights are universal and just, when in fact when you give personal rights their true status as intrinsic rights applying to all humans, property rights are both partial and inherently unjust. What was that you were saying about hypocrisy?

      Libertarians are very far from being the only people who have proposed that people refrain from fraud and violence. Bruenig's argument deserves rather more consideration than you have given it.

    6. "Do you think you could refrain from emotionally loaded terms like "vicious" and "pathetic"? Using words like this may make you feel better but it doesn't advance your argument. "

      No doubt, but then you go on to state libertarians are "irrational". This is ad hominem and doesn't advance your argument.

      "If a bulldozer flattens my house, it has destroyed my property. But it has not destroyed me. Whereas if the bulldozer flattens me, it has destroyed ME. I cease to exist. The right to life is much more than just a question of property. I do not "own" myself. I AM myself."

      Are you suggesting that libertarians are incapable of distinguishing between vandalism and murder? Surely you accept that we see the latter as far worse. That we would see both crimes as involving a violation of property rights, does not mean we cannot distinguish between them. You say you don't own yourself, but each part of your body belongs to you. If someone drugged you and took out a kidney, I expect you would feel a wrong had been done you.

      "Property rights can relate only to "things", not to people."

      You are proclaiming a particular definition of property, as if this proves your point. It does not.

      " And property rights cannot be exercised without injustice."

      Mere assertion.

      "In order to have value, property must be scarce"

      The value of a particular thing has no bearing on whether it belongs to anyone. If I own a chicken and it has value, and it dies and the carcass rots, that value declines towards zero, but my ownership of it stays the same. It is not the case that it ceases to belong to me, when its value disappears.

      ": if sufficient property existed for everyone to have as much as they wanted, it would be worthless. "

      What does this signify? If we lived in a world where there was a superabundance of everything the heart desired, no doubt we wouldn't be arguing over property rights, but as we don't live in such a world, we do. The fact that property rights are irrelevant in an impossible, non-existent world has no bearing on this world.

      "Therefore, for you to exercise your "right" to have property, someone else must be denied the "right" to have property. "

      "There is no 'therefore' in this non sequitur, and your argument is false. If I exercise my property right over my car, I am not stopping anyone else from owning a car.

      If a "right" cannot apply to all humans, it cannot be described as a "human right".

      The right to property cannot be separated from life and liberty. It is meaningless to declare a right to life if that does not include the right to exercise a property right over, say, an apple to eat it, because, by your logic above, I am preventing everyone else in the world from eating the same apple.

      "What was that you were saying about hypocrisy?"

      Again, you are using ad hominem, which doesn't advance your argument.

    7. You have not read my remarks properly.

      I did not say "libertarians are irrational". I said that I thought the conflation of property rights with personal rights was irrational. That is a critique of a libertarian argument, not a statement about libertarians. It is not an "ad hominem" attack.

      2) I am certainly not suggesting that libertarians can't tell the difference between vandalism and murder. Once again you assume a personal attribution where there is none intended. I was drawing a distinction between the person themselves and the things owned by that person - a distinction you ignore.

      If someone drugged me and removed a kidney, I would indeed think a wrong had been done to me. But that does not mean I regard my kidney as "my property". It is a part of me, and if it is removed by force without my consent then it is my liberty that has been violated. Furthermore, if the means by which it is removed results in my death, then my right to life has also been violated. I don't need to start redefining my fundamental human rights to "life and liberty" as "property rights" in order to understand that this is a considerable wrong.

      The right to property has nothing to do with life and liberty. I may not own a bean, but I still have the right to live and the right to choose how I will live.

      Your apple example is flawed. You do not have any "property rights" over wildling apples picked from common land. They are free resources that you may use. You don't own them, and others have as much right to them as you do. You don't own the air that you breathe, either, but your right to life gives you the right to breathe it.

      The question of abundance is relevant to the existence of property rights even though we don't (yet) have an abundance of everything. If everyone who wanted a car could have one, cars would be free. And as I've already said in relation to apples and air, you don't own free resources. The entire concept of ownership hangs on there being value in property. If there is not, ownership is meaningless. Therefore, as I said, property "rights" depend on there being scarcity, which by definition means that some people are denied those rights.

      It was you who suggested that libertarians were not guilty of hypocrisy whereas others are. I merely pointed out that conflating personal and property rights is hypocrisy if it results in people who own nothing being treated as having fewer rights. People are of equal worth whether or not they own "things".

    8. The way you describe the underprivileged and the people of other cultures and classes in this paragraph makes them sound as if they are not really people at all.

      You say this to me when I was defending the right of the victims of violence in this painting to be left in peace as a natural right?


      Further, unless the people in the painting have a right to their land, homes, clothes, food and bodies, there is nothing to stop the Spanish from doing what they did. Property rights are coextensive with human living. Otherwise, one can be forcibly placed naked in a 3 x 3 cage and be declared "free". You can do whatever you want to do. Just do it without any property.

      Further, the implication from Bruening was that by being meticulous in protecting the property and bodies of even the most powerless, libertarians either had a secret plan or are primarily motivated to kill or drive poor people into the sea.

    9. I do say that to you. You may defend the right of those being killed to be left in peace, but that doesn't mean you regard them as people. The way you spoke of the "underprivileged" in your comment on Bruening's post gave the impression that they had no rights other than those magnanimously granted to them by the people who own property.

      The right to life and the right to liberty are in themselves sufficient to make what the Spanish were doing wrong. Redefining these as "property rights" is unnecessary.

      Property rights and the right to life and liberty are demonstrably not the same thing. If I am stripped of everything I have, I am still alive and I am still free. I don't have to own anything at all to be alive and free. You seem very confused about the distinction between property and liberty: being placed in a 3 x 3 cage is a clear denial of liberty.

      I did not get that impression from Bruening's post. I do, however, get the impression from your comments that you regard people who have nothing as somehow inferior.

    10. Frances, you persist in a refusal to acknowledge what a libertarian means by 'property'. Whether you reject the libertarian view or not, you cannot refute it simply by using a different definition of its core terms. As such, arguing is just going round in circles

      " I don't have to own anything at all to be alive and free."

      Really? You think you'll last long with no clothes, no food, no shelter and no heat? Go on. Tell me how clothes, food, shelter and fuel for a fire don't count as property.

    11. On common land, firewood is a free resource, so are branches and leaves to make a shelter, rabbits to kill for food and their skins for clothes. Only if the land is enclosed (i.e. seized by an individual for their exclusive use, thereby denying others the right to use the resources produced by that land) are these property - and it wouldn't be mine. Your argument has no basis.

    12. Oh, and I have acknowledged repeatedly what a libertarian means by property. I've explained several times now why I think the libertarian definition of "property" is wrong. That is a refutation of it.

      I agree that this debate is going around in circles. Therefore it is now ended.

    13. "On common land, firewood is a free resource"

      Yes, but to gather it requires labour, and labour is a scarce resource, and as soon as it has been gathered it belongs to the gatherer, and if someone tries to take it from the gatherer by force, they commit a crime.

      I don't think you have repeatedly acknowledged what a libertarian means by property. What you have done is stated that it is an illogical position, and denied libertarians distinguish between alienable property and inalienable property, the latter which you would probably cover by reference to life and liberty.

    14. Sadly no. At its most basic, labour is a free resource, not a scarce one. There is absolutely no intrinsic law that says you have to be rewarded for your work. If you choose to gather something that is a free resource, and you leave that pile of gathered free resources unattended and someone takes from it, they have not stolen from you: you have no more title to those resources than them. The fact that you put the effort in to gather the free resources does not create a property entitlement. The resources are still free.

      I have acknowledged repeatedly what a libertarian means by property, and repeatedly argued that the definition is wrong.

      Since you are a believer in property rights, perhaps you will now respect my right as the owner of this site to end this conversation. Your right to free speech is trumped by my right not to publish your remarks.

    15. Frances, you are right that the "law of the jungle" is absurd, but you are wrong to imply that it is in anyway representative of libertarianism. This type of violent action, to use force to take someone else's property, is a clear cut violation of their property rights.

      You also don't understand the homesteading argument. Homesteading would argue that indigenous people were already making productive use of the land (i.e. mixing unused land with their labor) and therefore it is wrong to take it from them. Homesteading would protect their land, not allow people to take it away from them.

      I also chuckled reading the number of times you mentioned government "protecting" property rights. There are many libertarians who want government to have absolutely nothing to do with "protecting" property rights or anything else for that matter. The rule of law should protect property rights and the best rule of law would not be one monopolized by the state.

      I appreciate your attempt to engage libertarians, but your representation of libertarianism is simply not accurate.

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    17. > Frances

      If someone is holding something that they have made by their own hand - what is your position on their ownership of it.

    18. Derek,

      You have not understood what I wrote. I did not suggest that the law of the jungle was representative of libertarianism. I said that the libertarian notion that there is natural "right" to property is fundamentally wrong. "Property rights" only exist because some system of law created by people says they do.

      Homesteading presupposes that there is "unowned land" for the taking. But there is no such thing. Land that is not "enclosed" (in private ownership) is available for common use. By homesteading you deprive others of their right to use that land, both now and in the future. Homesteading by definition is seizure of property from others by force.

      You may have chuckled, but you did not read what I said properly. I said government CREATES property rights, it does not "protect" rights that already exist, The only property rights absent a system of law are the right to take what you can and to hold what you can defend. Law is created by government, therefore property rights as you would like them to be require there to be some form of government.

      You may like to believe that there is some kind of transcendent "moral code" that exists whether or not there is a system of law, but that frankly is a religious belief. It has nothing to do with reality.

    19. Dinero,

      No-one, absolutely no-one, holds something that they have created entirely by their own efforts using resources to which no-one else has any claim.

      Consider a pavement artist - the famous "chalk drawings". The artist draws a picture on the pavement in chalk, places his cap in front of the picture with a sign saying "All my own work", and waits for people to throw money in his cap. Does he have any right to expect payment for his work? No. Does he own the pavement on which he has drawn the picture? No. Indeed the reason for using chalk is that the picture will wash away in the rain, so it is not permanent defacement of public property. Does he own the chalks he used to draw the picture? Presumably, if he bought them - but he didn't make them. They were made by the manufacturers of chalks using the resources of the earth (gypsum and dyes). So to say the picture is entirely his own effort denies the efforts of those who extracted and created the resources he used to make the picture, and to say he has exclusive ownership of the picture is to deny the claims of others to a share of the pavement on which it is drawn. Indeed drawing the picture at all denies the right of others to walk on that piece of pavement, and demanding money to see the picture is claiming exclusive rights to something that is on common land.

      Ultimately everything is produced using resources to which others have a claim. There is no such thing as exclusive ownership. Claiming exclusive ownership always involves denying rights to others.

    20. This comment has been removed by the author.

    21. Actually in Kent for example , pieces of chalk can readily be picked of the ground.

      I don't see how anyone could claim there was some kind of "Natural" property right over and above something that was arrived at by earning some culturally acknowledged just claim by the act of finding or some other activity.

      Without some particular action to differentiate the thing in question from all other things the "natural right" would apply to all and everything in creation.

      What could a natural unearned property right even mean if it did not involve some action which itself would then amount to the basis of a just claim

    22. Dinero,

      Artists's chalks are not "chalk". They are manufactured from gypsum and various dyes.

      The act of finding does not automatically create a right to ownership. Actually, neither does the act of production. Law must exist to confer those rights - and in my view it has to be enforceable, too: law that isn't enforceable isn't really law.

    23. I agree with you that the right to property must be a social construct - as I said what else could it be - as soon as someone describes why something is theirs they are appealing to some socially recognized logic and the you have it.
      Or are you making a different point

    24. Ha. We're really not disagreeing at all. My whole point is that property rights are a social construct.

  2. A very bizarre argument. “Our libertarian friends” are not as dumb as Frances seems to think they are. That is, while advocating that one of government’s jobs is to enforce property rights, they are well aware that it is also right for government to grab various people’s property (e.g. the rich industrialist’s property cited towards the end of the above article).

    Put another way “our libertarian friends” (e.g. Daily Mail readers) are well aware that the question as to who is entitled to what is a complex issue.

    1. Daily Mail readers libertarians? I must have missed those articles in favour of legalising drugs and celebrating how the internet has made porn easily accessible.

    2. Luke: Nice joke is that was meant as a joke. But if it was meant seriously….

      Daily Mail readers are libertarians in the sense used by Frances: i.e. DM readers favour property rights (as opposed to say Marxists who tend to claim that “property is theft”). As to drugs, DM readers obviously aren’t libertarians, as you correctly point out.

    3. Wasn't meant seriously, but US libertarians are often vaguely libertarian on sex'n'drugs'n'rock'n'roll, possibly as a cover for neo-Liberal whatever. I don't think the Mail, whatever its other faults, has made such a pretence. Nor do I think they have ever acknowledged any complexities in property rights. Immigrants good for house prices is, after all, a cliche for confusing Mail readers (and you?).

  3. What is the hallmark of a 'just' society, Frances?

    I think Libertarians see property rights as a means to freedom - Freedom being be their hallmark. Other perhaps prefer to see Equality as the hallmark. Your argument is against the means by which Libertarians want to achieve their ends. The means to achieving Equality are also suspect, do you not think?

    1. In the right-wing Libertarian dystopia the degree to which you are free depends entirely on how wealthy you are. The very wealthiest plutocrats are granted near-absolute freedom, whilst the very poorest have about as much freedom as indentured serfs.

    2. Maybe, maybe not. Its not really my point.

      Libertarians see Freedom as the hallmark of a 'just' society.
      Socialists see Equality as the hallmark of a 'just' society.

      For both, individual property rights (or their negation) are the means not the end.

    3. Nope. Right-wing Libertarians advocate a society where the extent of a person's freedom is determined exclusively by their wealth. They consider this to be "just" because they believe that wealthier people are superior to poorer people and thus more deserving of freedom.

    4. Is that not also Feudalism? So Libertarians are people who like Robber Barons.

  4. It is a common misconception that liberty - the core principle for libertarians - means freedom. It doesn't. The word has always retained its original sense, from Hobbes and Locke onwards, of privilege - i.e. the liberties of specific individuals and corporations.

    As the state is the only agency capable of granting privileges (and thus enforcing "rights"), libertarians are concerned with the power dynamic between property-owners and government. This tussle is routinely presented through the metaphor of physical property (the individual "keeps", the state "takes" etc).

    By this means, debate on property allocation (who starts with what) and the distribution of incremental value (GDP growth, in current terms) is avoided. Instead, the debate focuses on competing rights and the categorisation of property (e.g. slaves in the 17th/18th centuries, intellectual property and copyright now).

    Freedom is not the hallmark of libertarians, privilege is.

  5. Your description of natural rights is not one a libertarian (at least one in the Lockean tradition) would accept, so you are misrepresenting their view. You declare ex cathedra that there are no rights to property, other than those which are created by a state, so of course your argument follows that the state can create whatever rights that those in charge of it desire. But if you hold, as a (natural rights) libertarian will. that rights precede the existence of a state, the argument does not follow at all.

    1. I do not accept that there are "natural" rights to property. If you think about it, it is impossible for there to be a natural human right to own property. Since the value of property is in its scarcity, it is impossible for all humans to own property to the extent that they would wish without that property becoming worthless and therefore pointless. Therefore property "rights" can only be exercised by depriving others of their "right" to property. To describe the "right" to own property as a fundamental "human" right therefore presumes that a large percentage of the human race is not really human. Which of course is exactly how the denial of property rights to women and to people of different races has been justified in the past. If you pretend that a group of people isn't really human, you can justify taking their property.

    2. You're confusing the "natural right to own property" (John and Sue both have a right to property) with "rights over property to which they have a just claim" (John has legitimately acquired that property; Sue has not, so John gets it).

      No libertarian theorist I know of would argue the former position. The normal Lockean view is that a natural right follows from the application of labour to property - so if you work unowned soil, then you have a moral claim over it, which the state should therefore enforce. The natural rights libertarian argument is not that we all have the equal and enforceable right to own property (which would be quite social democratic), but that we can acquire moral claims to property and these should be enforced.

      (For the record, I'm not a libertarian, and I don't believe in natural rights.)

    3. There's no such thing as "unowned soil". That's the fundamental fallacy at the heart of the whole idea of property rights over land. The libertarian "homesteading" argument ignores the claims of indigenous populations and, indeed, the claims of those who use the commons or who might have done so in the future had you not expropriated them for your personal exclusive use. There is no way that your acquisition of that land can be called a "moral claim", though it may be a legal one.

      If you work soil to which you have no title, that does not give you any moral claim to it. It may give you a claim to what it produces as a consequence of your labour, that is all.

    4. Contemporary property ownership isn't derived from an original peaceful and voluntary 'homesteading' of land. So the attempt to justify current property rights on the basis of this mythical original 'homesteading' makes absolutely no sense. It completely ignores the reality of human history in favour of a make-believe fantasy narrative.

    5. As I said, I don't believe in natural rights arguments for property. What is definitely true is that societies with functioning property rights fare better than those without. Societies where assets are "everybody's" are societies where assets don't tend to endure very well. Let's not get romantic about commonly-held property - it is normally only sustainable when it's carefully stewarded by a distinct social group, not open to all comers to do as they will.

      On the morality: yes, the original acquisition of property is often at the point of a sword: so what? When property rights have been established many centuries ago and transferred an innumerable amount of times under law that is reasonably fair: why does it even matter? The utility of a stable system of property rights is so enormous, and the distance from original acquisition so far, that the gains in "justice" (however you define that) would never be worth the loss in overall welfare.

    6. Duncan, there are indeed many good pragmatic reasons for having a functioning legal system that enforces property rights to the extent that they can be clearly defined. My objection is to people who claim that property rights are "natural", or that they are a human "right" in the same way as life or liberty. I don't think they are: I think they are a legal construct created primarily for the purposes of keeping the peace.

    7. Some of the comments here seem to be based on the idea that libertarians in the Lockean tradition have not thought through the idea past what could be jotted on a fag packet. Philippe's comment about "a make-believe fantasy narrative" is typical of this attitude.

      Frances, you are attacking a straw-man, because you are not acknowledging that your definition of property rights and human rights is not the same as libertarians'. You say: "I do not accept that there are "natural" rights to property" but in fact you do accept certain property rights, as defined by a libertarian, to be natural. This is clear in your statements rejecting slavery. I am not, by the way, claiming that you would agree with libertarians if only you understood, poor souls that you are, only that you are not attacking libertarian natural rights, but a straw man version. I may have to deal with this at greater length elsewhere.

    8. I accept that the rights to life and liberty are natural rights, but I do not consider them to be "property rights". Therefore my definition of "property rights" is not the same as a libertarian's. There is no straw man.

    9. Richard,

      Why do right-wing Libertarians try to justify property rights on the basis of an imaginary original 'homesteading', when in reality property ownership isn't actually derived from this?

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. If you mean savers expecting returns inline or above inflation then you dismiss savers concerns to retain the buying power of their savings to lightly. Savings are not an abstract financial assett. Savings represent the goods and services that the worker has made but has yet to consumme. Within a division of labour economy the expectations of that are quite correct and coherent and consistent with accepting monetary wages instead of barter.

    1. Deferring consumption is a choice, not a right. No-one can guarantee that the assets you choose to store your deferred spending power will retain their value over time. When you choose to defer consumption, you are accepting the risk that the assets will not appreciate sufficiently to maintain your spending power in the future. Most goods and services depreciate over time. Why should people expect that normal depreciation should not apply if they choose to defer consumption of the goods and services they have made?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Defferiing consumption is not a choice for an economy featuring the division of labour. Without defering consumption it there could be no high value production jobs.

      Also your starting point is that storing value in assetts is a basic natural state of affairs.
      Contrary to that in a small communiity the members can remember what a member has produced and therefore what they are owed.

      And Bankers have historically kept Inflation under contro to encourage tha acceptance of their product ie bank notes

  8. Like I said on twitter, interesting article.. I wouldn't invest a penny in a country that shared your ideas.. Christos Savva

  9. Frances-

    Bob Roddis is a troll. By all means, delete him. That's what I do.

    1. And Mike Norman is always a scholar and gentleman.


  10. Good post. As you and Mr A to E point out, the Locke stuff is a convenient myth. However blameless a the current owners, plenty of property was stolen in the past.

    But there's another thing some commenters ignore. The state does not just enforce property rights (whether real, intellectual or financial). It also defines what those rights are. English (for example) real property law was not handed down on tablets of stone. It is the creation of judges and Parliament. It could have been different - shock horror, not every country has the same property law (pro tip, if you're buying property in England, use an English lawyer, not a Belgian one, and vice versa).

    And Countries' laws change - remember how Dickens raged at the piracy of his works in that great champion of intellectual property law, the US.

  11. Dr Coppola -
    Sorry: With respect, I don't buy your Law of the Jungle (LJ) view. I think it exists, but not where you say.

    The economy is a human construct, and we are a social animal. It appears all "communities of individuals" resolve that paradox by elaborate behaviours. The high metabolic cost of the behaviours and the large brains to operate them implies a large persistent benefit.
    These behaviours generally don't fit your LG, and often run counter to it.
    I suggest these behaviours have the function of maintaining what I'll call the Peace.

    An early example (courtesy Dr Hudson) is the Clean Slate, returning the people to "their" land - a don't-argue simple and sustainable state of Peace. I disagree that government creates "rights"; it endorses and codifies what exists, pursuant to the Peace (as the sole driver). This makes government the Peacemaker, and I suggest that to the extent that it does that, it prospers.

    Consider the Norman Conquest. I understand that William spent much less time on imposing new levies than in the discovery and don't-argue documentation of "rights" accruing to the English monarch which, by becoming, he acquired (not seized).

    I don't think the lawcourt is a made-over battlfield. Battles are mostly won by breakthrough and large movement, not nit-picking the small-print. In post-Conquest English litigation, I understand the persistent question was: "What is customary here?".

    I agree the "rights" meme doesn't survive examination, but suggest that in it we've exercised our undoubted inalienable right: To get something wrong. You use words such as "fair" and "just" - which are from the core of society (at what age does a human first say "That's not fair"?). Society is primary here, not the individual, and I think you're correct in condemning selfish "rights" - but as an abuse prejudicial to the Peace.

    If I'm right, the LJ can only apply during a breakdown of society, so is transient. I suggest that the normal response of any human to such conditions is to find the shortest path to a functioning society, and so some Peace.

    You present government as predator. I suggest any such government is insane (or improvident, which is much the same). Government must take its "fair share" (!) for the economy to function, but more is an abuse prejudicial to the Peace, and so to its existence.

    You might care to test your bullet-list against: "Does this action enhance or degrade the Peace".

    Peter Shaw

  12. It's so sad that Henry George understood more about this stuff more than a century ago than most people alive today.

  13. A nice Nozick quote: "A distribution is just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means."

    1. Which, I think, takes us to the heart of Frances's argument against property rights: in this case there is not and cannot be any just distribution. We don't even know what a just distribution of property would look like - "to each according to their needs" would be a start, but then, how would different levels of need (above the bare minimum) be compared?

      The law on property (and a number of other things, contract not least) is a delicate, precise, self-consistent and self-correcting mechanism for producing justice, sitting on foundations which have injustice written right through them. Unfortunately we don't have any better foundations.

    2. Sorry, didn't mean to suggest that Frances was writing against property rights - against ideas of property rights as natural or foundational, I should have said.

  14. You do at least acknowledge that the law of the jungle/anarchy is alive and well and in operation here and now.

    However you have either missed, or chosen to pretend, that there is something 'else' - which there isn't.

    We live in anarchy, the gang you choose to call 'the state' or 'government' are just the biggest bullies on the scene we obey them (mostly) only because on balance they ensure the punishment for disobedience is worse than the benefit we get from the brief freedom from their coercion.

    The fiction that out 'government' or 'state' is somehow different to any other gang is just a convenient lie that is used to keep us in order.

    From what you have written I am not sure if you believe this lie or are just promulgating it to protect your place in 'the gang'.

    I, and many others, think we can do better than this gang's thuggish coercion - given enough space we would demonstate it - but 'government' cannot risk being found out, so works to ensure this cannot occur.

    1. Rights are whatever has enough support from enough people that they will protect them for everyone so they may benefit from them too. Clear, logical, sensible, rational, symetrical.

      A basis for citizens rights - http://free-english-people.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/a-uk-from-first-principles-1.html

  15. Good post Frances.

    Locke at times used the word "property" both for material possessions and in a wider sense to include everything particular to a person. That was natural for him, because the meaning of the word was changing in the 17th century. Modern libertarians are free, if they wish, to use a jargon in which "property" includes one's own body. But using one word for two concepts does not make them the same thing, and arguments about bodily integrity do not logically cover accumulated possessions.

    I agree with Locke that one should have a right to the fruits of one's labour, subject to taxation by democratic consent. But I cannot see how this gives Charles Windsor a right to the income from the Duchy of Cornwall, or Roman Abramovich a right to billions in Russian mineral wealth, or Warner Music a right to collect royalties from anyone singing "Happy Birthday" on YouTube.

    1. Yes some of the claims for property rights are extraordinary. The Russian case is a good example of the Law of the jungle. Resulting in people bathing in champagne.


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