Self-ownership and Private Property

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The right of self-ownership, as I understand it, is the right to use and dispose of oneself as one pleases, without coercive interference, so long as one refrains from coercive interference with the like self-ownership of others. It follows that the use of force is never justified except in response to an invasion of someone’s self-ownership. But since rights are, by definition, legitimately enforceable claims, it further follows that there can be no rights in addition to self-ownership. For if there were such additional rights, then there would be claims other than self-ownership that could be legitimately enforced, which would mean that refraining from invading the self-ownership of others would no longer be sufficient to exempt one from liability to coercive interference. But self-ownership, as defined above, just is exemption from liability to coercive interference so long as one respects the like self-ownership of others; hence the right of self-ownership is inconsistent with the recognition of any additional rights.

It follows that whatever property rights there are cannot be rights in addition to self-ownership, but must instead be specific applications of the self-ownership right itself. Now the homesteading principle, as Carson seems willing to admit, can be justified as an application of self-ownership. The essence of human personality is not the mass of material which composes our bodies—a bundle of stuff that in any case changes over time like Heracleitus’ river, through accretion of new particles and discharge of old ones—but our activities and projects; indeed a human being’s body itself is simply one of its owner’s ongoing projects. By transforming external objects so as to incorporate them into my ongoing projects, I make them an extension of myself, in a manner analogous to the way that food becomes part of my body through digestion. What we transform in this way becomes so related to us that no one can subject it to her purposes without thereby subjecting us to her purposes and so violating our right of self-ownership; we make something into our property by causing it to have the same relation to ourselves that the matter composing our bodies has to ourselves.

While, contra Carson, a public cannot acquire property rights just by existing, it is possible—as I and others have argued elsewhere—for a public to acquire property rights via homesteading: Consider a village near a lake. It is common for the villagers to walk down to the lake to go fishing. In the early days of the community it’s hard to get to the lake because of all the bushes and fallen branches in the way. But over time the way is cleared and a path forms—not through any centrally coordinated efforts, but simply as a result of all the individuals walking by that way day after day.

The cleared path is the product of labor—not any individual’s labor, but of all of them together. If one villager decided to take advantage of the now-created path by setting up a gate and charging tolls, he would be violating the collective property right that the villagers together have earned.

Once a public has in such manner gained title to some piece of land, it becomes their common patrimony, and that public’s preferences then become decisive as to the conditions under which it can then pass into private hands, and likewise decisive as to what residual limitations, if any, will then apply (i.e., as restrictive covenants). Such a public could with perfect legitimacy decide on Mutualist, Georgist, or Lockean rules of transfer.

As we have seen, only No-Proviso Lockeanism is defensible on libertarian grounds; however, a version of No-Proviso Lockeanism that allows for the possibility of a community’s acquiring title to land, not by merely existing but by collectively homesteading the land (or for that matter by receiving it as a gift from some philanthropist), provides a basis for No-Proviso Lockeans to recognize as legitimate the property arrangements of Mutualist, Georgist, and Proviso-Lockean communities, and so to “acquiesce to the system favored by majority consensus in each particular area”—so long as that means a majority consensus of the owners—without any compromise of, or loss of confidence in, their own No-Proviso Lockean principles.

Land-locked: A Critique of Carson on Property Rights, Roderick T. Long, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter 2006,