The Right to Property
ABSTRACT: This paper begins with propositions whose truth is evident, and from them conclusions are derived whose truth has been made evident by deduction. In this paper, the foundations of the right to property are laid out, with implications for the acquisition of unowned property and the ability of a person to transfer that ownership. This includes ownership rights over one’s body. The slave is a slave because his body is owned by someone else, and that owner is not the rightful owner. Slavery is theft, and theft is also slavery. Slavery exists wherever theft exists, and socialism is theft writ large. Socialism is therefore slavery writ large, and slavery is indefensible morally. I show further that the right to property is the only right held by a rational animal by showing that what are purported to be two other human rights—the right to privacy and the right to life—are in fact subsumed under the right to property.
Carlton M. Smith ([email protected]) is an independent scholar.
The foundation for everything that follows begins with some propositions whose truth is either evident or whose truth is capable of being made evident by deduction from those propositions whose truth is evident. Those propositions whose truth is evident are preceded by the letter E; those whose truth is proved by deduction from the two preceding propositions are preceded by the letter C.
E (1) Man is a rational animal.1
E (2) Man, like all animals, has a body.
E (3) Man’s body, like all bodies, is located somewhere and occupies space.
E (4) Man’s body, like all bodies, has extension, and so, therefore, does the space which it occupies.
E (5) Man’s body requires the use of the space which it occupies.
E (6) Ownership is control of the use of that which has extension.
C (1) The space occupied by man’s body is therefore owned.
E (7) Property is that which is owned.
C (2) All property has extension.
E (8) Because all property has extension, it makes no sense to say that something that lacks extension is owned.
E (9) Neither one’s self nor one’s person has extension.
C (3) It therefore makes no sense to say that man owns himself or his person.
E (10) Man’s ratio, or the intellect that informs man’s body, controls its use.2
C (4) The intellect that informs man’s body owns that body.
We saw in the introduction that ownership is control of the use of that which has extension. How does one acquire ownership of something extended? In the case of man’s body, the answer is obvious: the intellect that informs man’s body is born with it. And in the case of something other than man’s body? Something which is owned either had no prior owner or was acquired from the prior owner.
How does one acquire the ownership of something that is unowned? The answer often given is that one acquires ownership of something unowned by mixing one’s labor with it, but the correct answer is so simple that it is very easy to miss what takes place: one acquires ownership of something unowned by acting as the owner. Ownership is control of the use of something which has extension. One acts as the owner when one controls the use of something which has extension.
Let us consider the case of a man who finds himself on a tract of land that no one else owns. That tract of land contains a cave and a pond. Mr. Crusoe decides to use the cave as his dwelling and to use the pond for drinking and bathing—and proceeds to do so. A term often used for the acquisition of ownership of something unowned is appropriation. Although it should be obvious that Mr. Crusoe is the owner of the property he has appropriated, a question that also deserves consideration is, Does Mr. Crusoe—or anyone else for that matter—have the right to appropriate something that previously lacked an owner and so become not merely its owner but also its rightful owner?
THE RIGHT TO APPROPRIATE UNOWNED LAND
Let us construct an obstreperous chap, Mr. Strawman, who objects on principle to appropriation and therefore rejects Mr. Crusoe’s right to appropriate something unowned. We need not concern ourselves with the reasons why Mr. Strawman objects to appropriation; we only need to consider the implication. Mr. Strawman certainly cannot have a right to prevent Mr. Crusoe from appropriating unowned land, because having that right would make Mr. Strawman the owner of the land in question: ownership is control of the use of that which has extension, and it would then be Mr. Strawman who controls its use. Mr. Strawman, in other words, will have appropriated unowned land, yet it is precisely the right to appropriate something unowned which Mr. Strawman disputes. It is time to dispatch Mr. Strawman. Does anyone have a match?
One cannot be rightfully prevented from acting in a manner that infringes no one else’s right. This is not a play on words. One can only be rightfully prevented from acting in a particular manner when someone else has the right that one not act in that manner.
No one can have the right that someone else not appropriate something unowned, because the appropriation of something unowned violates no one else’s right. We can safely conclude that everyone has the right to appropriate that which is unowned and that those who do so by using it thereby become not merely the de facto owners of the property in question, but also its rightful owners.
THE ACQUISITION OF OWNERSHIP
We saw in the previous section that one can acquire ownership of something by appropriating it. Indeed, the only way to acquire ownership of something unowned is by appropriation. The acquisition of ownership by something other than appropriation therefore requires that the property being acquired already have an owner. Consider the cave which Mr. Crusoe appropriated. Perhaps Christmas is fast approaching and Mr. Crusoe thinks that his cave would make a suitable present for his favorite niece. One can use something that one owns as a gift, and when so used, the gift transfers ownership to the recipient. Because Mr. Crusoe was the rightful owner of the cave before he made the gift and had the right to use it as he saw fit (provided, of course, that its use did not violate anyone else’s right), Mr. Crusoe had the right to give his cave to his niece, which made her the rightful owner once the gift had been given.
Is inheritance another way to acquire the ownership of something that is owned? The only thing that distinguishes a bequest from a gift made during one’s lifetime is the timing: one gift occurs before death; the other occurs after death. For that reason we do not need a separate category for inheritance: a gift is a gift regardless of when it is made.
Another way that one can use something that one owns is to sell it in order to acquire ownership of something else. Perhaps Mr. Crusoe has found someone who wants to acquire ownership of the cave by buying it, i.e., by offering to exchange something which he himself owns for Mr. Crusoe’s cave. Every voluntary exchange requires two owners, each one of whom transfers something he owns to the other party in return for the ownership of something else. Let us assume that Mr. Crusoe, the rightful owner of the cave, sells it to Mr. Moneybags in exchange for colored beads. Let us also assume that Mr. Moneybags was the rightful owner of those beads. The result of that voluntary exchange makes Mr. Crusoe the rightful owner of some colored beads and Mr. Moneybags the rightful owner of a cave.
It should now be clear that one can acquire ownership of something by appropriation, by gift, and by voluntary exchange. Does that exhaust the possibilities? Unfortunately, there is one other way to acquire property: one can acquire the ownership of something by stealing it from someone else.
Mrs. Matron is the rightful owner of some splendid jewelry, but said splendid jewelry now finds itself, alas, in the possession of a burglar. Mr. Burglar did not appropriate the jewelry (it already had an owner), he was not given it by the owner, nor did she sell it to him in a voluntary exchange. Mr. Burglar is now the owner of the jewelry, for he, and not Mrs. Matron, controls its use. He is not, however, the rightful owner, for he acquired his ownership by theft, by stealing the jewelry from someone else.
Need stolen property always be in the possession of the thief? Let us return to the case of Mr. Crusoe and his cave. Mr. Crusoe appropriated the cave and in so doing became its rightful owner. That gave him the right to use the cave in any way he saw fit, provided, of course, that in so doing he violated no one else’s right (from this point forward I will ignore the qualification). One way that he could use the cave is to acquire the ownership of money by renting the cave to someone else. If Mr. Crusoe is prevented from r
Article from Mises Wire