Thursday, September 4, 2008

On the legitimacy of private property

One of libertarianism's cornerstones most certainly is the idea of private property. But what is property, how does it come to be private and who defines the borders? Libertarians approach the topic this way:

Man owns himself. If this weren't so, those who disagree would have to explain who gave them permission to express disagreement and why exactly this circle of persons owns them while at the same time delivering a universal explanation of body ownership. Since this borders on impossibility, we assume self-ownership to be correct. Should man indeed own himself, then he also gets to own his labor, that is the product of his body's actions. But in order to use his bodily powers, he needs something to legitimately refine. This he finds in nature: unowned, unclaimed objects. Mixing his labor with unowned nature creates his own private property which is now subject to his own jurisdiction.

But why should individuals be allowed to claim nature for themselves? It is the only conclusive way of distributing resources. If we desired to establish collective ownership of the land, i.e. nobody owns anything, it is questionable whether we have a right to stand (sit) on the ground we do right now. Who gives us the right? Furthermore, who is to decide on the use of the land in such a society? Government? But isn't government just a number of powerful people and would therefore create just another form of private property in which central planners act as ultimate property owners? Every other shade of collectivist land ownership, be it Gesell's Freiwirtschaft (which Wikipedia, at this point in time, is for some reason calling a "libertarian economic idea") or social-democratic property redistribution schemes, suffer from the same philosophical weakness.

Of course, libertarian property theory is not to be used as an apology for existing property distribution either. Vulgar libertarians tend to do this in defense of corporations quite often. If person or corporation X illegitimately steals property from some native tribe or from poor locals, this most certainly constitutes a crime as well and should be punished.

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