Economics/Class Relations

How Did Private Property Start?

By Matt Bruenig, The Jacobin

Libertarians tend to get flummoxed when confronted with this simple question.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.

You don’t have to take my word for this. Serious libertarians have more or less conceded this point. Here is Robert Nozick:

It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one person’s ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.

Here is Matt Zwolinski:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

Again, what’s so funny about this insight is not just that it is a persuasive counterpoint to libertarianism, but rather that it seems to suggest that libertarian principles themselves forbid property ownership.

To be sure, libertarian philosophers have developed various ways to muddle through this issue. Locke famously constrains acquisition by the proviso that there is “enough and as good” property left for others. Nozick goes on to show Locke’s literal proviso is impossible to satisfy and offers a similar constraint that property acquisition not worsen “the position” of others where “the position” is defined in vaguely welfarist terms. Zwolinski goes one step further than Nozick even and says the harms of initial property acquisition must be offset with a basic income.

None of these moves resolve the basic issue that property acquisition violates the liberty of others. They just try to compensate for it in some way, sort of like an initial-acquisition version of eminent domain. That’s fine as far as things go I suppose, but it tends to suffer from the problem that most libertarians are quite opposed to the kinds of ongoing transfers implied by these compensation schemes.


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