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Let us for the sake of exposition concede the argument of many on the left that individuals have no rights to private property. The typical argument goes something like, “since no one created the land underfoot, no one is entitled to “own” it. Any ownership claims made on land, and its related resources, are therefore a case of individuals “stealing” from the rest of the human race. At best, individuals should be permitted to lease land from the state, and the state should apply heavy property taxes to extract the rents from the land that are due the rest of society.

Ignore the problem for now that not allowing ownership in land is akin to not permitting ownership of one’s own person. If control of property is impermissible by any one individual, then it follows that control of property is impermissible by two individuals. This follows because any ownership claims made by two people are illegitimate, because these two people did not create the land, and by their using the land that was God-given, they are each stealing the resources and rents that flow from the use of that land, that rightly belong to the rest of “society.”

Two conclusions follow from extending this logic.

  1. Ownership claims cannot be made by three people, four, one million, or even by every single person who is living on the Earth at this time. Since not one of the people who have ever walked this Earth has had a hand in creating it (note: I am using the language of the collectivists, I do not concede this point myself), then to claim that the “rest of the human race” has any claim on any land at all, and on anything produced using that land, is also illegitimate.

    To put it differently, “society” is a meaningless term. It is simply shorthand for lots and lots of interacting individuals. “Society” is a thing that does not exist. When my wife and two children are in a room with me, there are only 4 people in that room. There is not a fifth entity called, “society,” or even “family,” for that matter. The term family is a convenient way of me having to not repeat, “Rachel, Isaac, Amelia and me,” every time I am referring to things my family is doing. Therefore, to say that “society” owns land (or anything else for that matter) is to attribute ownership to an entity that does not exist. What this means in practice is that a small group of rulers (oligarchs) actually will “own” property – they will make decisions on who gets to live on it, how much rent to extract, and so forth. And this small group does this by expropriating the individual who brought land into productive existence. It is an interesting aside to consider the fairness and equity in how these oligarchs are chosen, and the decisions they make, with those that would result from transactions that were solely voluntary. But we’ll explore that another day. Moving on to my second observation:

  2. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that such an entity as “society” actually does have some meaning beyond what I laid out above. Nonetheless, if an owernship claim made by one individual, or a group of individuals is illegitimate (it has to be, by the assumptions laid out to start this post), then by extension any property or governing claim made by a “village”, “town”, “county”, “state”, or even a “country” is totally illegitmate. What right, for example, do residents of the state of New York, have to the resources (and resulting stream of rents) from the land that exists within New York State’s boundaries? Aren’t claims made by the state of New York, and the tax revenues raised by the state of New York similarly representative of theft from the rest of the human race? After all, the land within the boundary of New York State is just as much the property of North Dakotans, Canadians, Peruvians, Chinese, etc. as it is New Yorkers. By extension, this argument can be applied to any government entity. Therefore, by the very argument collectivists use to oppose the institution of private property, the extraction of rents from property by any government entity, no matter how big or small, is similarly illegitimate.

While considering these, it might be useful to consider another logical inconsistency with the collectivist, natural (no) rights position. If the fact that land is God-given entitles no one person to own it, and for all of society to have a claim on it, then what are we to think about the idea that it is almost universally agreed that every individual’s musical talent, good looks, health, athletic prowess, etc. are also God-given attributes? Should talented musicians face a higher individual personal property tax rate so that the rest of us can enjoy the “rents” that flow from his God-given resources? And what about good looks? I tend to think I am an ugly dude – but how would a group of oligarchs decide on who was good looking and who was not? By what metric? And how would they determine how much rent should properly flow from people of varying levels of attractiveness?

That something pre-existed man cannot possibly serve as a legitimate or moral foundation for a theory of property.

One Response to “The Legitimacy of State Ownership of Property”

  1. Gordon Barnes says:

    We need to distinguish between ownership and rightful use. The problem with your argument is that ownership is not required for rightful use. If you lend me your lawnmower for a day, to mow my lawn, then I have rightful use of your lawnmower for the day, despite the fact that I do not own your lawnmower. Likewise, it is possible for members of society, or society as a whole (which I agree is nothing more than its members), to have rightful use of land, despite the fact that no one owns the land. Rightful use of land is by collective agreement. We, as a society, decide collectively on a fair deal for the private use of land, which no one owns. We do this precisely IF and BECAUSE this will be to everyone’s benefit. Therefore any private use of land that is not to everyone’s benefit is a use that is illegitimate, precisely because not everyone would agree to it, nor should they.

    With that said, everything else that you inferred from the no-ownership thesis is exactly right. The Saudi Royal Family has no right to the oil that they are sitting on. No other nation should act as if the Saudis have an absolute right to that oil, because they don’t. They didn’t do anything to create it, nor did they do anything else to earn a right to it. (And this is even if I give them a right to the oil that they drill and / or refine. Even if we give them that, this gives them no special right to the rest of the oil that is still in the ground, because they did nothing to create that.) So no one owns any natural resources, but that does not imply that there can be no rightful use of natural resources. It just means that rightful use of natural resources has to be by common consent, and / or for everyone’s benefit.

    Briefly, let’s tackle the alleged connection between self-ownership and world ownership. It is not at all obvious to me that people own their own natural talents. As Rawls and others have argued for years, no one did anything to earn or otherwise deserve their natural talents, or lack thereof. But for the sake of this argument, I want to grant the self-ownership thesis. Can it be granted consistently with the other things I’ve said here? That’s a very good question, but here is one reason for thinking that the answer is “Yes.” The self-ownership thesis is a logical corollary of the prohibition on invading a person’s bodily integrity, and this latter prohibition is intuitively plausible. It would be wrong of me to take one of your eyes, or one of your kidneys. This logically implies self-ownership. The thing to notice here is that this way of motivating self-ownership is consistent with the denial of any world-ownership. I cannot deny you your eyes without violating your bodily integrity, but I CAN deny you use of natural resources without violating your bodily integrity. You could argue that you will not survive long without the use of natural resources, and thatw ould be true, but the fact remains that this will not be because I have invaded your body in any way. So I can accept self-ownership as a logical consequence of the prohibition on violating a person’s bodily integrity, while simultaneously denying any world ownership. So now we have the conclusion that everyone owns himself, but we don’t yet have the conclusion that people can own natural resources. So how does self-ownership entail the right to ownership of natural resources? It doesn’t, and that’s precisely the problem with right-libertarianism. The step from self-ownership to ownership of natural resources turns out to be a chasm that cannot be crossed by any compelling argument. I’ll leave it to you to try to provide one.

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