The institution of private property is a fundamental aspect of economics and social interactions. It serves the practical purpose of avoiding conflicts over scarce resources so that efforts may be put toward better purposes. Theories concerning the creation, acquisition, trade, inheritance, and defense of private property form much of libertarian philosophy. What has gone largely unexplored in libertarian theory thus far is the role of conquest in the determination of property rights. Almost all inhabited land on Earth has been conquered by one group of people or another at some time in the past, so as long as this remains unexplored, libertarianism will be left open to attacks from all manner of enemies of private property rights. Thus, it is necessary to examine conquest from a libertarian perspective.

Man vs. Nature

The starting point for all of libertarian philosophy is self-ownership; each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body and full responsibility for actions committed with said control. Note that in order to argue against self-ownership, one must exercise exclusive control of one’s physical body for the purpose of communication. This results in a performative contradiction because the content of the argument is at odds with the act of making the argument. By the laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction, self-ownership must be true because it must be either true or false, and any argument that self-ownership is false leads to a contradiction.

Because each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body, it is wrong for one person to initiate interference with another person’s exclusive control of their physical body without their consent. This is how the non-aggression principle is derived from self-ownership. Because each person has full responsibility for the actions that one commits with one’s physical body, one may gain property rights in external objects by laboring upon unowned natural resources. This works because one is responsible for the improvements that one has made upon the natural resources, and it is impossible to own the improvements without owning the resources themselves.

In a sense, all property rights are based on conquest, in that property rights are created when man conquers nature by appropriating part of nature for his exclusive control and use. This is a powerful antidote to the contention of many opponents of private property that property titles are somehow invalidated by a history of conquest, of people taking by force what is not rightfully theirs. But we can do even better than this, as the next sections will show.

Man vs. Man

As stated earlier, property rights are useful in practice because they minimize conflicts over scarce resources by establishing who rightfully controls what territory. This results in a significant amount of loss prevention, which allows the people who would have died and the property that would have been damaged in such conflicts to instead survive and prosper.

But what happens when such norms are not respected? Let us consider the simplest possible example and extrapolate from there. For our first case, consider a planet which has only two sentient beings. Let us call them Archer and Bob. Archer has mixed his labor with some land and thus acquired private property rights over that area. Bob wants the land that belongs to Archer. That Archer has a right to defend himself and his property from the aggressions of Bob by any means necessary, and that Archer has the right to retake anything that Bob takes is not disputed by any reputable libertarian theorist. But what if Bob kills Archer? In that case, the property does not rightfully pass from Archer to Bob in theory. But Bob now has exclusive control over the property and there is no other sentient being present to challenge him. Thus, Bob becomes the de facto owner, even though this is illegitimate de jure.

The above case is interesting but trivial because social norms are irrelevant if there is neither a community to observe them nor a mechanism to enforce them. As such, we will spend the rest of this essay adding complexity to the first case to arrive at meaningful results. For our second case, suppose that there were another person present to challenge Bob. Let us call him Calvin. Because libertarian theory is a logical construct, it is subject to logic in the form of rationality and consistency. To violate the rights of another person while claiming the same rights for oneself is not consistent. Hypocrisy of this kind cannot be rationally advanced in argument; it has the same effect at the subjective level that a performative contradiction has at the objective level. In other words, all people do not lose the right to life because someone somewhere somewhen commits a murder, but the murderer does. This means that Bob cannot claim a right to his own life or to the property he occupies because he murdered Archer and stole his property. Thus, there is no moral prohibition on Calvin killing Bob and taking the property from him. With Archer and Bob both dead and Calvin the last sentient being on the planet, Calvin is now the de facto owner of the property. But unlike Bob in the first case, Calvin is also the de jure property owner because he has exerted effort to remove property from the control of a thief and the rightful owner died without an heir.

 

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