Market economies and free trade are both cornerstones of modern society. It’s hard to argue with the data — even skeptics of capitalism acknowledge the far-reaching benefits we have all enjoyed.
What’s more difficult to argue is the concept of property rights. Even though markets and free trade are wholly contingent on this concept, people often feel they’re somehow unfair. The idea of excluding others from something on the planet seems unjust on principle to many.
But there are plenty of reasons why this isn’t so. John Locke and David Hume are the two classic thinkers who provided a robust defense of property, and their arguments are markedly different.
Hume argues that property rights are just because of their benefits, such as those previously mentioned, while Locke has a rights-based approach.
John Locke believed property was a God-given right
Locke believed the earth and its resources were granted to humankind by God so that we might flourish. Locke argues that, while the earth was granted to all of humankind in common, humans are not entitled to each other — i.e., a person owns only him or herself.
But if we own ourselves, he reasons, we also own our various powers and capacities. Applying these powers and capacities to unowned property, like land, renders it part of ourselves, as there is now some part of ourselves mixed with it. He refers to this process of converting the common to the private as “labor-mixing.”
Locke runs into challenges in the “labor-mixing” portion of his argument. Firstly, there is a category mistake between one’s labor and the object one labors upon. By analogy, one can mix blue and red paint and produce purple paint, but one cannot “mix” an abstract noun (like labor) with a concrete object (like land).
Secondly, philosopher Robert Nozick presented a reductio ad absurdum of Locke’s “labor-mixing” argument that reveals its implausibility. If you purchase a can of soup, then it is your property. But pouring it into the ocean, under Locke’s theory, would make the entire ocean your property (at least once the soup has evenly dispersed).
Locke recognizes and preempts some of the opposition to his theory. He says that if the consequences of private property are good for the owner and at least neutral for others, then it’s good. One example Locke gives: the private acquisition of one acre of land out of 100 held in common makes others better off by allowing the acquirer to live off just one acre instead of 100 (via the increased productivity of tilled land), effectively creating 99 acres to be used by everyone else.
But Locke’s consequentialist reasoning here isn’t airtight. An obvious problem is that Locke’s “enough, and as good” proviso does not recognize that we live in a world of scarcity.
David Hume thought property rights were beneficial
Clearly, Locke’s argument wouldn’t convince atheists. Luckily for us, Hume doesn’t accept Locke’s premise that God granted the earth to humanity in common.
Hume argues that in the state of nature, there are no rights whatsoever, never mind property rights. Instead, Hume asserts that people are insecure in their possessions in the state of nature. This insecurity impedes human flourishing, as production and commerce are stifled by fears of coercion and theft.
To address this problem, Hume argues that a convention of property rights is legitimate insofar as they are useful to human wellbeing.
But what about when they aren’t? What if someone burned 100 acres of their privately owned land simply to watch the flames when that land could have been used to feed, clothe, and house thousands of people.
Hume counters this by suggesting private property is overall defensible as it provides an overall benefit to production, commerce, and well-being.
It’s indisputable that property rights have resulted in great prosperity
Hume’s theorizing is borne out by reality. One would be hard-pressed to dispute the marked increase in GDP per capita and simultaneous decline in global poverty since the industrial revolution.
Moreover, we observe per capita incomes are greater by almost $40,000 in the freest economies compared to the least free ones (Exhibit 1.5, Economic Freedom of the World: 2020 Annual Report).
To those who accept that the freest economies have the greatest GDP per capita but object to its distribution, it’s worth mentioning that, the poorest decile of the population earns 2.7% of the income in the least free economies and 3.19% in the freest economies (Exhibit 1.8, Economic Freedom of the World: 2020 Annual Report).
In short, the historical record is replete with evidence substantiating Hume’s defense of private property insofar as it moves us away from leading “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” lives, as Hobbes described existence in the state of nature.
Still, Hume’s argument has one glaring flaw: because he doesn’t have a rights-based conception of property, it gives permission to people to arbitrarily deny them to people.
While this exclusion of property rights makes sense in the child-parent relationship, Hume explicitly acknowledges that this reasoning has been wrongfully applied to whole subpopulations of humans historically deemed to be physically or mentally inferior.
Moreover, Hume writes that such creatures have no rights whatsoever, including self-ownership, and are treated well because their superiors abide by the “laws of humanity.”
Essentially, powerful people only extend rights to others out of a perverse form of charity.
Hume’s line of reasoning suggests that, in a state of nature wherein no rights exist whatsoever, a stronger group of men has no moral obligation to refrain from murdering women, children, or a weaker group of men. By rejecting natural rights, Hume’s argument becomes inconsistent and undesirable.
So how do we justify property overall?
Locke’s argument is appealing because it is absolute, but relies on God, and not all people are believers.
Despite Hume’s denial of natural rights, his consequentialist defense of the private property convention is persuasive. The ideal lies in the integration of these two arguments: We intuitively grasp that people have agency and autonomy without individually reading through tomes of philosophy, and we can all see the result of centuries of property rights resulting in a comfortable society.
However, I would encourage fellow libertarians to study and articulate these to the best of their abilities when challenged on the legitimacy of private property.
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This article was first published on the Students For Liberty website.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.