An Essay on Property (Part Three)

In Part Two of this essay, we defined property as a physical object, capable of division and possessing some element of scarcity.  But, more than that, property is not simply experienced as the control of some physical object but as a very personal relationship to that object.  Having a piece of property taken from us, whether by force, fraud,or stealth, is felt as a kind of violation of our own person.  But how does something become ours?  

Most of acquire property in one of two ways.  Either we purchase it from the previous owner or it is given to us, perhaps as an outright gift or as an inheritance.  But, you say, what of the things I make, such as a cake, a quilt or a painting?  Of course, your action has transformed the raw materials into a new kind of object but it is only your property because you previously owned those raw materials.  If you were to make a cake using ingredients that you did not own, it would not rightfully be your cake.  

This definition does have one big problem.  In acquiring the object from someone else, we are implicitly assuming that that individual was the rightful owner.  Just as the law prohibits you from receiving stolen property, so does libertarian theory.  If it is discovered that something you acquired was not acquired from the rightful owner, you have no right to it and it must be returned to the person who is the rightful owner.  The law may (perhaps rightly) place some time limit on such matters but, in principle, unjustly acquired property is never acceptable and must always be returned to the proper owner or their estate.  

Even if we assume a legal chain of ownership, we end up with a problem.  Let’s discuss it in terms of just one of the items we used to bake our cake, flour.  We acquired the flour from a grocer who acquired it from a distributor who acquired it from the mill that processed the wheat.  And, of course, the mill acquired the wheat from a farmer who grew it.  (Surprisingly, I likely left out several steps between you and the farmer, unless you purchased it directly from the farmer who ground it for you.)  You will notice that, at most every stop on the journey of the flour from the field to the frosting, some physical plant was required.  Whether it was the grocery store lot, the warehouse, the factory or the farm, they all occupy a particular kind of property which is going to cause us all kinds of trouble:  real estate or land.  Unless we can say that the farmer, the miller, the distributor and the grocer were all the rightful owners of the real estate required for their operation, the product each produces is no more theirs than the cake would be ours if we stole the ingredients.

That means that we must find a theory that allows us to explain how an individual can come to own a piece of real estate.  And, no, we only push the problem back one more step if we simply say they acquired it through purchase or gift.  We just have to ask the same question again?  How did they come to be its rightful owners?  And, even more troubling to ourselves and our social structure, what does it mean if we discover that the rightful owners at some point were unjustly deprived of that land?  We can chose to ignore that problem but we cannot pretend that isn’t a problem.  The whole underpinning of much libertarian theory involves the idea of private property, including land.  Can that theory be salvaged and, if so, how?

As you may have guessed, that will be the topic of part four of this essay.  Honestly, I have thought about this issue for my entire adult life and the best I am likely to be able to achieve is to provide some plausible alternatives from which we can choose.  And how we choose has dramatic consequences for the kind of libertarian society we can reasonably advocate.

As always, thanks for following along and taking the time to read this.  I hope you will join us again later this week as we continue this journey of intellectual exploration.  Until then, have a great week!


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