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Property Rights, Locke, and Homesteading

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RSDavis Posted: Sat, Aug 18 2012 3:31 AM

I was having a discussion with someone today, and he presented me with an interesting hypothetical:


imagine that I'm a fellow castaway on a desert island. And I happen to wash up on the side of the island that has the only source of clean water. I work to clear some branches away and claim the clean spring as my own.

I take it we agree that, in the desert island case, fellow castaways are not at all obliged to die just because some particular yahoo had the good fortune to be washed up on the right side of the island and claimed it for his own before they realized they needed it to live. The people on that island will do what they have to do to survive, and be justified in doing it....

...Locke—a philosopher who has some truck in libertarian circles—said that we have a right to remove resources from their natural, common state by mixing our labor with them. For instance, the mangoes that are in the trees on a desert island, they belong to no one. But when I take a stick and knock them down, then I have mixed my personal labor with them, and in an important way they are part of my person. If you steal them, you may as well steal my fingers.

But even Locke put a very important limitation on this acquisition: when we take from the common, we must leave “as much and as good” for everyone else. Our acquisition cannot leave others less well off in terms of what they need, or else the state of nature rules apply: I take what I need and you see if you can stop me. Libertarians take freely from Locke but forget this important proviso, which I think weighs heavily on the current health care debate.

What do you think?  Does one lucky guy who happens to stumble across the only good water source have the moral right to a monopoly on it?

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gotlucky replied on Sat, Aug 18 2012 9:27 AM

It depends. There are some libertarians who follow the homesteading principle dogmatically without really understanding why we might find such a rule to be useful in the first place. First, the primary principle that guides libertarian thought is the NAP, or the non-aggression principle. This also happens to be a variant of the golden rule but applied specifically to law. So, why might libertarians take the homesteading rule as an important rule?

It has to do with norms, conflicts, and the NAP. The NAP is "Do not aggress against another or his rightful property." I think it may be easier to grasp some of the secondary but important principles in libertarianism, such as homesteading, when we look at the NAP/golden rule in the first person. In the positive form: "Respect me and what's mine, and I'll respect you and what's yours." In the negative form: "Don't violate me or what's mine, and I won't violate you or what's yours."

So, I think once you read the NAP in the first person, the purpose of the homesteading principle (rule of first use) becomes clear. If I claim this water source as mine, you can either respect or violate that claim. So, the focus becomes about why someone might respect or violate the claim. The rule of first use is something that easily avoids conflicts and can help settle them if they do arise. Why not a rule of second use? How would that be more helpful than a rule of first use? It wouldn't. The purpose of norms is to avoid and resolve conflicts. And few people would say, "Well, I built this house, and I would claim it as my own, but Joe over here has come along and claimed it as his under the rule of second use. So I must now give it up to Joe."

No, people do not tend to do this. But what about the water source? Well, suppose you and I arrive on the island at the same time. We both see the only water source, and I sprint for it as fast as I can. I beat you there and I drink from it first. Then when you catch up and go to drink, I say, "No, you may not touch this. I used it first so it is mine." Are you going to respect that claim? Probably not. You would probably be of the opinion that it should not be owned exclusively by only one of us. And you would be right. But the reason isn't as arbitrary as it might seem. The purpose of any good norm is to resolve and avoid conflict. If a norm didn't do this most of the time, it is a bad norm and would almost definitely be supplanted by a better norm. If I tried to "homestead" the water source, this would not resolve a conflict between the two of us. It is inappropriate to use it in that particular scenario.

So why homesteading at all? Well, because there is rarely only one of anything. People make a claim about something, and other people respect that claim. But for the people who don't like to respect other's claims, we have law. And I suggest you read What Law Is and A Praxeological Account of Law by forum member Clayton. So the rule of first use ends up being a rather good principle after all.

Also, just because someone might have a good reason to not respect someone else's claim doesn't make it right. But it is hard to make predictions from the armchair as to what is the proper course of action in many situations. Just because a man is dying of thirst doesn't make it right for him to steal water from another person. But at the same time, it's almost always absurd to think that the man dying of thirst ought to just die of thirst rather than steal the water. This is the importance of liability of actions. You are always liable for your actions. So maybe you are dying of thirst. And maybe you stole some water from someone in order to live. This does not absolve you of your crime. You have stolen, and the man you have stolen from has a right to sue you.

Anyway, I think I'll leave it at that, because I'm pretty much just rambling now. I think the most important thing to take away from this is the NAP and why people choose to respect property rights, and that for when it breaks down we have law to help fix it.

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bloomj31 replied on Sat, Aug 18 2012 9:40 AM

  Does one lucky guy who happens to stumble across the only good water source have the moral right to a monopoly on it?

That depends, how many other castaways are there?

How big are they?  Are any of them armed?  Are you armed?  Am I armed?  Were we friends before we were stranded?

I'm sorry I just have a hard time with these sort of bare-bone thought experiments because I always want to inject new variables until I feel I know enough going on to imagine a real scenario.

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Locke's proviso is a theological one. I am not really aware of any major libertarian who simply evokes the Lockean argument without providing modifying/supplementary arguments.

Freedom of markets is positively correlated with the degree of evolution in any society...

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tunk replied on Sat, Aug 18 2012 8:03 PM

Are they "obliged to die"? No, of course not. They're free to aid each other and you're free to aid them, with their and your own time and resources in whatever way possible. Are they obliged to respect the man's property claim? If he homesteaded that water, yes. Does that mean he is within his rights not to share any of his water? Yes.

No matter who controls the lake, even if all the islanders did so jointly, some desires for it will not be satisfied because it is scarce and can be deployed in mutually exclusive ways. Choices, potentially very tough ones, are going to have to be made about who gets to use it and who doesn't, whose will prevails and whose loses out, at any given time. That's a fact of reality any social arrangement has to deal with.

What if everybody except the owner wants to take a piss, defecate, bathe in the lake, etc., while he is more far-sighted and demands they not, so consumption is safe and orderly? Here, if the lake were jointly owned chaos would result, while if it's the owner's property, things are better for everyone. Clearly, then, there's no reason for an a priori bias against him.

The only reason your friend's version of the story seems morally outrageous and mine (I hope) doesn't is because they're both presented from narrow perspectives, as all "what if" scenarios always are. That's why they make a terrible moral guide and and one's primitive, sentimental reactions to them shouldn't be trusted.

Libertarians take freely from Locke but forget this important proviso

That's because we are not engaged in an interpretation of Locke (as Hoppe once said to a similar objection). We are trying to build our own theory, influenced as it is by Lockean ideas.

The proviso is of no value because it is not possible to fulfill. Things are scarce, and that means any use of anything to satisfy any want means all mutually exclusive wants cannot be satisfied at the same time. It would obviously be a nice world if, whatever I took from nature, the exact same stock of opportunities was left still available for you, but we don't live in the Garden of Eden.

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How does one homestead "a source of water"(the actual source)?

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RSDavis replied on Mon, Aug 20 2012 9:53 AM

Here is my response, in a nutshell:


I wonder, though, if that clean water is the only thing on that island of value. Maybe one of them is a doctor, or a chef, or a builder, or a farmer, or any other of various things that could hold value on that island. It would seem to me that the man who had the clean water would need something other than just clean water, and therefore would have to trade access for it. No man is an island - we are interdependent. I suspect in such a situation that people would work out a way for everyone to get what they need without having to resort to force, if for no other reason than at that point, they are for all intents and purposes the last people on Earth. That brings people together. If there are ten people left, the life of one of those people has high value to all...

...An important proviso with Locke, too, was that one cannot lay claim to the tree itself - only the fruit that they knocked down. The did not plant the tree, therefore they did not add any value in its creation.

In the same way, with your example, perhaps simply by clearing some scrub, the person cannot own the spring, either. It would seem that they would only own the path they created to the spring. Others could create their own path, or pay a "toll" to the one who did for access to the spring.

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