The Justification of Libertarian Property Rights

Bas van der Vossen published a serious of very good posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (see in chronological order here, here and here) disputing the popular position (voiced in this particular case by Kevin Vallier) that property rights constitute a special kind of rights requiring special justification, in contrast to, say rights to personal liberty and bodily integrity.

Kevin Vallier bases his position on public reasons ethics which I am not going to criticize in detail here. Suffice is to say that I believe that ethical statements like murder is wrong can ultimately be either either true or false, or meaningless. Any attempt to qualify them by saying that they are true to the extent God or some idealized agent said (or would say) so, or that people have sufficient reasons to endorse them in their position, deprives ethical statements of ethical content (you may want to replace the word “ethical” in the previous sentences with the word “physical” to see my point).

However, Vallier’s worry about property may be voiced without appealing to public reasons. The point is that property rights imply that it is moral for their holders to repeal attempts to physically affect their property without their consent with proportional physical force. In this sense, other persons are apparently being treated as objects to protect not the personhood of others but merely their control over physical objects.

Van der Vossen correctly suggests that similar worries may be raised about other rights but I think a better defense may be provided. In order to see why, we need to recall that our bodies undergo the process of continual replacement of cells over the course of our lives. Thus, most of the matter that comprises our bodies at a given point in time has not been in us from birth but was acquired later from the external world.

This means that at least some property rights over external physical objects must be ethically justified in order for a person to enjoy self-ownership. Otherwise, we would not own our bodies because we would not own the matter of which they are constantly being remade.

Now, obviously, this does not give us a justification of libertarian property rights but, as Roderick long put it very well in this lecture, one’s body is just one of one’s projects. Thus, if property rights are justified in respect of it, they are prima facie justified with respect to one’s other projects. The burden thus must be on the opponents of libertarian property rights to prove that they are not ethically justified. And their prospects of proving that do not look very bright, especially in light of the Austrian economic theory that shows convincingly that maintenance of such rights brings good consequences from the standpoints of other ethical virtues (apart from justice in the Smithian sense) such as benevolence.


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