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But how do we get from the right to one’s body to the right to one’s (justly acquired) possessions, including land? A person’s possessions are extensions of his life and labor. (Mr. Bruenig says no one made the land, but labor can make it productive.) Flourishing requires the use of physical objects, including shelter and other uses of land, in an environment of respect for and from others. Thus to violate a person’s property is to violate that person. (Again, violations can be de minimis, and the response must be proportionate.) Nothing in libertarian theory, however, rules out nonstate public property or common-law easements. (Elinor Ostrom’s work on nonstate management of common-pool resources is relevant here.)
The details of a property system will surely be determined by custom and could well differ from place to place. But the centrality of property in a proper human community cannot be denied. In A Treatise on Human Nature (Book III, Part II, Section VI), David Hume referred to “the three fundamental laws of nature, that of the stability of possession, of its transference by consent,and of the performance of promises,” noting that
’Tis on the strict observance of those three laws, that the peace and security of human society entirely depend; nor is there any possibility of establishing a good correspondence among men, where these are neglected. Society is absolutely necessary for the well-being of men; and these are as necessary to the support of society.
Finally, I must point out that defending property rights in theory does not obligate libertarians to defend all particular property holdings in a given society. Land and other forms of wealth are often obtained through government privilege, that is, through theft from their rightful owners. A sound libertarian theory of property does not regard such property as justly held. As Karl Hess wrote in “What Are the Specifics?”: “The truth, of course, is that libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.”
This article first appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.