Sunday, 17 June 2012

Libertarian Property Assignment Rules

This post is a continuation of my previous post The Task of Political Philosophers.

Before explaining what property assignment rules libertarianism promotes, it is first necessary to clarify some terms, including coercion and aggression.


Ownership makes interpersonal exchange possible. Exchange is when ownership of a scarce object is transferred from one individual to another. There are two types of exchange: voluntary and coercive. A voluntary exchange is one that both parties consent to. By consenting to the exchange, both parties demonstrate that they expect to benefit from it. Voluntary exchanges do not involve conflict; the necessary condition for conflict, a difference of ideas / interests is absent; there is a harmony of interests in all voluntary exchanges.

In a coercive exchange, one party, the coerced, does not consent. He would rather walk away from the exchange; he expects to be made worse off by it. The only reason this type of exchange takes place is because the coercer uses violence or threats of violence to make it happen. The coercer leaves the coerced without the option of walking away, but facing only the options of making the exchange that he does not consent to, or being coerced into making a still worse exchange.


The term aggression is sometimes defined as “an unethical use of coercion”. We could describe the task of a judge as offering an opinion about whether aggression took place, i.e. whether coercion was used unethically. We could describe the task of the political philosopher as “explaining when coercion is unethical” or “explaining what constitutes aggression”. In this case, coercion that is not aggression, i.e. ethical coercion, could be termed defense, or defensive action.

An equivalent definition of aggression would be “a violation of property boundaries”. The judge must decide if property boundaries have been violated; the political philosopher must devise a set of principles for determining property rights and therefore what constitutes a violation of property boundaries. Defensive action would then be any coercive action that was not a violation of property boundaries.

The first criterion for the libertarian, when deciding whether or not a particular use of coercion is aggression, is to ask who initiated the coercion. Libertarians have historically emphasised the primacy of the “Non-Aggression Principle” (NAP) in libertarian philosophy, which forbids any initiation of coercion.

But this criterion of initiation cannot be a defining principle of libertarianism, because any political philosophy can reasonably claim to be opposed to the initiation of coercion. For example, suppose we are stranded on a desert island and you find an apple tree and pick an apple, but then I use coercion to take it from you. Which one of us initiated the coercion here? You could reasonably say that I did, but then I could reply that actually you initiated coercion against me, on the basis that it was my apple to begin with because it was my apple tree and I did not give you consent to pick from it. My use of coercion was therefore retaliatory; I was merely defending my own property.

Libertarianism cannot be uniquely defined by referring to initiation as a standard to distinguish between aggressive and defensive coercive acts, because the concept of initiation relies on a more fundamental idea about who ought to own which objects in the first place.

Property Assignment Rules 

The real difference between libertarianism and other political philosophies, then, is not criterion of initiation, but the particular property assignment rules being used. The libertarian says that you were the rightful owner of the apple, because you picked it, and I did not. My claim in this scenario (that I originally owned the apple, despite having no objective link to the apple or the apple tree) is rejected by the libertarian in favor of your claim, which is based on an objective link: you picked it.

This is an application of the homesteading principle, which describes the principle used by libertarians to determine who ought to be the first owner of a rivalrous object. It says that the first user ought to be the first owner, that is, the individual who first established an objective and intersubjectively ascertainable link between himself and the object.

Other philosophies reject this “first user-first owner” principle. For example, according to some political philosophies, certain herbs are first owned not by the first user but by a specific group of individuals called the State. According to this philosophy, any individual found in possession of one of these herbs is guilty of aggression against the State; the State is considered the rightful owner of the herb, so is justified in using coercion against anyone they are able to catch in possession of it.

Libertarianism is the philosophy that consistently supports the homesteading principle for determining first owners of scarce objects. Ownership of objects, according to libertarianism, can only be legitimately transferred to another person through voluntary exchange, or through abandonment; and such exchanges are always legitimate.

Other philosophies consider certain voluntary exchanges to be inherently illegitimate and thus justifying coercive action in response to them. For example, according to some political philosophies, a voluntary exchange between an employee and an employer may be illegitimate, such as when the employer offers less than some “minimum wage”. Employment at less than this minimum wage is said to justify a third-party (again, the group of the individuals called the State) using coercion (fines, or prison) against the parties making the voluntary exchange, and using threats against anyone who might dare try to make a similar voluntary exchange. (This philosophical view is held despite the fact that if an individual is engaging in a voluntary exchange, it must be because he expects to benefit more by making the exchange than by not making it, so using coercion to take that option away from him will always make him worse off).

Libertarians consider each individual to be the owner of the rivalrous objects he homesteads, produces or acquires through voluntary exchanges: his body and the fruits of his labor.  No one is allowed to commit aggression to take these legitimately acquired scarce objects away from him. There are no exceptions to this rule: it applies to people of all races, religions, classes and occupations, even the group of people who call themselves the State.


  1. In your system, people are effectively coerced into working. Either you work, or you starve. That's not freedom.

    1. No. See my definition of coercion above.

    2. No not according to your definition. But you are forced to work. Either you work, or you starve, have no shelter, no clothes, healthcare, education, law enforcement protection. To me that's still slavery.

    3. Well I don't really want to get into a semantic debate, but to me the terms coercion and slavery only usefully refer to a relationship between individuals. If you are coerced, then someone is doing the coercing. If you are a slave, you have a slavemaster.

      According to your definition (from what I can tell) all humans (actually all living things) are always being coerced and are always slaves. But coerced by who, and enslaved by who? Not another living thing, but nature itself, apparently. We are supposedly slaves because we need to eat. I don't see that as a useful definition of the term. That we need to eat is a trivial fact of life.