Why I’m Not a Libertarian, Part 1, Absentee Property Ownership is Not a Fundamental Right

I’ve found that the easiest way to describe how I see liber(al)tarianism is to contrast it to libertarianism.  I often find myself thinking, “Libertarians have many good points, but I could never be a libertarian because…”  So I’m starting on a series of posts about the fundamental philosophical disagreements I have with libertarians.  This first one is on property rights.

One of the basic beliefs of libertarianism is that people have the right to “life, liberty, and property.” Why property? Why should ownership of property rank equal to the very right to breathe? I don’t believe it does.

Where did this right to property come from in the first place? Think about the world in which the enlightenment philosophers lived. The economy in those times was primarily agricultural. Most people were farmers. But most farmers didn’t own their land. The land was owned by the upper class, the nobles. People who didn’t own land were lower class. The lower class people worked and part of what they produced they had to give to the nobles who didn’t work. You can imagine a conversation between a peasant farmer and his son who is still too young and naïve to accept the status quo:

“Dad, why do we give 15% of our crops to the Baron? He didn’t help us grow them.”

“He’s the Baron, that’s his right.”

“But why do we have to give them to him? Why don’t other people give their crops to us?”

“The Baron is the son of the previous Baron. He inherited his right to our crops from his father.”

“Did he do anything to deserve it?”

“No, that’s not the way it works. He owns the title to this land. He inherited it, and now he owns it. It’s his right to take a share of the crops we grow on his land.”

Doesn’t seem like a very fair system. Nowadays, we look back at feudalism and wonder, “Why did the lower classes put up with it for so long?”

But at the time there was a new phenomenon emerging called the middle class. These people were not upper class because they worked. They were not supported in leisure by a right to claim a share of what others produced. And yet, they were not lower class because they didn’t have to give a share of what they produced to anyone else. These middle class people were not born into servitude of others who were born into wealth. This is the state that enlightenment philosophers were trying to achieve. They were concerned with freedom and in particular freedom from economic coercion where your only choices are to work for the man or stave.

But the enshrinement of the right to property shows how their thinking was limited by their times. In many nations the lower classes did not have the legal right to own land. Enlightenment philosophers thought that if society would merely remove this legal barrier then everyone would quickly be free. And since most people were farmers, merely owning enough land so that you could grow enough food to feed your family truly did give you economic autonomy. When they said the word property they meant land, and in particular productive cropland that would free you from economic coercion by the nobles. I’m sure John Locke would be aghast that his idea of a right to property is guaranteeing the right of shareholders in a real estate investment trust to collect rent from an inheritable title to someone else’s house.

Now that we have 300 years of hindsight, how well does the right to property hold up in the modern world? First, I would say that the right to own property certainly doesn’t guarantee the freedom from economic coercion that enlightenment philosophers thought it would. Many people today feel trapped in the corporate world. Even if they have more than one job to choose from, they don’t feel there’s any alternative to a job at a corporation. And second, the right to property is being used to defend a system that takes on a lot of the characteristics of feudalism. Those with property use it not just to secure their own freedom, but to extract an unearned share of other people’s production.

The true goal is to increase freedom by eliminating economic coercion. Making absentee property ownership a fundamental right does not achieve that goal. That’s not to say that a property ownership system can’t be a useful tool to achieve economic goals, but it’s just a tool, not a fundamental right.


#1 Joe Locke on 01.20.09 at 7:45 am

I agree that the concept of property rights needs to be re-examined. It could mean that groups of people whose livelihoods are based on agriculture have tribal lands that cannot be taken a way. For others it could mean a guaranteed basic income or other basic necessities- as in second generation or positive rights.

A distinction could be made between private property (personal belongings or the product of one’s own labor) and public or community property (the means of production or items in excess to ones need). Use rights could be an important concept in a more egalitarian version of property rights. Farms should belong to the farmers, the factory to the workers, and houses to those living within them or at least as long as they are using them.

If you put a lot of time and work into your house or farm, you’ve probably already reaped the benefits by the time you decide to sell either of them. However, you should have the right to ask for a fair price that reflects the time and labor you placed into the house, farm, etc.

Land should always belong to the community and if you leave the community, then you give up your use rights. The development of the land is yours. However, you should not be able to continue to own a house, farm, etc. when you are no longer using it- particularly if someone else begins using that land. You can have what you can take with you, but not what you leave behind.

#2 Bob Steinke on 01.20.09 at 2:23 pm

I like your term use rights. It would be a good idea to distinguish between the right to use something and the right to prevent others from using it as two separate things. I think that could lead to a much more mature definition of ownership rights.

Perhaps it could encompass Drew’s equal-opportunity left-libertarianism where you have to leave enough for others for them to have equal opportunity. This could be codified in a way that they have a use right somehow.

But there are some potential pitfalls. You have to worry about perverse incentives. Someone might tear down their house and carry off the copper pipes that they can sell rather than leave it standing and lose it when they move away. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it will have to be well thought through.

#3 Pete on 04.05.09 at 12:20 pm

This assumption of owning land I think is false. If you truly were the property owner, then you would have absolute rights to your property, but you do not. Whatever municipality you live in holds sway over what you can do in the name of “Public good”. City Codes, building codes, call it what you will. And much like the feudal land barons, they tax you to support themselves, and the services they provide, even if you don’t use them.
A “use tax” would be much more appropriate in certain circumstances.

#4 Bob Steinke on 04.05.09 at 9:53 pm


I’m not saying that we actually have absolute property rights in our society today. But the core libertarian position is that we should, and that property rights are on the same plane as freedom of speach. That is, an inalienable pre-existing right, not something created by social contract. I’m just saying that I disagree with that libertarian position.

Use taxes could be a good idea. I really don’t know about the right way to actually implement a fair property system. This post really wasn’t about implementations.

#5 Viva on 12.25.15 at 2:47 pm

to me if you are a young republican\conservative you have no heart. I uslulay just tell him it means I just take responsibility for my actions. I am no longer young and yes my father is a liberal. His failures are recently attributed to the Evil Bush and our destroyed economy. I always find this humorous due to His impressions of near godlike powers of President Bush. Sorry he just called and told me that President Bush is now controlling the gas prices for the upcoming election. He also suggested that global warming has stopped the hurricane season this year. His eyes are blinded and I can not logically speak to him in these matters. I have tried to show him Tim’s diagram on emotions but he gets mad at me.. Funny huh? I am rambling again! Forgot my direction.. Oh yeah it is going to bed..GoodnightForgive my rambling..-D

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