Property in a Humane Economy
edited by Samuel L. Blumenfeld

An anthology of essays about property written for the Institute for Humane Studies and presented at symposia in 1964, 1966, 1971, and 1973. The two best papers are by Murray Rothbard and James Sadowsky.

F.A. Harper, "Property and Its Primary Form"

It is only who, not whether, that becomes the question about ownership. The popular myth of unspecified ownership in common conceals the fact that even there certain specific persons in power have control—and therefore ownership—of that property. p. 6

For unless we can establish in logic a clear title for the first owner, we are plagued with the charge of chronic theft in every subsequent claim to its ownership into the infinite future, in dealing with all matters of property. p. 11

Leopold Kohr, "Property and Freedom,"
He advocates individual ownership and operation of capital by as many people as possible so they will appreciate freedom and individualism.

Property, then, means that its owner alone has legal command over it. He can give it away. He can throw it away. He can let it rot. He can destroy it. He can bequeath it. He can dispose of it by contract and rent or sell it. He is free to do with it as he sees fit. In other words, within the limits of his property, and only within the limits of his property, he is able to assert his freedom. p. 50

For a person can be free only within the limits of a right that excludes the rights of others. If he cannot exclude all others when it comes to making a decision, he cannot be free. p. 50

In the material universe in which we live, it is obvious that this freedom of action—of speaking as we please, of doing as we please, of abstaining as we please, of changing dispositions as we please—can be exercised only on the ground and with regard to the things we own. p. 51

Whatever our attitude towards happiness, there can be therefore only one answer as far as freedom is concerned. What deprives us of it, what enslaves us, is not property but the absence of it. p. 54

James W. Wiggins, "The Decline of Private Property and the Diminished Person"

"temperocentrism' (Robert Bierstedt's word)—the conviction held by contemporary Chicken Littles that all events are unprecedented p. 72

James A. Sadowsky, "Private Property and Collective Ownership"

When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this: that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. p. 85

We may say that a man's right to property tells us not so much what he may properly do but rather what others may not properly do to him. It is fundamentally a right not to be interfered with.
We may now ask ourselves on what this right rests. It derives, we would say, from the prior right of self-ownership. Each of us owns himself and his activities. This means that we may not initiate violence against others. We say "initiate" because we may certainly employ violence against those who have initiated it against us. In other words, we may repel violence. Now let us suppose that in various manners I deploy my activity upon material nonhuman goods that are previously unowned. By what right does anyone stop me? There are but two possible justifications: either he has the right to direct my activities by using violence (in other words he owns me) or else he owns the material goods in question. But this contradicts the assumptions we have already made: that each human being is self-owned and that the material goods in question are not previously owned. This man is claiming either to own me or the property I think I have acquired. The only factor open to question is whether the other man had peacefully acquired the land before me. But to raise this question is to concede the right of private property which is the thing we are trying to establish. Now, if no one man has the right to do this, it follows that no greater number may do so, for the same question that was asked of A may be asked concerning C, and so of all the others. Surely, if this is true of any of them taken singly, there is no reason to suppose that they could properly do this if they banded together.
There is, then, an unlimited right of acquisition. This applies, however, only to what others have not already acquired. This sounds obvious, but apparently it is not for many. One frequently hears the claim that there should be a redistribution of property on the ground that its present division does not enable everyone to be a land owner and each one has the right to be a property owner. The equivocation should be clear: each has the right to appropriate what no one else has appropriated. The right to appropriate is without content unless he who does so may keep what he has taken. And if one may keep what has been taken, it follows that nobody has the authority to wrest it from him.
The right of self-ownership implies the right to give away property either gratis or in exchange for something else. By what right could one force an individual to retain ownership of his property? Likewise, if an individual may give away his property then by the same token a person may receive it. One is the corollary of the other. All the objection to inherited wealth is an attack on the right of a man to give away his property. Where do we derive the authority to force a man to give his property to the individuals whom we designate? Surely their income is just as much unearned as the one whom the original owner desires to bequeath his goods. p. 86—87

The mere fact that an income is unearned is totally irrelevant ... the true answer to the advocates of such subsidies is that they involve stealing from legitimate owners. ... The unearned income of the rich is justified because it belongs to them; whereas that of the man on government relief is not because it is stolen from its rightful owner. p. 88

... the owner of property performs an entrepreneurial function. He must predict the future valuations that he and others will make and act or not act accordingly. He is "rewarded" primarily not for his work but for his good judgment. p. 89

... the enormous feudal landholdings were left untouched in the name of respect for private property.
As we know, these holdings were mostly the result either of conquest or state land-grants. It is highly dubious that these holdings could have ever attained their size on the free market. Justice would have dictated the division of these lands among those who lived and worked on them. p. 90

For the most part, those who pay lip service to the market show little desire to question the property arrangements in these areas. This is why they have little to say that would interest the poor and downtrodden in these countries. These people have come to associate the free-market system with the approval of the status quo. They will not be greatly helped by the fact that from now on their oppressors will be able to exchange with each other on an unhampered basis. p. 92

Consider first the ownership of the individuals. In so doing we shall suppose a society made up of two individuals, A and B. There are but two possibilities: A owns A, B owns B, or A owns B, or B owns A. There is no third entity that can own them both. But there must be a third if both of them are to be owned; that is, for them to belong in the literal sense to society. If we suppose that A owns B or the opposite, we still do not have societal ownership but individual ownership. Now since the appropriation of nonhuman goods takes place via the activities of people, it follows that what is appropriated by the individuals will belong to the owners of the individuals. Since it is impossible that society owns the individuals, it cannot own what they appropriate.
It is true that the two members of our little society can agree jointly to appropriate land of which they will be co-owners. But in this case the initial decision is entirely voluntary, and each one is an individual owner of that property and may abandon his share of ownership at his own pleasure.
Thus we see that the thesis that society is the original owner of land cannot stand up under analysis. p. 95—96

Murray Rothbard, "Justice and Property Rights"

... what is actually exchanged is the title of ownership p. 101

This theory has two fundamental premises: (a) the absolute property right of each individual in his own person, his own body: this may be called the right of self-ownership; and (b) the absolute right in material property of the person who first finds an unused material resource and then in some way occupies or transforms that resource by the use of his personal energy. This might be called the homestead principle—the case in which someone, in the phrase of John Locke, has "mixed his labour" with an unused resource. p.106

Consider, then, the alternatives—the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. p. 107

The second alternative, which we might call "participatory communalism" or "communism," holds that every man should have the right to own his equal quotal share of everyone else. If there are three billion people in the world, then everyone has the right to own a three-billionth of every other person. In the first place, this ideal itself rests upon an absurdity: proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else and yet is not entitled to own himself. Secondly, we can picture the viability of such a world in which no man is free to take any action whatever without prior approval or indeed command by everyone else in society. It should be clear that in that sort of "communist" world, no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish. p. 107—108

Finally, however, the participatory communist world cannot be put into practice. For it is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else and thereby to exercise his equal quotal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, any attempt to institute universal and equal other-ownership is utopian and impossible, and supervision, and therefore control and ownership of others, would necessarily devolve upon a specialized group of people, who would thereby become a "ruling class." Hence, in practice, any attempt at communist society will automatically become class rule, and we would be back at out rejected first alternative.
We conclude, then, with the premise of absolute universal right of self-ownership as our first principle of justice in property. p. 108

In practice, again, it is obviously impossible for every person in the world to exercise his ownership of his three-billionth portion of every acre of the world's surface; in practice a small oligarchy would do the controlling and owning rather than the world as a whole. p. 111

Moreover, if a producer is not entitled to the fruits of his labor, who is? It is difficult to see why a newborn Pakistani baby should have a moral claim to a quotal share of ownership of a piece of Iowa land that someone has just transformed into a wheatfield—and vice versa of course for an Iowan baby and a Pakistani farm. p. 112

The point is not the right of "inheritance" but the right of bequest, a right which derives from the title to property itself. p. 115

It is clear, then, that even if we can show that the origin of most existing land titles are in coercion and theft, the existing owners are still just and legitimate owners if (a) they themselves did not engage in aggression, and (b) if no identifiable heirs of the original victims can be found. In most cases of current land title this will probably be the case. A fortiori, of course, if we simply don't know whether the original land titles were acquired by coercion, then our homestead principle gives the current property owners the benefit of the doubt and establishes them as just and proper owners as well. Thus, the establishment of our theory of justice in property titles will not usually lead to a wholesale turnover of landed property. p. 118—119

It is ironic that, in these numerous cases, the only response of utilitarian free-market advocates is to defend existing land titles, regardless of their injustice, and to tell the peasants to keep quiet and "respect private property." Since the peasants are convinced that the property is their private title, it is no wonder that they fail to be impressed: but since they find the supposed champions of property rights and free-market capitalism to be their staunch enemies, they generally are forced to turn to the only organized groups that at least rhetorically champion their claims and are willing to carry out the required rectification of property titles—the socialists and communists. In short, from simply a utilitarian consideration of consequences, the utilitarian free-marketeers have done very badly in the undeveloped world, the result of their ignoring the fact that others than themselves, however inconveniently, do have a passion for justice. p. 120

Arthur Kemp, "Legal Institutions and Property Rights"

... under a private property system, the rewards and penalties of ownership are borne more directly by those who control the property than under a public ownership system ... p. 127

...this does not mean that a market system is good, bad, desirable or undesirable. It does mean, however, that if what is sought is a system giving to people what they want, a market system is the most likely to achieve that end. p. 134

Sylvester Petro, "Feudalism, Property, and Praxeology"

Before an economy can operate with any kind of efficiency, Mises demonstrates, it must have some means of evaluating—that is, calculating—production costs; otherwise, production becomes a blind, arbitrary process, in which the resources of the community are certain to be wasted and irrationally developed. But economic calculation is possible only within a society of cooperative exchange—only, that is, within the institutional framework which we refer to as the market. The relevance of this contribution of Mises to our subject lies in the fact that private property is the indispensable feature of the market. In purporting to abolish private property in the means of production, socialism would thus deny itself the possibility of operating an economy rationally, that is, efficiently. p. 163

To adapt Maine's classic formulation, status rather than contract determined the human condition under the Saxons, as well as later. Moreover, this status was largely based on relationship to land. p. 165

... as a general rule only the king could fully own his land. p. 167

The person who actually worked the land was called the tenant in demesne. He stood at the bottom of the scale... p. 167

The difference between the feudal tenures and modern fee-simple-absolute resides mainly, though not exclusively, in how easy it is for land to change hands—in alienability and heritability. p. 168

According to Holdsworth, ... "Whether [the serfs] were personally free or not would probably make little material difference in an age in which there was no free market either in labour or land." p. 174

Substantially the same kind of unresolvable contradiction exists in our own contemporary villenage, known as the progressive income tax. Here too the lord, with his deep (and legal) interest in our incomes, becomes greatly disturbed about our expenditures if we register them as expenses offsetting the income to which he lays claim. p. 176

Men act. Action means deliberate movement from a less satisfactory to a more satisfactory state of affairs. Satisfaction is subjective. If it is to be striven for effectively and broadly, universal personal freedom is the necessary condition. But freedom without broad, coherent property rights is a contradictory concept; the two are not separate and integrating concepts; they are the same idea analyzed with different ratiocinative techniques. I am not a free man unless I am in broad control of my person, unless I have a full property right in myself and, of course, in that which I acquire without infringing upon the equal right of others. When action is hampered by arbitrary controls, when acquisitions are subjected nonconsensually to fragmented proprietary dominions, freedom is diminished and society is characterized by conflict and contradiction.
This was the trouble with feudalism and fully explains its failure to survive. It is the trouble, too, with our own uneasy, unstable neofeudalism or, if you prefer, neomercantilism, and explains why, with its terrible tensions and increasingly bitter conflicts, our present bundle of absurdities—this nonsystem—also will not survive much longer. p. 178

George I. Mavrodes, "Property"
An analysis of Ayn Rand's philosophy of property.

If it is ever to have an owner it must have a first owner. But an item can enter the market only if it is already owned. Consequently, no matter how much we may admire the free market or how important it may in fact be, it logically cannot provide the fundamental mechanism of ownership. Unless there is some other way of acquiring property the market will never have a field for operation. p. 185

... ownership of trees ... of land, of mineral deposits, of water rights ... things of this sort—things whose existence is not the result of human action—commonly bulk very large in the total roster of private property. p. 189

... whenever a person exercises an initial right of this sort then everyone else suffers a corresponding diminution of his rights. p. 195

Edwin G. Dolan, "Environmental Policy and Property Rights"

1. Convert all common property to private status, and 2. take the steps necessary to secure all private property, existing and newly decommunalized, against invasions in any form. p. 212

If it is good to sell licenses to pollute, why not licenses to rape? Suppose it could be determined, accurately, that the mean marginal value of suffering to a rape victim were, say $518. If the license fee were set at exactly %518, would not the resulting pattern of behavior be Pareto optimal? p. 224

James M. Smith, "The Scope of Property Rights"

... I think the act of selling myself is akin to the issuing of utterances like "It is raining, but I don't believe it" or "I am not as smart as I think I am." p. 237

Year Read: 1997

Back to Libertarian Essays by Roy Halliday
Back to Nonfiction Book Notes
Back to Fiction Book Notes
Back to Book Notes by Author

This page was last updated on September 26, 2011.
This site is maintained by Roy Halliday. If you have any comments or suggestions, please send them to