Opinion; The Independentarian

Is the Natural Rights Justification of Private Property a Purely Normative Argument, or Does it Require Empirical Claims? And if it Does, What Are Those Claims?

My latest discussion paper is a draft of Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book, the Prehistory of Private Property (coauthored by Grant McCall, Tulane University and the Center for Human-Environmental Research) The paper addresses the natural-rights-based (“right-libertarian” or more descriptively “propertarian”) justification of private property to show that it is not a purely normative argument. The paper argues that propertarian principles cannot rule out government or collective ownership of territory on a purely normative, a priori basis, and therefore, cannot rule out the government’s right to tax, regulate, or redistribute property titles without relying on empirical historical claims. Therefore, the natural-rights-based justification of extensive ethical limits on those powers has to stand on the empirical claim that such an event, though possible, is historically implausible—a claim or a collection of claims we call “the classically liberal hypothesis.”

This hypothesis could be specified in at least three different ways. First, before governments or any other collective institutions appear, all or most resources are appropriated by individuals acting as individuals to established private property rights. Second, only individuals acting as individuals perform appropriative acts (i.e. neither individuals acting as monarchs nor groups intending to establish collective, public, or government-held property rights perform appropriative acts). Third, even if collectives perform appropriative acts, subsequent transfers of titles (in the absence of rights violations) are likely only to produce privatized property rights.

This chapter sets up the next two. Chapter 3 examines the evidence propertarians have put forward to support the classically liberal hypothesis, showing that this evidence is extremely weak. Chapter 4 investigates the truth-value of the hypothesis. It not only gives a strong argument for the falsity of the hypothesis; it presents strong evidence indicating that quite the opposite is true. Individualistic private property rights—largely or entirely free of collective control—tend only to be established through aggressive rights violations.


Karl Widerquist and Grant S. McCall, “Is the Natural Rights Justification of Private Property a Purely Normative Argument, or Does it Require Empirical Claims? And if it Does, What Are Those Claims?The Prehistory of Private Property, Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming 2019.

NOTE to Basic Income supporters: although this paper and this book are not directly about Basic Income, they address an argument commonly used to oppose Basic Income.

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 981 articles.

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor of political philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. Much of his work involves Universal Basic Income (UBI). He is a co-founder of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for 7 years, and now serves as vice-chair. He was the Editor of the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and of the BIEN NewsFlash for 4 years. He is a cofounder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News, the main source of just-the-facts reporting on UBI worldwide. He is a cofounder and editor of the journal Basic Income Studies, the only academic journal devoted to research on UBI. Widerquist has published several books and many articles on UBI both in academic journals and in the popular media. He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.” Widerquist holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He has published seven books, including Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. Most Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his “Selected Works” website (works.bepress.com/widerquist/). More information about him is available on his BIEN profile and on Wikipedia. He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

One comment

  • I have always been told that the American dream is a home of your own. Over the years I have come to understand that even if you pay that mortgage off, you never own the property. There will always be taxes on it.

    I do think we have hit a point where our welfare system is broke and it’s time to replace it with a basic income. Not universal. Bill Gates doesn’t need a basic income.

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