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.