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Soft Revolution (part 4): rethinking Private Property Rights

“Seize it all and lets move to Communism for good this time!”

Joking aside, how can you justify private property rights? This has been debated for many centuries and depends on the moral or political philosophy that you adopt: from might makes right to egalitarianism or communism. But I want to explore a more interesting definition stemming from the anarchist thinkers of private property rights, and whose values are deeply rooted in our modern societies: private property rights should be based on human labour, which are a fundamental part of the meritocratic ideal or the fact that one has the right to claim the fruits of his or her own work. In order not to mix apples with oranges, I will not address intellectual property rights here, as I believe they are in a category of their own.

Anarchism and anarcho capitalism postulates that by mixing your labour with anything that nature provides is the fair and just mechanism by which a human can claim private property ownership rights. But how strong is that claim and how resistant is it in terms of its inherent logic and scientific/methodological justification?

As a reminder, obviously private property rights are greatly dependent on external validation, from both peers (people around you), or from institutions (to guarantee a certain homogeneity and consistency in the justification and recognition for private property rights). The following reflections only hold true if all people subscribe to the premise that private property ownership stems from mixing one’s labour with goods/resources freely available. To someone believing that might makes right, all of the discussion below is just useless blabla interrupted by a swift punch. At this point, you might think: “why bother reading the rest of the article then? It is obvious that we will never achieve a utopian scenario where all people agree to the same premise and justification for private property!” Not so fast. While it is obvious that we will never come to a final agreement, typically, we are being forced to agree. Imagine a world where anyone would apply his or her own rationale for the acquisition and continuity of private property: it would amount to chaos. Some would seek protection of the State while others would try to simply take property on the might makes right basis, others would claim that their property has been granted to them by God… In reality, what has consistently happened, is that an external actor, in most cases, the State, has forced people to accept a common premise and justification for private property, regardless of what their individual beliefs were. In that light, it makes sense to write this essay since if the “mixing labour” rationale is being imposed by force via some external actor/institution sometime in the future, it would be useful to explore the implications of this rationale in more depth.

Choosing the “labour mixing” rationale is not only a philosophical, moral or political preference, it arguably builds on our genetically determined behaviours. A great deal of anthropological and scientific experiments have been done with animals and (human) toddlers, concluding to the existence of an innate behaviour: the endowment effect. The endowment effect is the preference that one tends to have for an object currently in one’s possession, than the same object when it is not in one’s possession (for instance, holding a toy as opposed to looking at the toy laying on the ground). The endowment effect in turn causes loss aversion which translates into being more sensitive to losses than gains (for instance, putting more effort in resisting the attempt at someone else taking our possession than attempting to take the possession of someone else). This applies as well to territoriality, including in non-human species. One form of ownership is associated with the occupation and alteration of a territory (for instance, nests, webs, dams, hives…) While humans have developed forms of centralized form of institutional enforcement of private property, prior occupancy stays important in humans. Some research has posited that there is an evolutionary characteristic which allows both humans and non-human species to identify, with as little ambiguity as possible, who has prior ownership. In one experiment on butterflies, once a butterfly occupies a spot and another intruder tries to claim it, the intruder usually leaves within seconds. But when the researcher successfully cheated both butterflies in believing they had prior occupancy, they fought for at least 10 times as long over the spot.

But this “basic” form of private property, emerging from “basic” labour or prior occupancy cannot explain why humans ended up “owning” large territories and pieces of land, much larger than whatever physical spot they occupied, or the small shelter they could build.

One explanation for this evolution is the creation of material goods derived from a territory which could be traded and represented some form of value which could be stored or accumulated. The example provided by Harold Demsetz is the anthropological study carried out by Eleanor Leacock of northern native American (Indian) tribes. While the southern Indian tribes did not have a concept of territorial private property and applied a principle of communal property, the northern tribes developed the concept of territoriality due to fur trade. Since fur could be used as a “store of value”, it created an incentive to over-hunt animals for their fur, to get ahead of other hunters and accumulate “wealth”, thereby leading to the depletion of animals on the collectively owned land. To solve this problem, tribes agreed to split the territory amongst themselves and not hunt on each other’s land. Thus, the emergence of fur as a store of value created an incentive to internalize externalities (by splitting up the land, each tribe now had an incentive not to over-hunt to maximize long term returns from the land, instead of engaging in complex negotiations with other tribes to agree not to over-hunt with complex enforcement mechanisms and uncertain outcomes). However, a hungry Indian could still hunt on another’s territory, provided he left the fur. If private property was extended beyond the concept of mixing one’s labour with nature’s land and raw materials solely for internalizing externalities, it would seem excessive to justify complete ownership beyond the internalization of those clearly identified externalities. For instance, in the case of the Indians, while you would not be allowed to hunt on another tribe’s territory, what about cutting down a tree? For the purpose of simplicity, in the following essay, we will focus solely on the “mixing labour” rationale for private property ownership and leave externalities aside for now.

Let’s carry out a thought experiment. 100 people are teleported to a new planet where there is nothing to eat except apples on one apple tree.

Take two individuals: one rushes to the tree, picks the apples and stashes them in a bag, the other one rushes to the tree, picks the apples, then removes the skin, slices them into pieces, removes the apple core and crushes those pieces into an apple sauce.

Clearly, one of them has a higher claim over ownership then the other. The first one is more akin to “first come first served”, which has not too much to do with any form of labour, especially since there was no transformation of the good in question involved. The only labour was in fact, the act of picking the apples from the tree and putting it into a bag, which is pretty basic. By that standard, a person bending over and picking up anything that grows in your garden is now the rightful owner of whatever they have picked up. In experiments carried out on monkeys, a monkey who simply picked up a valuable object or food was indeed more likely to keep it, but in some instances, other monkeys higher up in the hierarchy of the group would forcefully take the object or food after a certain period of time. However, a nest built by a gorilla, regardless of hierarchy, was his to keep.

So we should agree that in all logic, should all 100 people subscribe to the “labour mixing” premise, private property becomes effective only when a certain degree of effort or work in extracting and transforming the initial naturally available good has taken place. Unfortunately, we must also recognize that there is no objective measurement or threshold by which a good can objectively be deemed to become your private property and is dependent on the definition of what most people would consider a sufficient effort or labour in extracting/transforming the good. Simply relying on “prior occupation” gives rise to problems in human society since non-human species carry out minimalistic transformations, and especially, replicate the same transformations overtime (bee hives, bird nests…) whereas humans, through technology, have been able to constantly improve and upscale the productivity of their labour and thus their “power of transformation”, moving much beyond the biological instinct of prior ownership and paving the way for more sophisticated social, political and economic constructs of private ownership (which is incidentally why it is so important to build a more sophisticated theory of ownership, as the one developed by anarcho-capitalism, on human natural instincts in order to maximize the likelihood of it’s acceptance). We should also point out that only an effort which can be directly associated to the extraction/transformation of freely available goods/resources should be taken into account. Obviously, cartwheeling around the apple tree before picking up the apple would not be counted as part of the “labour”. A final remark: capital and the use of technology (using a robot to pick the apples for you) will never be taken into account here for a reason which will be explained towards the end.

Now a further problem arises: take a piece of land where a person plants a tree. The act of planting the tree and taking care of it (making sure it has enough water, protecting it from animals or pests) should constitute, according to anarchists or anarcho-capitalists, a claim to the ownership of the tree and thus, by proxy, the land on which the tree grows. But lets say that later on, we find out that the land right underneath that tree is filled with a unique set of precious minerals which have much more value or utility to others than the apples from your tree. However, since you planted the tree on that specific spot at random, and you did nothing to extract those minerals yet, those minerals cannot be deemed to be yours as you haven’t “mixed your labour” into them. So anyone else, with a shovel and a pickaxe, should theoretically be allowed to mix their labour and claim ownership over those minerals. The problem is that by doing so, they will inevitably destroy the tree which is your private property, and this is not allowed under anarcho-capitalism’s sacred rule over respect of private property rights. What is strange, however, is that the tree is considered yours even though its transformation from a seed into a fully fledged tree is a process which is outside of your control and involves no or very little work on your side that can be directly linked to the tree successfully growing, and may have happened regardless (for instance, an apple rolling to that specific spot and germinating into an apple tree with no human intervention).

But let’s suppose that the tree is still considered your private property. You have a right, therefore, to decide not to exploit the minerals in the ground, regardless of how much more useful than apples they may be, should your personal preference be keeping the apple tree. And so in a way, you have robbed a large part of society from mixing their labour with a valuable resource to uphold a private property claim which is very, very weak to begin with.

Another interesting consideration: imagine that instead of planting a tree you build a theme park on that land. Obviously, no one would contest that you are the rightful owner of the theme park and the land on which it is built given the large amount of labour (time and energy) that went into building it (as opposed to planting a tree) and that the odds of it sprouting spontaneously out of the ground are pretty much null. But let’s say that after a certain time, you move on to other projects and no longer maintain the theme park and it falls into decay. Anyone which enters it without your permission is still deemed to violate your private property. As you die, you pass on the property right to your children and they too take no interest in the park which decays still further. At which point would their legitimate claim to be the rightful owners of the land cease? Would you have to wait until all visible signs of the initial human labour put into building the theme park disappears? That would seem like an excessively long time given the number of years required for elements like plastic to decompose… You could also argue that ownership dies when the human who mixed his labour with the land dies, which would mean that inheritance rights would cease to exist. Such a rule would prove to be difficult if instead of letting the theme park decay the person in question maintained the park in good condition until his death. Who would be the rightful owner? Anyone who would quickly enter the park and mix his labour with parts of it (like removing rust from a roller coaster or replacing a broken door)? Possibly, in order to justify inheritance, the children of the initial owner would have to work to maintain the park while the initial owner is still alive in order to justify their legitimate claim to inherit the property. Finally, in the case where the park is left to decay until a day before the initial owner’s death, and right before his passing his children mix a negligible amount of labour in restoring the park, it is clearly a prejudice to all other humans as that property could have, in a state of nature, provided them with basic food (for instance, if an apple tree happened to grow there). In any case, there are no easy answers to the example provided above, which shows some of the limitations of the principle that private property is based on human labour.

A further critique of the “labour mixing” rationale is the interdependence of all human labour as Peter Kropotkin has argued (the fact that most human labour depends on another human’s labour). Take for example a hospital: the surgeon’s labour depends on the doctor’s diagnosis which depends on a nurse’s tests which can be carried out thanks to the maintenance of the machines by a technician… This theory holds true and could contradict the very foundation of the “labour mixing” rationale, but it is based on two major conditions: a certain state of development and sophistication in human society, and a certain type of natural environment. Take the thought experiment I presented: Kropotkin’s idea would only hold if for some reason, the apple tree was such that to pick all apples would necessarily require all humans to cooperate. For instance, if the trunk was impossible to climb and they had to build a human pyramid to access the apples. However, this is seldom true in nature. For instance, if you would randomly teleport people to random places on a planet identical to earth, in a state of nature, they would be separated from each other and would have to cater to their needs by their own, individual labour (pick their own apple, kill their own prey). So at a very low level of technical and technological sophistication, and where nature allows for it, only very limited parts of human labour falls under Kropotkin’s theory. For instance, thinking about hunter gatherer societies: it holds for killing a mammoth (without cooperation in setting the trap or building the weapons or coordinating the attack, it wouldn’t work) but does not hold for the gathering which could be done individually just as well as collectively, or hunting smaller size prey.

Now let’s try to pick at the principle of private ownership based on “mixing human labour”. Here, I am looking for a logical and scientific way at determining the strength of the claims to private ownership based on labour in order to avoid it being based on pure personal appreciation (how much labour is necessary before a good is considered yours).

Let’s revisit the example of an apple tree which belongs to no one on that planet where there is nothing but that apple tree and 100 individuals, and measure scientifically the claim of private property ownership based on mixing labour with the apple and transforming it into an apple sauce. What is labour? If you had to measure it, you would probably use two main variables: time and energy. That means: how much time and energy did you use to pick the apples from the tree. For the moment, let’s set aside the use of capital (means of production: for example, using a knife to cut the apples). In this example, let’s estimate the labour of a human in creating the apple sauce to being 1 hour and 100 calories (about the equivalent of an hour walk).

Now, in nature, an apple tree takes at least 3 to 4 years to grow before it bears any fruit. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that the apples you have picked are the very first apples that the tree has produced. This means that the time effectively provided by nature (which can be claimed by all humans) to grow those apples is 35.040 hours, with an energetic input that is extremely hard to calculate (4 years worth of soaking in the natural minerals present in the earth and from the rain, capturing the energy of the sun via photosynthesis and transforming carbon-dioxyde into oxygen and vice versa) but is probably millions of times more in orders of magnitude, if it had to be converted into human calories.

The fact that any human is free to mix his or her labour with anything nature has produced means, ipso facto, that all humans have an equal claim to the time and energy nature has invested in producing them before anyone mixes his or her labour with them. But let’s consider this for a moment in detail: in the example above, until no human mixed his labour with the apples, those apples were the property of nature. And if all humans have an equal claim to it then that means that if 100 humans were present around that tree, and would all reach down to pick the apples at the same time, they would basically have to split the apples into 100 parts to reallocate the apples so that each human would have exactly the same amount. The humans would each have a claim over 350,4 hours of nature’s time growing the apples and a couple hundreds of thousand calories that it took to produce the 1/100th part of the apple they can claim ownership to.

Now let’s go back to the example where one human takes all the apples and transforms them into apple sauce using 1 hour of his/her time and burning 100 calories. This changes nothing to the fact that right before he had invested that time and energy, all other humans each had a claim over 350,4 hours of the time nature took to grow the apples and the couple hundreds of thousand calories it took to produce them. So in essence, by mixing 1 hour and 100 calories to the apples, that person only increased his legitimate and scientifically measurable claim to the apples by less than 1/350th, which means that the 99 other people could bend down and legitimately take from his apple sauce nearly the same amount as if they were picking it from the tree, but they would leave 1/350th for the human that carried out the labour.

And there is the scientific and logical justification for private ownership based on mixing labour with nature’s goods which is measurable and does not need an arbitrary threshold which determines when private property begins, building on humans’ natural instincts of “prior occupancy”. As research has shown, the endowment effect and the loss aversion tied to it genetically predisposes humans to resist any attempt at depriving them from all or part of their property. Building a politically defined private property theory which builds on those instincts might help humans to accept the idea that their private property rights may know certain limits, especially since contrary to animals, the permanence of private property makes natural redistribution much less likely.

Anarcho-capitalists might say that the equal claim to freely available goods in nature dies as soon as a human mixes his/her labour with it, which means that up until the point when one human mixes his or her labour, all humans did have a claim to 350,4 hours of time it took to grow the apple, plus the energy, but that claim was annulled by the human labour invested in it. This is problematic for two reasons: the first one being that there is no legal or logical justification for the extinction of an equal claim to a good available freely in nature, the second is due to the application of this principle to another scenario.

Imagine that your group of 100 people have an equal amount of money and collectively purchase a car. Each of you can claim ownership to 1/100th of the car. Now suppose one person tweaks and customizes the engine, repaints the car and changes the seat covers. He has mixed his labour with the car. Does this mean that he now has exclusive ownership of the car? Did his act of mixing his labour annul the claim the 99 others had to the car? I would suppose you would answer by the negative. Yes, the 99 others may need to compensate him/her for the work done, but retain their 1/100th claim to the car’s ownership (which is exactly the logic explicated above for the apple sauce).

You may oppose that the person that decided to tweak the car had no right to do it as he should have asked for the permission of the 99 others before doing anything. In that case, you’re on a slippery slope! According to that logic, anyone seeking to mix their labour with goods freely available in nature would have to consult all other human beings before doing so since they have an equal claim to those goods, just like in the case of the car.

Before moving on, we need to address one further critique of the “labour mixing” rationale: that of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value which holds that only “socially necessary” labour counts as labour. According to this theory, you could mix your labour with the apples all you wanted, if no one found it useful, it is nearly equivalent to destroying the apples. Marx’s analogy was a “mud pie”. You could invest labour into creating a mud pie, but since no one would ever want or need an absurdity such as a mud pie, your labour can be discounted as useless. In essence, in some cases, mixing labour does not make you the rightful owner because your labour makes no sense. Let’s examine this more closely. Say next to the apple tree there are some wooden logs. A person takes one of them and carves an extremely ugly wooden doll out of it that everyone else finds useless and distasteful except the person who mixed his/her labour with the wood to create the doll. Nobody would deny that the person is the rightful owner of the doll on the basis that it is useless… Marx’s argument is rather the reverse: it is addressing the issue of the ownership of something so useful to society that recognizing it’s private property and thus its exclusive control and use to one person causes collective detriment to society as a whole. This is exactly the case of the apple sauce: it is supposedly the sole property of the person who created it, but since it is now the only edible food on the entire planet, it is too important to be left in the hands of that person. Marx’s theory would have the 99 other people “socialize” his property for social/moral reasons. I make the case that you can justify such “sharing” by considering the labour that nature has provided and to which everyone has an equal claim. One final consideration of Marx’s argument: his theory does hold true in the case of destruction of freely available goods/resources provided by nature. So let’s imagine that a person rushes to the tree, picks all the apples, throws them to the ground and stomps on them until there is nothing left but a apple/mud sauce. In this case, Marx’s theory is useful. It should indeed not be permitted to destroy a good/resource which, before the act of destruction, belonged to no one. This principle would deserve an essay of its own, so I will not develop it any further here. It is, however, tied to the point raised above: the internalization of externalities via private property (making sure that owners would directly suffer from the consequences of destroying their property, in this case, starving to death).

Let’s look at another example and whether the same logic applies: oil. In this case, it is hard to defend that it does since, even though nature took even more time to produce it, the effort involved in digging it out of the ground is also many times greater than that of picking an apple from a tree. Thus we must distinguish, among the goods/resources on which humans have equal claim (to be extreme, for instance, all humans have an equal claim to earth’s core), which are the ones that would have been easily accessible in nature.

So to extrapolate and tease your mind, any human being could walk into a supermarket and, if he had access to an accurate calculation of the time and energy invested into any good that is before his eyes, if he could check whether such a good is composed of goods comparatively easy to access in nature and compare it with the time and energy it took nature to produce it, outside of other human intervention/labour, he could then leave with the equivalent of the total product divided by 7 billion (the number of people on the planet since each human being has an equal claim to the time and energy nature invested into producing a good) minus the time/energy proportion invested by the humans involved in its transformation via labour, since the effort of bending down and taking it in a supermarket is exactly the same as taking it directly from nature itself.

This is of course, just a teaser. The way to think about it is rather the following. Imagine that we were all teleported instantly on a planet just like earth along with some rudimentary tools (a knife), but left untouched, with no trace of human presence or activity: 7 billion people would appear randomly based on pure chance in various places around the world. Some would end up in the middle of the desert, others would appear underneath an apple tree or in the midst of a herd of grazing sheep. For the people appearing in the desert, they will probably have to invest a lot of time and energy to claim a good freely available in nature (walk a long distance…). On the other hand, the people appearing right next to an apple tree can effortlessly enjoy these goods. Is it fair? Absolutely not. How can we make it fairer? By building on the idea of collective ownership discussed above: the fact that each human being has a claim to 1 divided by the number of human beings of any freely available good, and by extension, thereby, the time and energy it took nature to produce it. In practice, it would look exactly like splitting the ownership of the planet into 7 billion shares which cannot be traded and are given to humans upon appearance on the planet or at birth. Each human owns 1/7 billion of the planet, and by extension, 1/7 billion of the things that it naturally provides. And since humans appear randomly on the planet (you don’t choose where you are born), it makes no sense to posit that humans should have an unequal access to the uneven distribution of these goods. Think of it this way: imagine that you owned 1 share out of 100 in a factory. In that factory you had 100 machines. Say one of the machines was broken and did not produce any goods for a while, how would the shareholding system work? Do you own 1/100th of every machine and therefore get to benefit from the 99 other machines or are the shares attributed to each machine and if you happened to own the share which grants you property rights over the broken machine, then you get nothing? It is obviously the 1st case. There is no reason why it shouldn’t apply as well to our planet and the goods which are naturally provided. So in order to account for the randomness in the difficulty of accessing certain goods which are unevenly distributed, humans should find a way to achieve the equal right of access to the individual equivalent of the total amount of freely accessible natural goods and resources present on the planet.

The implications of this are clear: it legally, morally, logically and scientifically justifies the set up of a Universal Basic Income, not as a measure of generosity, or a transfer payment from the rich to the poor in the form of a taxation which is labelled as theft by anarcho-capitalists, but as an unalianable right taking the shape of a compensation for the inability to claim your rightful share of nature’s time and energy in producing certain goods/resources otherwise freely and easily available in nature either because of their random distribution on earth or because they are under the exclusive control of a select few numbers of people. This implication is further consolidated by the example of the theme park which falls into decay discussed above. A UBI would compensate people for the lack of clarity on how long private property claims can be maintained over an abandoned land which still carries signs of the initial human labour (especially for immovable property). The benefit of such a right is that it allows for keeping the principles of private property intact (no one would kick you off or your land or your home), but access to a part of the fruits of your labour would be given to all people as a compensation for not being able to benefit from the freely available goods/resources that were part of your property before you mixed your labour to it.

This is also why I mentioned earlier that capital and/or technology are not taken into account in the “claim to property via mixing labour”. The right to UBI stems from the following: should a human being be teleported to the exact same identical planet with no technology available, he/she would have access to a certain amount of resources/goods freely available and provided by nature which he/she would have to pick up using his own two hands. So imagining a futuristic scenario where all the arable land on planet earth is covered with concrete, humans are so numerous that there isn’t an inch of wild nature, all of the necessary food is provided by vertical farms cultivated by robots, all humans would receive UBI which grants them access to basic necessities of life based on the fact that even if none of it had existed, if all of those things disappeared and earth was restored to its original natural state, they would have access to a basic amount of freely available food (goods/resources).

Of course, all of this holds true only if you subscribe to the notion that private property rights originate from labour. As with any “rule” or ethical principle governing human society and labelling what is just and unjust, it requires an agreement on its premise. People could very well collectively decide that what makes private property rights is your ability to defend it, thus reverting to “might makes right”. In such a scenario, you could take anything from anyone, anywhere, so long as you defended with violence your right to take it or keep it. People could also collectively decide that private property rights are a fundamental right enforced by the State/government via its monopoly over defining what is legal or not and enforcing it. In the case of a tyranny, people could coalesce to overthrow the government and use its existing institutions and powers to redistribute property according to the arbitrary decision of a minority (as was the case of Communism under the Soviet Union for instance — note that Marx’s idea of Communism is far from what the Soviet Union implemented). In a democracy, people could coalesce to vote into power an overwhelming majority (over 2/3) which has the power to legislate far enough (amend the constitution) and change the property claims based on the will of the majority (the dictatorship of the majority as Aristotle called it)

I would point out that I do like the principle of private property rights resulting from mixing human labour to things as it entails many advantages over other forms of private property claims. If one subscribes to the analysis I have made above, and the implementation of a UBI as a rightful compensation for the loss of access to nature’s goods, it creates a real disincentive to move to other forms of private property justifications such as the ones listed in the paragraph above, because you could never be sure whether you would be part of the “winning” side or the “losing” side (the ones controlling government or the ones with the strength necessary to defend private property) For instance, one advantage of the “labour mixing” rationale is the following: if you plant wheat on a field, the wheat and by extension, the field, are deemed to be yours, but only so long as you “mix your labour” with it. If the subsequent year you decide not to mix your labour with the field, then it is no longer yours and is freely available for anyone else (as with nature when birds leave their nests). The point of this essay was to show, however, the shortcomings behind this principle when applied to modern human society without closely examining it’s inherent logic beyond biological instincts. For instance, imagine the following scenario: a group of 100 people are teleported to a planet, each with a seed from a specific plant/tree. Upon arrival, each person plants his/her seed and oversees it’s growth. Once the plants/trees bear fruits/vegetables, they can now exchange these between themselves and can be deemed to be owners of those fruits/vegetables. This is according to the theory of private property rights before examining the contradictions above. In reality, each person has a rightful claim to everyone else’s fruit/vegetable based on how much time/energy nature invested in order to transform the seed into the plant/tree and then into a fruit/vegetable minus the time/energy invested by each person in order to plant the seed and oversee its growth, and the time/energy it took to acquire ownership of the seed in the first place. A further problem is that not every plant is equal with respect to the amount of time and energy that was invested by nature in the first place. Some plants yield fruits/vegetables faster than others. This creates a further mess as you may imagine, because if you posit that every human will invest an equal amount of time/energy looking after each plant, then the claim each person has on another person’s fruit/vegetable varies according to the unique difference between how much time/energy nature invested and the person invested. This is why I argued above for the implementation of a UBI as a compensation granting basic access to a small portion of the “fruit of labour” of everyone without any form of nitpicking, as from the example just put forward, untangling exactly how much each person is rightfully entitled to would be a nightmare.

A final interesting consideration: in the scenario above, imagine that another person was suddenly teleported on the planet where the 100 people just got to collect and exchange the fruits/vegetables that they planted. Would that person be entitled to something or not? Would that person have to count on the generosity of the other humans or sell his labour in exchange for a fruit/vegetable first? Many anarcho-capitalists would argue that this is the case, and if no one wants to share or exchange a fruit/vegetable against labour, that human would die of hunger (supposing there is nothing else on the planet besides the 100 plants/trees that are already owned by someone), and… well… “though luck” as the anarcho-capitalists would say. But again, if we start from the presupposition that the planet belonged to no one before the 100 persons arrived, then that new person instantly acquires a proportional share and claim to the planet upon arrival. Thus, upon arrival, that person, again, can claim ownership to 1/101th of each fruit and vegetable, minus the difference between the time/energy invested by nature and the labour provided by the other humans. Which, again, justifies the set up of a UBI which transforms into a workable and simple concept the collective ownership claim over what nature freely provides or has contributed to grow.

In the real world, of course, things are not as simple as such though exercises. Private property rights and their justification have evolved through time and shifting from one justification to another has never been a very smooth process. The move from aristocracy and despotism to a “bourgeois” state during the European Revolutions of the 18th and 19th century was in many cases a bloody process, where the representatives of the embryonic capitalists (the bourgeois) put an end to the arbitrary ownership of land by the aristocracy, backed by the will of Kings of Divine Right. Even the end of slavery, that is, the end of the ownership of other humans (in modern western States that is, there are many indirect slaves in various “corners” of our planet), which no one would oppose today, resulted in bloody conflicts (the US civil war). Who, today, cries about the injustice and prejudice that the aristocracy suffered when they were deprived of their land? Who, today, wonders whether we should have compensated the slave owners for the loss they incurred due to the termination of the ownership of their slaves and by extension, of their productive force? No one. Society chugged along, pushed forward by the reframing of the legitimacy of private property and the world was better for it. This answers the questions that many may ask: but what about the super rich? Wouldn’t they feel angry or upset over their loss of private property due to the redefinition of what constitutes a legitimate claim to private property ownership? Certainly they would!. But who really cares? The slave owners probably felt robbed and cheated, so did the aristocrats, but I would have enjoyed seeing how society today would consider a former slave owner ask for compensation in a tribunal due to the loss of his ownership over a slave… The sheer absurdity of the situation would rather beg the question of why former slavers were not judged under human rights law for violating them retrospectively and jailed for it! Hopefully, the essay I have just written will inform the wider societal debate over who deserves what and how we should redistribute the fruits of labour of each person according to riches that nature would have provided regardless of their intervention. Just like intellectuals wrote against slavery many decades or even centuries before their principals and ideals became widely accepted and were cemented in law. My only wish is that for once, we could achieve a transition without the need for bloodshed and violence, which always carries a risk of revisiting regressive and antiquated justifications for property rights such as “might makes right”.


My deepest thanks to DoomLexus and cervance for their pertinent remarks and comments which helped me flesh out/clarify this essay.

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