Lester proves that liberty (in his sense) entails property via the following argument:

  1. Interpersonal liberty exists to the extent that people do not impose costs on each other.
  2. I make object X without imposing a cost on you.
  3. If I deny you the use of X, I merely deny you a benefit.
  4. If you use X against my wishes, you impose a cost on me.
  5. If liberty exists (how, or whether it ought to, is immaterial), then you do not use X against my wishes.
  6. What you do not use against my wishes I have control over.
  7. What I have control over I own in a de facto sense.
  8. If liberty exists then I own X. (78-9)

This argument is surely valid but seems rather trivial. To see that, let’s phrase the classical libertarian argument for private property in a similar way. If all people are just and do not, contrary to natural law, violate or interfere with my use of X, then I own X “in a de facto sense.” Rothbardian justice then, too, entails property.

But this is completely toothless. The classical argument has the merit of asserting that even if many people are unjust and commit violent crimes, libertarian private property still exists. This can be put counterfactually. Let Smith be a peaceful man who respects Jones’ “control” over X. It is an easy deduction from this that Jones owns X. However, even if Smith were wicked and stole X from Jones, not only would libertarian property rights still exist even then, but we would have to conclude that Smith’s conquest is unjust, that he is a possessor of stolen goods, and in no way a true owner of X. Smith is now by justice to be not only deprived of the spoils of his crime but punished, as well.

When Lester leaves the argument at mere “de facto” ownership, he risks being misinterpreted as defining ownership as “ability to defend one’s claim,” a sort of might makes right principle. What are we to think if Smith overpowers Jones and takes the control over X from him by force (or coercion)? If Jones from then on refuses or is unable to “use X against Smith’s wishes,” then will Smith now own it tout court? But that is clearly false according to not just Rothbardian natural law but anyone’s basic sense of justice. The argument can be salvaged by noticing that (8) is false (liberty exists, but Smith does not own X) because (2) is false: Smith obtained X by imposing a cost on Jones.

The classical arguments then prove that there would be property rights even in a somewhat unjust world; Lester’s argument does not show that there would be such rights in an illiberal world. Maybe it’s just as well for Lester’s intents and purposes.

Again, it seems plausible that an attempt to maximize Lesterian liberty entails respecting libertarian private property. Further, given the premise that liberty ought to exist, we can conclude that private property ought to be respected. Lester’s argument by explicit design omits this premise or its proof (from (5)). Perhaps this is consistent with his aim to demonstrate his compatibility (of liberty with welfare) thesis.

I’ll continue live blogging this book, but perhaps Lester wants to argue that libertarian private property is necessary for both liberty and welfare, thus strengthening his claim.


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