A Comprehensive Guide to Property Rights


To tackle the topic of property rights, we must get down into the most basic form of ownership, the ownership of one’s self and one’s body. This is what libertarian theorists define as the concept of self-ownership.

You own your body and maintain exclusive usage of it. This concept is where we arrive that actions such as assault, rape, murder, and kidnapping are aggressive and immoral. They “steal away” the owner usage of their property. From the concept of self-ownership Murray Rothbard (and others before him) derived his concept of the Non-Aggression Principle (This is what all those libertarian gurus are referring to when they use the abbreviation. “NAP”) Which simply states, “no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. This is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory”

Furthermore, we must establish that the individual is the owner of themselves, to own external property. Murray Rothbard insisted that all “human rights” are property rights. ownership rights in scarce resources, whether self-ownership rights in one’s body or property rights in external objects. It would be ludicrous to state that someone could own a piece of land, and maintain exclusive usage of it, but don’t maintain the same exclusive usage over their own body.

Murray Rothbard - 99 Problems

So, you may ask, “how does one acquire external objects as property?”. According to The Libertarian Ethic, only two legitimate methods are used to acquire property.

  1. Original appropriation (Homesteading)
  2. Voluntary exchange (one person sells his/her property to another)

Both of these methods stand in sound with the NAP, as they do not violate any one’s exclusive usage to their property. You either found something that nobody yet owns “I claim this island for myself!” (original appropriation). Or, someone sold, traded, or gave you their property of their own free will, “I bought all these apples at the store for only a dollar!” (voluntary exchange).

Libertarianism is indeed unique to all other political philosophies, as it asserts firmly In the Libertarian Ethic that individuals, not the state or collective, are owners of their own bodies and by extension, property.

Private property, property rights, and the state

James Madison asserted in 1792:

“Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” The state imposing arbitrary seizures, excessive taxation, restrictions, and the support of monopolies over an individual’s private property is unjust and not befitting praise or toleration by the people of the united states.

If the state is to be at all concerned with the acquisition or maintenance of private property then it should only be to secure that such private property is not subjected to injustices by the state itself. As he later states in his address at the Virginia convention: “the rights of persons and the rights of property are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted.”

Madison was greatly opposed to the protectionist and collectivist tendencies of the governments of Europe. Governments that one can draw stark comparisons to the modern. We are all too familiar with the prevalence of government bailouts for large corporations “too big to fail”, the acquisition of land under the guise of “eminent domain”, and the swath of regulations imposed on land purchase and the usage of one’s own land. I would surmise that Americans are living under a government, that Madison and others explicitly warned us to avoid. With each gesture by the state to restrict the institution of private property, it steals away the personal liberty of the individual and exercises this liberty wherever, whatever way it may please, for good or for ill. According to Madison and the anti-federalist founding fathers, this is the very antithesis of just governance.

James Madison

Madison was an truly eloquent and ahead-of-his-time libertarian deriving his philosophy on property from the concept of self-ownership, and the state would do well to heed his words more often.

Private property’s effect on society

Private property is the means to achieve one’s true self. The extension of self-ownership to property ownership allows for human beings to take their visions into reality. From fine arts and music to the farmlands, to the roaring factories, the opportunity for individuals to freely be creative with their property has proven to be invaluable to the sustainment of any successful society. Furthermore, if forms of regulation and taxation are placed by the state on the individual for his property, it amounts to nothing more than a hindrance to the production of products, ideas, research, and employment. All that would prove beneficial to society. For every dollar that is taxed from the individual for his property, is a dollar stolen from what he would create with it and the society he could benefit.

For someone to suggest that society and economy are separate entities unto themselves, lacks an understanding of property rights. The economy isn’t something that must be meddled with and controlled, the economy is US. People create the means for a society to exist through the creative utilization of their private property, and transactions of voluntary exchange. Without this, society becomes arbitrary, shifting at the whims of whom? Popular individuals and appointed powers? I say no. The power to influence society and indeed change the world lies in every piece of property. The individual only needs to decide how to use it.

You can read more by Chris Oglesby on Think Liberty here.


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