People, Not Public Property

I and a number of other No-Treasonites have been going back and forth with Stephan Kinsella over the past few months debating whether the paleolibertarian argument against immigration makes any sense from a libertarian perspective. We argue that it does not. My recent rejoinder is worth noting, if I do so humbly say so myself.

[Pro-immigrant libertarians] assume it is initiating force to forcefully prevent a foreigner from entering public property. But this assumes the foreigner has a right to enter the public property. Clearly there is no libertarian way to argue the entire world owns the public property.

This precisely the same argument made by Walter Block: That public property is morally equivalent to unclaimed property, and that it can be homesteaded or used in the same way that unclaimed property can be homesteaded or used. One of the other students at Mises University this past summer, Daniel D'Amico, a former student of Block's and now an econ grad student at GMU, uses this same argument to justify the legitimacy of graffiti when performed on public property.

While I'm not entirely convinced that public property is equivalent to unowned property, this makes much more sense than to say that "public property belongs to current tax payers, and therefore its use must be determined by democratic fiat," especially when this argument is coming from a person who hates the mechanism of majoritarian democracy as much as Hoppe does. One can legitimately make the claim that public property belongs to some taxpayers (and not necessarily the current ones), but all this means is that the government owes restitution to those it has stolen from. All U.S. citizens are not taxpayers, all taxpayers are not owed the same amount of money, and nothing follows from any of this that would lead to the conclusions Hoppe and other anti-immigrants want to reach.

The only way this is true is if the foreigner has some right himself to it, i.e., he is a part-owner of the public property; or if an owner of the property has the right to invite the foreigner.

None of these things need to be the case in order for a foreigner to have as much of a right to public property and any of us do. Inasmuch as the government homesteaded the property hundreds of years ago, the land remains unowned from a libertarian perspective. Inasmuch as the land remains owned by the taxpayers (and it is not at all clear it does) there is no way to rectify this wrong other than selling off the land and repaying the original owners in proportion to the damage done to them (unless, of course, any individual property owner can provide evidence that a particular piece of property was taken from him). And even if we grant that some taxpayers have some claim to how the land should be used, we have no mechanism to voice these preferences, because - as any libertarian should already know, majoritarian democracy is not a legitimate mechanism of voicing individual preferences. The fact that this has to be repeated again and again to self-proclaimed libertarians is absurd on its face.

Further still, if we assume that foreigners don't have a right to enter the U.S. because public property belongs to taxpayers, why do we assume that net-tax recipients have such a right? (And, it should be noted, most users of public property are net-tax recipients.) Why do we assume that net-tax recipients have a right to reproduce, thus bringing into the U.S. territory a new person just as much as if they invited their foreign-born cousin? To my knowledge, anti-immigrant libertarians have not adequately addressed any of these problems.

Clearly there is no libertarian way to argue the entire world owns the public property.

Sure there is a libertarian way to argue the entire world owns the public property, and in a sense, Hoppe makes this same argument himself when developing his Argumentation Ethics. If public property has no legitimate owner, than it is morally equivalent to unowned property. Unowned property is, in a sense, owned by the entire world, since any one has a right to claim it. Now, we can quibble over whether public property has a legitimate owner (though certainly no clear and undisputed owner), but Hoppe himself must concede that the right to homestead is a right shared by everyone in the entire world.

The state has at most an obligation, if it does not return or privatize it, to use it in a way that a reasonable owner of a collectively-owned asset would, so as to minimize the harm to owners and maximize their restitution.

Where does this argument come from? How is this in any way restitution? Suppose you are a very religious person and own a big screen television. I decide to steal it from you and show the most outrageous portrayals of misogynistic pornography and devil worship because I am a libertine heathen and hate all that is good and decent.

Do I have some obligation to only display images that you approve of on this stolen television? Of course not! I have an obligation to give you back your stolen television, and nothing else. Yes, it may be a bigger insult to me to use your property in the worst way possible in my eyes. But libertarianism doesn't require you to use it one way or another. It requires you to give it back. Period.

A reasonable owner of the public property of a country would be more likely to act like a monarch would than a libertine egalitarain politically correct modern modal libertarian. He would have some quality and other requirements on entry.

How the hell are we supposed to know how a "reasonable owner" would use his property? This statement is question begging, by assuming that only socially conservative, anti-egalitarian, politically incorrect paleolibertarians are reasonable. Says who? Just because paleolibertarians would use their property a certain way doesn't mean everyone else would. Were I such a "monarch", I would open my borders to everyone in the world, except for paleolibertarians (kidding!).

It's quite strange that these folks want to be monarchists one minute and majoritarian democrats the next. Why don't they try, um, being libertarians?

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Re: graffiti on public

Re: graffiti on public property, great minds think alike. I remember a family argument (of which there were many) where my non-libertarian cousin was saying that graffiti was moral, and my dad said it was a violation of property rights, and I suggested that it was moral only if done to public property :beatnik: I don't remember them liking the idea much - young people tend to favor "direct action" a lot more than old ones.

Haha, your dad is such a

Haha, your dad is such a conservative.

Reminds me of that German article about the three generations of Friedmans and their ever declining fuddy-duddiness. If the trend continues, your children are going to be positively nuts.

And good lord - being a non-libertarian at your family gathering must be like being an athiest at the Pope's. :razz:

Micha, I think the link in

Micha, I think the link in your comment is pointing to the wrong place

[Editor's note: thanks, it's been corrected]

+10 points for the turtles

+10 points for the turtles reference.

Micha, Another point is that


Another point is that to enforce immigration restrictions, the government needs to continue to siphon off taxes. So the government needs to steal from taxpayers to pay "restitution" for stealing from taxpayers...

It's turtles all the way down, baby!

Block and Hoppe represent

Block and Hoppe represent two differing interpretations of Rothbardian property theory. Rothbard himself moved from one (the Blockian) to the other (the Hoppeian). The problem is that both the Blockian and the Hoppeian interpretations of Rothbardian theory lead to unacceptable policy conclusions and this has caused endless confusion in anarcho-libertarian theoretical circles ever since.

Rothbard lacked a robust theory of libertarain liberty but this lacuna has been filled in Jan Lester's 'Escape From Leviathan' where Lester explains how the 'absence of imposed cost' best captures what libertarians mean by liberty and how application of this principle solves these theoretical conundrums especially with respect to property.

Lester wrote his book as a direct response to what he percieved as the inadequacies of Rothbardian theory and it is a great pity that, relative to the work of Block and Hoppe, it has not been widely studied. Serious libertarian theorists must read and study Lester, it is a very philosophically dense book but will repay careful attention by those who do not wish simply to perpetuate the errors of Rothbard.

I can't see that it can ever

I can't see that it can ever be right to allow people to deliberely damage things, unless it is their own private things they are damaging. I dimly recall from law school that even joint owners cannot damage stuff they jointly own without the permission of the other joint owner.

Obviously I am excluding stuff like State weapons of terror from this analysis


Paul, Thanks for the


Thanks for the recommendation. I'll keep an eye out for Lester's book.


Could it be right to deliberately damage unowned property? What about property owned by criminals who are immune to other forms of punishment?

Ownership can be divided

Ownership can be divided into right to use and right to exclude. If you consider "public" property to be jointly owned by every citizen, then everyone would have an equal right to full use of the property and an equal right to exclude use by non-owners. This is problematic enough when you only have two owners and gets really silly if your talking about millions of owners. Such joint ownership usually causes sticky problems and courts often resort to rather contrived solutions to get a fair result. Ownership by no-one is much clearer: everyone can use but noone can exclude. Exclusive ownership is then clearly established by the first person to possess the property.

Neither of these explainations accurately reflect "public" property as government property. The government as an entity has exclusive ownership of "public" land and if it chooses to grant any rights or allow use it does so by its own whim. The fact that the government also allows some of us to vote on some of its members every once in a while does change that fact. The moral validaty of such ownership is left as an exercise for the reader.

There is also an issue of relative validaty of ownership. When it comes to the government taking your tax dollars or a theif taking your stereo, your moral right to the things you own are greater than those of the taker. But a third-parties right isnt greater then the wrongful possessor. Regardless of whether the government aquired the "public" land by worngful means (conquest, eminant domain, etc) you or any one else still can't arbitrarily lay claim to it if you were never dispossesed of it in the first place.

Good observations, nelziq.

Good observations, nelziq. Regarding your last point, Block's argument (summarized in the graffiti article above) is that in the case of government owned public property, where the ownership is known to be illegitimate but where it is not clear who the rightful owner is, third-parties have a greater right to use the property than the current illegimate owner. I'm not sure I buy that claim, but it is interesting, and more plausible than the Hoppe/Kinsella belief that the property should be treated both as if it was owned by a monarch, and that the monarch would act according to the will of the popular majority.