The homestead principle, short version

Ownership of something is the right to stop others from doing something with it. Therefore if something is initially unowned, and I start using it, then no one has a right to stop me from using it. If I am using something, and someone takes it from me, then he has stopped me from using it, which he has no right to do. But if he has no right to take it from me, then I have a right to prevent him from taking it from me. It is therefore my property. QED This is a short deductive proof that use establishes ownership.

To explain further, the act of using something creates an asymmetry between two people. In the moment before either person was doing something with it, neither person had a right to stop anyone else from doing something with it. When one person started doing something with it, this created an asymmetrical situation which could only logically be resolved one way. Here are the candidate resolutions:

1) After the use begins, neither the user nor the non-user own the item.

2) After the use begins, the user and the non-user both become owners of the item.

3) After the use begins, the non-user becomes the owner.

4) After the use begins, the user becomes the owner.

Both (2) and (3) cannot be the case, because if either were the case then the inability of a non-owner to stop something from being used is rendered meaningless.

Both (1) and (3) cannot be the case, because it was deductively proved above that the user gains ownership. Thus, (3) cannot be the case for two separate reasons.

This leaves only (4). Now, at first glance it is always possible in a situation like this that all the possibilities are ruled out, which would in turn demonstrate that the very concept of property is incoherent. However, I see no disproof of (4). (1) through (3) are disproved, but (4) is not, and since it is the only remaining possibility, it must be true.

This also affords us a richer understanding of property rights. For, if I start using something, then the basis of my ownership is that others do not have the right to stop me from using it and therefore I have the right to stop them from stopping me from using it. But what if they are able to do something with it that does not interfere with my use of it? Then I have no right to stop them. So my property right in the property is limited in scope: I only have the right to stop others from using it in a way which interferes with my use of it.

Admittedly, physical things being what they are, this generally ends up being a comprehensive right to exclude, because it's generally not easy for two people to use the same thing for different ends. If I'm using a shoe as clothing, then the shoe is pretty much off-limits to everyone else.

There is more to be said, but I'll stop here. Some topics:

a) Use isn't limited to immediate, active use. Thus I am always using my car even if I am not driving it at the moment.

b) While use creates a property right, the maintenance of the property right need not rely on continued use.

c) The owner is obligated to mark his property so that others can see that it is owned and not free to take. If he fails, his property right is extinguished.

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Ownership of something is

Ownership of something is the right to stop others from doing something
with it.

Defining terms, ok.

Therefore if something is initially unowned, and I start using
it, then no one has a right to stop me from using it.

Non sequitor, unless you are assuming that use establishes ownership, but that's your conclusion.  If you replace 'using' with 'owning' I have no obejection, but then you haven't proven anything nontrivial or interesting.

No

Non sequitor, unless you are assuming that use establishes ownership, but that's your conclusion.

No, it is not non sequitur. To restate the argument with two people, Bob and Tom, if something is unowned, then in particular Tom does not own it. This means that Tom does not have the right to stop others from using it (application of definition of "own"). So for example if Bob starts using it, then Tom does not have the right to stop Bob from using it (specific case of general statement).

This is a straightforward deduction. It is about as far away from non sequitur as it is possible to get, since the logical steps are small.


then you haven't proven anything nontrivial or interesting.

That's how I tend to think of the homestead principle. It is trivial and uninteresting, a simple application of the very idea of property, and to deny it is absurd. If things start off as unowned, then by definition they can become owned. The only way, then, to deny that things in the world can generally become owned by the first user is to deny that they started out unowned. Which happens to be a fair characterization of many anti-propertarian schemes.

This means that Tom does

This means that Tom does not have the right to stop others from using it (application of definition of "own").

According to you, ownership means you always have the right to prevent others from using something, the opposite of ownership is not that you don't have the right but that you don't always have the right.

I'd love to agree with you since I share your conclusions, but I don't think your argument holds. 

Not what I wrote

According to you, ownership means you always have the right to prevent
others from using something, the opposite of ownership is not that you
don't have the right but that you don't always have the right.

I didn't say "always" in the entry. My definition was: "Ownership of something is the right to stop others from doing something with it."

Maybe you want to dispute my definition.

 

You imply that the right is

You imply that the right is unconditional.

Begging the Question

"No, it is not non sequitur. To restate the argument with two people, Bob and Tom, if something is unowned, then in particular Tom does not own it. This means that Tom does not have the right to stop others from using it (application of definition of "own"). So for example if Bob starts using it, then Tom does not have the right to stop Bob from using it (specific case of general statement). "

But even if Bob has started using it why does he have the right to stop Tom from using it? Unless you assume that Bob already owns it because he is using it. But that was your conclusion. Matt Simpson hits the nail on the head, your reasoning is entirely circular.

No, not that either

But even if Bob has started using it why does he have the right to stop Tom from using it?

Okay, here's the last line of what I wrote so far from the story of Bob and Tom, which you have not objected to (your objection is to the next step after this, which I did not cover yet for Bob and Tom):

So for example if Bob starts using it, then Tom does not have the right
to stop Bob from using it (specific case of general statement).

General principle: if A does not have the right to do something to B, then B has the right to stop A from doing that something.

Application: since Tom does not have the right to stop Bob from using it (a point you did not object to), therefore Bob has the right to stop Tom from stopping Bob from using it. Here is what I wrote in my original statement:

If I am using something, and someone takes it from me, then he has
stopped me from using it, which he has no right to do. But if he has no
right to take it from me, then I have a right to prevent him from
taking it from me.

Applied to the situation of Bob and Tom, if Bob is using it and Tom attempts to take it, then Bob has the right to stop Tom from taking it. More generally, Bob has the right to stop any and all uses by Tom which would interfere with Bob's use. Which leads us to my later point:

I only have the right to stop others from using it in a way which interferes with my use of it.

But that was your conclusion. Matt Simpson hits the nail on the head, your reasoning is entirely circular.

Actually, Matt attempted and failed to refute the previous step of the logical derivation. You are looking at the next step, which Matt did not look at. So even if you were right about the step you looked at, which you are not, that would not vindicate Matt's attempted refutation.

Only a comment or two.

Only a comment or two. After you exposed my sloppy thinking, I detected the implicit general principle you made explicit in your response to erick:

General principle: if A does not have the right to do something to B, then B has the right to stop A from doing that something.

My initial reaction was that this assumes that people have rights in the first place, which isn't at all obvious. It could be that neither A nor B have the relevant right. Well, at least if we ignore our moral sense. As I was thinking about this last night, I worked through the proof again defining 'right' to include the general principle listed above, and it still seemed to work (and thus it proves that we have at least some rights). I'm still sceptical, but I'll refrain from actually criticizing until I have time to look at it again.

It's sound. Quit naysaying. But...

I'm pretty confident that Constant's argument is sound. But I don't think it proves quite what Constant thinks it proves. The problem is that he has proven a hypothetical:

If X is unowned and P starts using X, then P owns X

In order to actually use this principle, we need to be able to apply it in the real world. So let's see how many cases we can find that satisfy the assumptions of this principle, namely, that previously unowned property starts being used by somebody. The problem is, we have no real way to tell whether something is owned or not. To make this clear, let's replaced 'unowned' in the statement of the principle above with its definition. We get:

If no one has the right to stop others from doing something with X and if P starts using X, then P owns X.

Ok, so let's list some (hypothetical) things which no one has the right to stop others from doing something with. The list is empty because, based on Constant's account, we just don't know how to tell whether or not someone has the right to stop others from doing something with anything.

To add further clarity, consider a thought experiment. Bob arrives with Tom on an uninhabited island in the south pacific somewhere. Not only is the island uninhabited, but no one has ever seen it before Bob and Tom, let alone set foot on it. Further assume that Bob picks some coconuts and stores them in a makeshift shelter. Does Bob own the coconuts or the shelter? I.e., would it be theft if Tom took some of the coconuts?

Well, one might look at this situation and argue that clearly nothing on the island was owned before Bob and Tom showed up since they are the first people to even be aware of its existence. And it is also clear that Bob started using the coconuts, so by Constant's version of the homestead principle, Bob owns the coconuts. And his shelter for that matter.

The problem with the above argument is that it equivocates on ownership. The definition of ownership, as Constant defined it, is that no one has a right to prevent the owner from doing something with the owned item. This definition is necessary for the proof to even get off the ground. However, we just don't know whether or not someone owns anything according to this definition, at least not without an account of rights.

So while Constant's proof is completely sound - if you don't believe me, formalize it - it only pushes the problem back one step. Coupled with an adequate account of rights, we would have the homestead principle as traditionally understood by Lockean libertarians. Without an account of rights, however, it simply doesn't have any practical import.

Still proves the Homestead Principle

You write,

The problem is that he has proven a hypothetical:

If X is unowned and P starts using X, then P owns X

[...] The problem is, we have no real way to tell whether something is owned or not.

Maybe so. However, this does not stop me from having proven the Homestead Principle, because the Homestead Principle is this hypothetical. The problem that you point out is a problem for the practical application of the Homestead Principle. It is not a problem for my proof of it.

As Wikipedia defines it, the Homestead Principle is:

The Homestead principle in law is the concept that one can gain ownership of a property that currently has no owner by using that property.

This is the same hypothetical that I proved and that you expressed with P and X above: it requires that the thing in question be unowned ("has no owner"). It does not by itself establish whether the thing is owned - we need to separately establish that the thing in question is unowned. I think this is your point, and it applies to the practical application of the Homestead Principle. I myself pointed out the weakness of the Homestead Principle on this front earlier, when I wrote that The only way, then, to deny that things in the world can generally become owned by the first user is to deny that they started out unowned. Which happens to be a fair characterization of many anti-propertarian schemes. An example of this is the Georgist scheme, which in effect treats all unimproved land as property of the state (so I recall). By the way, I'm mildly surprised that no one attacked the Homestead Principle from what I had always thought was its most vulnerable direction: the question of what exactly constitutes use.

Again?

So we argued past each other... again. I'm not concerned with principles without practical import since the homestead principle (and Lockean libertarianism in general) as traditionally understood, is plenty practical. If you argued that we could tell when stuff was unowned, then I would be worried.

The 'use' problem I think is really only a major problem with continuous entities, such as land. Easily manageable discrete chunks of stuff, like say, pieces of fruit, don't pose the same problem. At least with your derivation, anyway. Others might have more problems if they take the labor mixing metaphor too seriously.

Let me restate

The Homestead Principle which I proved is plenty practical, because people really do accept that things like the deserted island are unowned. What it isn't is philosophically satisfying to someone who wants a philosophical justification of property rights. Instead of saying "practical" I should have said "applicable to the real world for the purpose of philosophically justifying - from scratch - actual assignments of property rights".

You may have mistaken the Homestead Principle with a philosophical grounding of property rights, possibly because it resembles Locke's labor-mixing idea and Locke, being a philosopher, was presumably trying to ground property rights. The practical people who use the Homestead Principle aren't trying to ground property rights, they are taking as a given an existing assignment of property rights and using the Homestead Principle to update it. You, of course, aren't satisfied with this.

Then let me clarify

You're right, I'm only criticizing the homestead principle insofar as it is used as a philosophical justification of property rights. If I ever get to my next post, you'll see that I accept the homestead principle in some form to update property rights.

When I said it wasn't practical, I should have said it wasn't practical all by itself, which is what I meant.

A possible development for the argument

"To explain further, the act of using something creates an asymmetry between two people. In the moment before either person was doing something with it, neither person had a right to stop anyone else from doing something with it."

Seems to me this passage is weak (and from the comments, there's at least one other person who thinks likewise). I don't think you should introduce "right" straight away. To reinforce this, maybe you should dig deeper into the implications of the (observable) fact that someone may decide to use something or may decide not to.

This fact - that different persons do different things using different stuff from their environment even when placed in the same conditions - tells us that actions are selected on an individual basis. It demonstrates that people determine good and bad actions for themselves.

By taking and using some initially unused thing, someone makes an objective statement of intent (conscious or not - there is no need to ponder such questions as what might have crossed the mind of this person), and demonstrates that whatever this is used for, it is determined as "good" (yet again, regardless of metaphysical considerations) by the person enterprising this action.

Because a given tangible object cannot be used simultaneously by different people due to the way the Universe works, there can only be one good purpose for an object once it is put to use: any further attempt by another person at putting this thing to a different use necessarily disrupts whatever "good" it was previously used for, therefore it is necessarily "bad" (which is the countrary of "good"). Thus the concept of "property" arises from initial use of non-previously-used things: property is the "good possession", distinct from "bad possession" (which covers things like theft and vandalism, but also murder if you consider one's body to be his property).

I like it but it's different

I like where you're going with it but there's a point about the logic of property that I wanted to make, and what you're doing goes in a different direction. If you find my argument weak I think it's probably because what I'm proving isn't as satisfactory as you hoped it would be. I proved the Homestead Principle as I found it stated. I think what Matt was looking for and what you were looking for was really solid ground for property rights.

You say I shouldn't start with rights. Well, you would be right about that if we were judging this as an attempt to provide solid ground for property rights. Observe the difference between the Homestead Principle and what you want to prove:

Homestead Principle: If something is unowned, then first use establishes ownership. (one can gain ownership of a property that currently has no owner by using that property)

What you are trying to prove: first use establishes ownership. (Thus the concept of "property" arises from initial use of non-previously-used things)

I think it should be easy to see why the Homestead Principle does not, while your statement does, provide solid ground for property rights. The Homestead Principle starts and ends with rights, whereas your statement starts with use and ends with rights, thus providing rights with grounding outside of rights.

Ah, you're right. The

Ah, you're right. The reasoning I posted is an excerpt from a demonstration of natural right from objective reality, so it establishes Right instead of simply proving homesteading. But from Matt's comments it seemed he was asking for such a demonstration. I hope this can satisfy his remaining objections.