Recently I shared with David Gordon my thought that libertarianism can be distilled to a two-word summary: “first possession” (or “finders keepers”). All competing theories believe in property rights; socialists, for example, believe the state should own the means of production. The difference between them and us is that we believe the only valid means of acquiring title to property is to appropriate it from the state of nature by being the first user or possessor, or by acquiring it ultimately from such a first possessor.
David pointed out that this principle covers homesteadable, alienable property, but does not cover rights in our bodies. As he said, “If you confine yourself to finders keepers, doesn’t this leave me free to kill you, so long as I don’t take your property?” Well, if we say that “first possession” or homesteading is how we acquire rights in our bodies too, I supppose “first possession” covers body-rights too. One is the first user of one’s body, after all, as emphasized by Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (pp. 8-14). But do we homestead our bodies in the same way we homestead external, unowned scarce resources? It’s not as if, if I choose not to homestead my body, it remains unowned–as is the case for unowned scarce resources.
But David got me thinking about this, and I think I found another short phrase that also captures the essence of libertarianism, in a somewhat different way. The essence of libertarianism?: “BETTER TITLE” (see, e.g., La. Civ. Code, arts. 531, 532).
This is an expression used in law when two people dispute title to a piece of land. Neither party has to prove “absolute” ownership of the land, “good against the world”; only better title than the other. The “better title” favors the “first possession” rule for homesteadable property. As for rights in one’s body, the person whose body it is has a better claim to control the body than others, because of the natural connection between a person and his body (and, yes, because one is the first user of one’s body, as opposed to the latecomer). Further, if an aggressor does not acknowledge the victim’s special claim to have primary control over “his own” body, then the aggressor has no cause to complain if aggression is used against his body. After all, the aggressor has no special claims to control his body, if the connection between him and his body is not sufficient to support such a claim. Therefore, any aggressor who makes such a claim has to admit the legitimacy of force against him in response to his aggression. This is all the victim needs to prove in order to establish that he has a right against aggression towards his own body. And this shows a person has “better title” to his own body than do others. (For more info on this type of reasoning about rights, see New Rationalist Directions in Libertarian Rights Theory.) [Update: Gordon jokingly suggested a different two-word summary for the essence of libertarian rights: “F*ck you!”]
I originally posted this back in July 2002 but have updated it with additional info:
- my SoloHQ post on The Problem of Initial Acquisition
- my article A Libertarian Theory of Contract, text at note 2, and note 2; and text at note 35.
- Defending Argumentation Ethics: Reply to Murphy & Callahan.
Later I will add some of my thoughts on difficulties of homesteading one’s own body (body, baby ownership issues, etc.). [update: see: Objectivists on Positive Parental Obligations and Abortion; How We Come To Own Ourselves]