I have written before about the chapter in Hans Hoppe’s book The Economics and Ethics of Private Property which lays down an argument for the private property ethic (link to chapter), and now I would like to revise my position on his argument. His justification for private property ethics is essentially this:

  1. if physically arguing a a certain logical proposal demonstrates non-belief in the proposal, the proposal is self-contradicting and should be rejected
  2. all argumentation involves the use of resources, mainly one’s body and resources immediately surrounding one’s body like air, etc.
  3. legitimate use of resources implies property rights over those resources
  4. so, no one can argue for any other ethical system except for private property and the ability to acquire private property through homesteading

This line of reasoning is quite seductive for a libertarian, and I was initially very receptive to it, but I now think Hoppe overgeneralizes, and his argument proves much less than he claims. His mistake is that legitimate use of resources does not imply property rights over those resources. Even if private property ethics are presupposed, legitimate use of resources does not imply property rights in all cases; for example, legitimate use of a non-scarce resource, such as air, does not imply ownership over it. More importantly, property rights are defined by the right to and exclude others from using the property. Hoppe’s argument addresses the right to use resources, but not the right to exclude others from using them. It is still possible to consistently argue that nobody has the right to exclude people from using resources. He has not demonstrated even exclusive use over one’s own body. Hoppe’s argument demonstrates an ethical right to use one’s own body and at least a limited right to use resources around one’s body, because no one can argue that people do not have an ethical right to use their body or resources around their body at least to a limited extent in a logically consistent way.

His argument does not deny that there are other rights, but it does positively assert these rights of limited use of resources, so it has created a starting point for rights, but not an ending point for them. It is possible that someone else will find a way to prove more than these limited rights, but it is also possible that nothing more can be said, and that all other ‘rights’ are social rules, adopted for their usefulness. I do suspect there is a way to demonstrate exclusive use over at least one’s own body.

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