Thursday Lecture Series: Materiality

Property without Appropriation

Friday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

“Left libertarians” have argued that one can coherently defend both a theory of self-ownership and an egalitarian distribution of global natural resources—and that “right libertarians” are mistaken to suppose that one can reason plausibly from a self-ownership commitment to a defense of what Locke called “a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth.”  Their argument rests on the claim that, pace right libertarians, there is no individual right to (truly) appropriate natural resources in the state of nature. Nelson argued that the truth of this claim is irrelevant to a proper libertarian analysis of the rights of contemporary owners of natural resources. Even if all natural resources were at some point illicitly expropriated from the “common stock of mankind,” no acceptable principle of rectification would countenance the widespread redistribution of those resources (or of their value) as a present-day remedy. Nelson sustained this conclusion by describing the claims of those who purchase initially expropriated objects in good faith. While addressed in the first instance to an internal debate among libertarians, the considerations adduced here about the moral significance of good-faith rule-following are shown to be of similar importance for non-libertarian liberals. These liberals too have good reason to respect existing holdings under most circumstances.