In part one of this five-part series we outlined some preliminary considerations concerning how a libertarian legal system might unfold and develop. We are now in a position to begin exploring the causative events of legal liability in a legal order governed by libertarian prescription.

Prior to considering any specific area of the law such as tort or contract we must explore the ways in which a libertarian legal system will recognise and enforce self-ownership and also the original appropriation of previously ownerless goods. Technically speaking, the latter topic at least could be covered as part of the law of consent. Both self-ownership and titles over goods allow their owner to not only enjoy the productive services flowing from his body and external goods, but equally and oppositely they burden him with the responsibility of ensuring that those goods do not physically interfere with the person and property of anybody else, otherwise he breaches the non-aggression principle. In the same way that it is unjust to physically interfere with someone else’s property, so too is it unjust to hold someone responsible for property that he has not voluntarily assumed to be his. For example, if a car runs over a person, you are responsible only if it is your car and you are driving it or otherwise have responsibility over the person driving it. It would be a travesty of justice if, barring any special circumstance, you were held legally liable for someone else causing an accident in their car. Similarly if I murder someone with my knife then it should be me that is held legally liable for this and not anyone else, again barring any particular circumstance that may cause others to be liable. In short, people should not be burdened with the ownership of goods when they have not voluntarily assumed that burden, either by original appropriation or by contract. Nevertheless we will confine our discussion of the law of consent to bilateral arrangements such as contracts and concentrate here on unilateral incurrence of rights and obligations. Our first task, therefore, is to understand very clearly how a libertarian legal system will recognise bodily ownership on the one hand and the original appropriation of previously ownerless goods on the other. As we mentioned in part one we have justified elsewhere these concepts of self-ownership and homesteading of previously ownerless goods, and we will not attempt to further justify them here. We will only assume their equity to be true as our task here is to explain how a libertarian legal system will come to recognise and enforce them or, at the very least, we will enunciate the issues that such a system will face in so doing.

Legal Persons and Self-Ownership

The fundamental task for any legal system, then, is to recognise which entities are legal persons and which are not – legal persons being those who can enjoy rights on the one hand and can be burdened with obligations on the other. In other words who is it who has the ability to both enforce his rights and also bear the responsibility of adhering to his obligations? In libertarian theory it is those entities that demonstrate rational action that possess self-ownership. Such action is demonstrative of desires and choices that lead to action that utilises means to realise ends without being governed purely by instinct, by reflexive impulses or simply by the inertia of external force such as the wind or gravity. Any libertarian legal system is therefore required to determine which entities demonstrate rational action so that they may enjoy both the benefits and burdens of self-ownership. As we stated in part one, it will never be sufficient for an entity to simply possess choices, desires, ends and so on; rather, these have to be publically evidenced and acknowledgeable. Rocks, for example, might possess rational thoughts and feelings that our current level of scientific understanding is unable to detect but the inability of a rock to demonstrate these thoughts and feelings through objectively viewable action renders it outside the category of legal persons. Every human needs to act now and to know what his rights and obligations are now, and the mere possibility that another entity could be discovered to have rational thoughts in the future is not sufficient. The alternative would be to tip toe around every piece of matter and, effectively, to never act at all and thus condemn oneself and the rest of the human race to death. With the requirement of rational action, therefore, it is critical that there is in fact any action at all as much as it is that the action should be rational.

When interpreting this action in order to recognise self-ownership, the basic rule of thumb for the majority of human beings is likely to be “can the person appeal for an enforcement of his rights?” In other words, conflicts over scarcity and the resulting legal disputes with an appeal to morality and justice only arise precisely because the parties to the conflict are able to demonstrate rational action. When a cheetah kills an antelope the antelope’s relatives do not gather together a high council of antelope judiciary ready to subject the delinquent predator to trial. Nor does a human being demand justice from a dog if it bites him (although he may, of course, sue the dog’s owner). Questions of justice arise only between those who are able to appeal to it, such an appeal itself being a rational action. While a libertarian legal system will, of course, have to face the difficult questions of the rights of foetuses, very young children and the mentally disabled (i.e. entities that we regard as human or at least consisting of human tissue but nevertheless may currently lack the ability to demonstrate rational action), it is not likely to be the recognition of individual humans as legal persons that is the greatest problem to preserving liberty. After all, our current statist legal systems cope with recognising the legal status of healthy adults, children, the mentally disabled, and so on, although the rights of unborn babies are still hotly debated. Indeed, we might even say that in some cases the benefits of legal personage are granted too freely when we consider that legislatures and courts often recognise animals (which may demonstrate some similarity to human behaviour but otherwise demonstrate no capability of rational action) as possessing rights. From the point of view of preserving liberty, it is suggested that the more urgent task for a libertarian legal system is not to define which entities are legal persons but, rather, to preserve the content of the rights that a legal person enjoys. In our statist world today we can quite clearly see that it is mostly the dilution of a person’s rights that leads to the loss of that person’s liberty and not the classification of a person as being “without rights”1. What each person appears to be able to enjoy in contemporary legal systems is not self-ownership and the right to private property; instead, it is a concoction of artificial and invented rights and obligations that are bracketed under the term human rights. Human rights, however, are never termed in such a way as to confer their full, irrevocable benefit upon each individual human; rather they are a buffet-selection of open-ended and often contradictory ends that, in most cases, should properly be categorised as goods rather than rights or freedoms. The so-called “right to life”, for example, could mean anything from your right not to be purposefully killed all the way up to your right to demand positive sustenance to keep you alive, the latter breaching the rights of somebody else. Your “right to free speech” may allow you to speak openly against government but does it permit you to break into someone’s house and force them to endure a lecture, thus invading their “right to privacy”? It is left up to government to determine whose rights in these situations should be upheld and whose should yield, meaning that no one truly enjoys any rights at all except by government gift. This is clearly insufficient in a libertarian legal system. Whoever is endowed with the term legal person is entitled to the full and unbridgeable right to self-ownership and to ownership of the goods of which he is the first owner-occupier or the latter’s voluntary successor in title, not some charter of ends that the court has to take it upon itself to balance. There may be some modification of this position in order to accommodate, for example, children who are not yet able to demonstrate rational action to its fullest extent. But for regular, healthy adults the entirety of their right to self-ownership and their full obligation to preserve the self-ownership of other individuals should be applied without exception. Any laws or norms that breach this principle would be invalid as libertarian laws2.

Original Appropriation of Goods

A libertarian legal system having determined which entities are legal persons, it will then be required to determine how legal ownership of previously ownerless goods will be recognised. There are several criteria that a libertarian legal system is likely to require:

  1. There is a tangible good;
  2. Ownership of the good is claimed by a legal person;
  3. The legal person has put the good to productive use;
  4. The productive use has ring-fenced the good from matter not put to productive use;
  5. The good is ownerless.

The first criterion – that there should be a tangible good – might seem trite, but it is worth emphasising that there needs to be matter that is the subject of a physical conflict. While contracts, as we shall see in part three, can deal with property that is not yet in existence but is proposed to come into the ownership of one of the contracting parties in the future, it is clear that claims of present ownership must be over existing goods. Not only will this requirement exclude unreal or imagined entities or objects, but so too will it not capture thoughts, feelings and ideas. Space precludes us from examining in detail whether libertarian legal systems will recognise so-called “intellectual property” but here we must assume that it will not and that all claim of ownership will be over real, tangible, existing goods. Secondly, it should be self-evident that only a legal person can take legal ownership of goods. Objects and animals, as well as not possessing the right to self-ownership, cannot also possess the right to own goods external to them. A banana, a mere unconscious object that cannot own itself a fortiori cannot be said to have rights of ownership over other such objects. Self-ownership is, therefore, a pre-requisite for owning something else. Thirdly, a legal person must have put the good to productive use. In libertarian theory, the first user-occupier of a good is the one who is able to claim the right to original appropriation of that good and, thus, ownership over it3.

A libertarian legal system will therefore have to determine precisely which actions will satisfy the demonstration of putting a good to a productive use. Is, for example, touching an object enough to satisfy this criteria, endowing the individual who laid his finger upon the good not only the exclusive right to their enjoyment but also the obligation to ensure that it does not interfere with the person or property of anyone else? Or is something more required? The key test is likely to be whether a given action produces anothergood from the original good, in other words it is diverted from delivering one stream of utility to delivering another. This could be something as simple as moving an object from one place to another, gathering logs to use as firewood, removing weeds from soil to plant seeds, and in most cases simple possession may suffice to prove one’s claim to title. The importance of this criterion lies in the fact that a person must be able to demonstrate that he was the first who recognised the good as a scarce and valuable entity and so deliberately laboured in order to ensure that the good provided its highest valued utility. Fourthly, the productive use of the good must extend over the entirety of the physical good claimed and thus serve to clearly ring-fence the good from matter that is not put to productive use. As we said in part one, the purpose of rights and ownership is to avoid or otherwise resolve conflicts arising from scarcity – this cannot be done unless the matter over which a person claims a right is encircled by a clear boundary, a red line over which people know they must not cross. For most self-contained objects, this will not present too much of a problem. One log of wood for instance, in bounded within the physical limits of the good itself – when I move it from the wood to my home in order to use as firewood it is clear that the extent of my productivity is limited to that log and not to an indeterminate quantity of the forest. It becomes more difficult when this is not the case. One example that is used frequently as an objection to the homesteading principle is if several people are swimming or sailing to an ownerless island does the first one to reach it claim the entire island? Or if a person stands on a cliff and urinates into the sea, is he entitled to ownership of the entire ocean? The answer is no, because the extent of the person’s physical presence has not served to ring-fence the entire island or the entire ocean within his sphere of productivity. The person’s valuable ends were achieved without any productive effort being extended beyond his immediate location. If a person wishes to claim ownership over the entire island or the ocean he must be able to demonstrate the extent of his productivity over that entire matter. His ownership will stop at the point where evidence of productive use also stops, and the matter within that sphere of productivity will be ring-fenced. There will be cases where a person may have exerted (at least in his mind) productive effort but there is insufficient evidence to prove that such an effort has ring-fenced property. The most typical type of example will be on boundaries of homesteaded land. If a person has homesteaded an allotment, that part of the garden where crops have been planted and are growing will clearly be part of the ring-fenced allotment. However, at the boundary of the allotment, will say, evidence of a dropped tool a few metres from the nearest crop, or a single footprint made when the gardener stood back to view his work, serve to extend the boundary of the homesteaded land to these locations? Clearly, if the gardener had erected fencing to close in his land then this would itself consist of productive use and this problem would not exist. A related problem is where productive use has apparently extended to only part of a good yet an individual alleges that the whole good is necessary to fulfil his ends. An example is if I draw water daily from a small lake by standing on its edge and then someone else begins to draw water from the other side, can I complain that this latter person is violating my private property? A libertarian court is likely to conclude that the answer is no as if the entirety of the lake was of value to me then I should have extended my productive efforts to ring fence the whole thing. Instead, my only productive acts extended to a small portion of the water available each day thus I did not demonstrate that the remainder of the water was of any value to me. Water rights are, of course, a complicated issue, especially with regards to flowing water but we can acknowledge that in clear cases where it was possible to fully homestead a good and that opportunity was not taken a person cannot later complain that his rights were usurped.

Furthermore, the lack of clear boundaries of productive action would lead to obvious absurdities. Whenever a person puts anything to productive use this matter will be connected to the entire Earth – nay, the entire universe. Was the first person who trod on the virgin soil of the planet able to claim ownership over the entire thing? Fifthly and finally, the good must, of course, be ownerless and no one else must have previously satisfied the criteria we have just elaborated. If another person has done so then this latter person’s title trumps that of the claimant. An important consideration in this regard is that a libertarian legal system will have to determine which actions of a person who owns a good are sufficient to determine the abandonment of and, hence, the loss of ownership over that good. This is important for two reasons – first, to determine if a subsequent person may extend productive use over the good and thus claim ownership over it without contravening the rights of the previous owner; and secondly, to determine if the first owner is liable in the event that the good physically interferes in someone else’s property. If, for example, a person builds a house and, after a period of time, abandons it and falls into disrepair it may subsequently collapse into a neighbouring dwelling. If the original owner of the collapsed property still owns it then the owner of the damaged property may be able to sue him; if not, and the collapsed house is ownerless then the collapse is akin to an act of nature (such as a tree falling or a lightning strike) and the owner of the neighbouring, damaged property will be without remedy against anyone else. As we shall see, the contract is one method of exercising the abandonment of a good by transferring it to another individual.


Having, therefore, outlined how a libertarian legal system will determine who has self-ownership and how the original title to goods will be established, we can now, in the remaining parts of this series, turn our attention to specific causative events of legal liability.

View the video version of this post.

1This is not to suggest, of course, that attempts to categorise individuals as being below the status of full a legal person have not been made. In the former Soviet Union, for example, a declaration that a person was mentally disabled and thus subject to fewer rights (if any) was a convenient method of disposing of political opponents. Nazi racial doctrine regarded certain races as being sub-human although that creed’s inability to think in anything other than collective rather than the individual perhaps makes little difference. Furthermore, the current war against terror seemingly allows governments to categorise so-called “terrorist suspects” as “enemy combatants”, suspects who have been denied the full rights due to that latter category under the Geneva Convention.

2The legal status of collectives acting as a single, legal person – such as incorporated associations and companies – we will not discuss here.

3In addition there are also easement rights but we shall, for the sake of brevity, concentrate on ownership rights.