Liberty Matters

Jan Narveson’s Final Comment on Peter Vallentyne


(1) Peter says, "Suppose that we each need water for our apple trees. What is the value of the rights to control a water hole? If an auction were held, each of us would bid some positive amount for those rights. Of course, the water may have no value to us without adding some labor (e.g., transporting it to our plants), but that is factored into our bids. Our bids are based on what we can do with the natural resource when combined with our labor, etc."

This is not relevant. Of course, if there is an auction, then somebody is in a position to distribute these things and has already taken some kind of possession; or a bunch of people have come upon the water hole and have decided to divvy it up; or whatever. So we no longer have value in situ: we have the minimum requirements for exchange and distribution (which itself is a kind of exchange).

If Elmer had stumbled on the water hole before any others came along, he would then be in a position to sell water (= water rights) to second comers. That is to say, their use of it would be an item in an exchange.

Further, the value that a given resource would get at a hypothetical auction is not obviously relevant as a way of ascribing value to natural resources for Peter's purpose. For his idea, as I understand it, is to understand natural resources as such to "belong to" everyone by nature.  I do think that this Henry George idea confuses use value with exchange value. Economics is entirely about the latter, though of course exchange value always arises from the interaction of persons who have previously found a use-value for various things that they come to possess. Perhaps Peter is trading on the same confusion? For insofar as what we are trying to do is to enable all to share in the "value" of natural resources, that value in the use-value sense varies hugely as a function of technology (in the broad sense of, any idea of how to put stuff to use); to divvy that up is clearly to distribute the "labors" (again, in the broad sense of taking or putting anything to use) of persons. Distributing the "things' independently on their technologically-modulated use makes no sense.

(2) And then, "the issue is not about taking into possession (which is a form of use) but about appropriation (acquiring rights to exclude others from using). Appropriation, by definition, deprives others of their former negative liberty to use the unowned natural resources." However, what libertarianism does, just because that's what it is, is to give everyone rights to whatever they possess which was not acquired by molesting or robbing from others.Taking what some person has previously acquired is aggression, and is disallowed.

Now, the crucial question is broached when Peter says, "Appropriation, by definition, deprives others of their former negative liberty to use the unowned natural resources." My point about this is that it is impossible for more than one person to take into his possession any particular object. So to say that one deprives others of a liberty when one gets there first is to say nothing that constitutes a complaint. There has to be some other ground for complaint about A's acquiring x than that in so acquiring it, B "no longer can." As Locke observed, acquisitions by anyone are impossible if they must be compatible with acquisitions of the same thing by someone, let alone everyone, else. A right to attempt to use x is all we can have, as well as all we need. Having it means that no one may interfere with my attempts, but also that the previously successful attempts of others are not to be interfered with either. I don't see how left-libertarianism can fail to be guilty of doing just that.

Libertarians can disagree about lots of things, among which estimates of proper enforcement levels is an excellent example. But I don't see that this matter of supposed rights to natural resources is one such. Rights are duty-entailers: for A to have a right against B is for B to be required to act in certain ways toward A. I can't imagine what else property rights can be based on than first possession. Peter agrees that the liberty principle is, as I put it, essentially historical. So it seems to me that when A acquires something not previously acquired by anyone else, the case that taking it from him without his consent is the sort of aggression that liberty forbids is definitive. And redistributing it "equally" to everyone, since it amounts to redistributing the varying labors of a lot of people, is thus, so far as I can see, just such an aggression.

No doubt Peter will have some interesting further comments, but like him, I shall rest with this for now.

But I'll take the opportunity to thank the Liberty Fund for the opportunity to engage in these discussions!