Liberty Matters

Peter Vallentyne’s Response to Jan Narveson 2


Jan says: “The value of strictly natural resources qua natural is zero.” I disagree. 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.

Related to this, Eric says: “That which has market value is [on the left-libertarian view] no longer merely a raw bit of the earth. That which gives any bit of the earth market value – people having views about how it can be made available for use and consumption, how it may be consumed, how it can be utilized for production, how it can be preserved for future use – makes it into a not-that-natural ‘resource.’ Hence, whatever intuition there is on behalf of an equal division of the earth, i.e., of that raw stuff, or on behalf of compensation for those who do not get an equal share of the earth does not carry over to an equal division of ‘natural resources.’”

I fully agree that what gives natural resources market value is what individuals can and want to do with them. Eric thinks that raw stuff is different, but I don’t understand the difference. Natural resources, as I understand them, simply are stuff in the world that does not have any moral standing (e.g., no self-ownership) in its original state prior to modification by agents (so a chair is not a natural resource, but its production ultimately involves the use of natural resources). Natural resources are, it seems to me, just raw stuff. Moreover, even if the two are somehow different, I don’t understand why the issue of market value distinguishes the two. Suppose (counterfactually) that raw stuff is homogeneous and we divide it up to give everyone an identical share of each kind of stuff. Each has private property in her bundle. Given that the bundles are tradable, they each have an equal market value, which depends on what individuals can and want to do with it. So, the market value of rights over raw stuff depends on what individuals can and want to do with them.

Jan says: “The idea that when Jones comes across x in a strictly natural state and ‘takes it into his possession,’ he is thereby, as the unjustifiably fashionable phrase has it, depriving someone else of the liberty of taking it, is entirely mistaken.” I fully agree, but 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.

Jan says that libertarianism is “essentially historical.” I fully agree.

Jan says: “All rights are rights to act, to do or not do as we choose, and the ownership of things is just the right to perform actions involving the things in question.” I fully agree.

Jan says: “Thus ‘left’ libertarianism is not a coherent theory.” I, of course, disagree. I think of libertarianism, even right-libertarianism, as a family of theories that disagree on various points (just as utilitarianism is such a family). For example, different libertarian theories can disagree about how strong the enforcement rights are that protect one’s property. (Does one have a right to kill someone, who due to an innocent mistake, is about to take one’s chocolate bar, when this is the only way of stopping such use? Does one have a right to kill a murderer purely for retributive reasons?). I view the (perhaps empty) proviso on appropriation as a similar issue on which libertarians can disagree. I don’t see that much is gained by reserving the libertarian label only for those who endorse an empty proviso.

This will be my last post. So, future silence should not be interpreted as inability to answer any later posts!