Libertarianism and the Origins of Property: A Response to Bruenig

JW Rich
4 min readOct 13, 2021

In his article at The Jacobin, Matt Bruenig states that Libertarianism suffers from a fatal flaw. Libertarianism is a philosophy about property rights, but Bruenig claims that Libertarianism can’t give a justifiable answer as to how property rights emerge in the first place! If Bruenig is correct in his analysis, this would provide quite the problem for Libertarians of all stripes, as constructing a system of rules for respecting property rights is ultimately vacuous if we can’t give a satisfactory answer for the very existence of property.

Bruenig writes,

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.”

Bruenig then goes on to discuss quotes from the works of Robert Nozick, Matt Zwolinski, and Bryan Caplan attempting to solve this problem, finding them all unsatisfactory. While there are some Libertarians that may struggle to answer this question, there are others that have clear answers to this problem, which will be discussed below.

I believe that the point of fault with Bruenig’s argument is reducible to semantics. The way in which Bruenig is using the word “liberty” is in the sense of “doing whatever I want to do”. This is why he argues that property inherently reduces liberty, as you declaring that something is available exclusively for your usage necessarily reduces my liberty by not allowing me to use it. Given this definition of liberty, Bruenig is correct. However, his argument proves far too much. Under this definition, the very existence of other people at all will restrict my liberty. If we grant that there are resources and goods that exist that are rivalrous, meaning that one person’s usage of them affects or prevents another from enjoying them, the existence of others will prevent me from being able to do as I please within my environment. Their usage of these goods at all, even if it is just land for standing on, necessarily prevents me from using them, and as a consequence, reduces my freedom. The existence of other cars on the road, for instance, prevents me from driving as fast as I want. It is not just property, but other people’s mere presence, that restricts the carrying out of my own free will.

In situations where individuals exist in proximity to each other and rivalrous goods, they will inevitably find themselves in disputes and conflicts over them. If Person A and Person B both desire to eat a coconut they have found on the ground, but there is only one coconut, we seem to have a problem on our hands. Who gets to eat the coconut? It has to be one or the other, and we have to decide. Given these situations where we must make decisions on allocations of goods, it would certainly behoove us if we had a system that can rationally allocate goods to individuals based on preexisting rules of ownership. This system is traditionally known as property rights.

Thus, Libertarians in the natural rights tradition of Murray Rothbard and Hans Hermann-Hoppe do not utilize the definition of liberty assumed by Bruenig as the focal point of their philosophical thought. The Rothbardian definition is that liberty means “the freedom to do whatever one wishes with one’s own property, given that this usage does not interfere with another.” The broad definition used by Bruenig proves so wide-reaching as to be almost meaningless. Not only is it that other people restrict your liberty, but one could say that nature itself is constantly restricting your liberty as well! The fact that one cannot flap your arms and fly in accordance with your will to fly is a result of nature oppressing you and your desire to fly! Acceptance of this definition must entail that one believes that the state of man is one where he is in constant repression of his liberty from all angles, a position which I believe to be untenable and functionally useless.

The definition of liberty used by Natural Rights Libertarians recognizes that property rights are the cornerstone of interpersonal relations in human society. Given that interpersonal conflicts over resources can and will occur, we need some way of resolving these conflicts to allow for ownership and usage of these goods to become clear, rational, and constant. Without that, all goods would suffer from the tragedy of the commons. As a result of this necessity, the principle of liberty is built upon property rights, not as preceding it.

As the Libertarian theorist, Hans-Hermann Hoppe states:

“Next to the concept of action, property is the most basic category in the social sciences. As a matter of fact, all other concepts to be introduced in this chapter — aggression, contract, capitalism and socialism — are definable in terms of property: aggression being aggression against property, contract being a nonaggressive relationship between property owners, socialism being an institutionalized policy of aggression against property, and capitalism being an institutionalized policy of the recognition of property and contractualism.” (A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, pg. 18)

When we define the “liberty” in Libertarianism through the lens of property rights, then we are more than able to meet Bruenig’s challenge. It is no violation of liberty at all for someone to claim ownership of property, as no one else previously had a legitimate claim to the property in the first place! If they had, then they would have been the first owners, and I would have been an illegal usurper. There is no violation of liberty or freedom of individuals through the creation of property rights, as it is the existence of property rights that allows for a coherent conception of liberty in the first place. While I believe Bruenig is incorrect in his assertion that Libertarianism cannot provide answers to the origin of property, his challenges are appreciated, as they are revealing to which Libertarians truly posses a strong philosophical foundation, and which are found to be clearly lacking in this all-important area of their thought.