Saturday, March 9, 2013

Does Property Impose Restrictions on Others?

Brian Drake has posted his concerns with IP, and they center around the issue of whether one person’s rightful property imposes limits or restrictions on another person’s use of rightful property. I label this argument “IP is not libertarian”, and have addressed it in “The Alleged Case Against Intellectual Property”.

Of course property imposes restrictions on others. This flows naturally from the definition of property. Ownership of property means three essential things:

    1.    The right to use
    2.    The right to transfer ownership to someone else
    3.    The right to exclude others

My right to exclude others from using my property imposes a restriction on Brian. Brian is free to walk around where he likes, but he may not walk into my house without my permission, even though he is using his own physical body.

In a similar vein, Brian may not shoot me, even though the gun and bullets are his. Of course, Brian’s property rights impose the same sort of restrictions on me, and everybody else.

While Brian and I agree about these results (trespass and murder are disallowed), he does not accept the characterization that property imposes limits or restrictions on others.  Indeed, he feels that recognizing limit and restrictions is “sophistry”, and a disingenuous means of confiscating the rightful property of others. Brian writes:

Property does NOT place limits on the property of others. Property simply is a description of the limit of what you can control. Let's take your example of my owning my body putting a limit on your gun and bullet. Nonsense. You can do WHATEVER you want with your property, which includes your gun and your bullet. Repeat, you can do WHATEVER you want with YOUR property. The simple fact is that MY body is not YOUR property. To shoot me is to interfere with my property, which isn't yours. This isn't a limit on what you may do with your property, this is simply the nature of defining the boundaries of finite things.

It’s clear to me that this is a quarrel over semantics, and nothing more. In one breath, Brian asserts that “property does NOT place limits on the property of others”, but in the next breath admits that “to shoot me is to interfere with my property”. Well, what is a rule about “non-interference” if not a restriction?  Borders define a piece of property. What is a border if not a restriction?

Perhaps this issue can be illuminated by considering changes over time.  The acquisition of property by one person will automatically place brand new restrictions on another.

Suppose I like to throw rocks, just for fun. In July, I stand at the edge of my land, pick up rocks and hurl them into the un-owned forest, just to see if I can hit the tree. I’m allowed to do this, because I’m not interfering with anyone else’s property. In August, Brian comes and properly homesteads the section of the forest, builds himself a nice cabin. In September, I hurl a rock, exactly as I did in July, only this time, it breaks the window in Brian’s new cabin. I’m not allowed to do this, because now I am interfering with someone’s property.

Do you see? Brian’s act of acquiring property placed a restriction on me that was not there before. I did nothing at all to change my own property, and yet, the exact same action that was allowable in July is disallowed in September. Brian's action changed my boundaries.

Brian does not deny that one person’s rights end where another’s begin. “Restrictions” and / or “limits” are simply the words we use to describe the concept.


  1. I need to think more about this.
    On one hand, it does seem to be arguing semantics. Saying what you can do is also saying what you can't do. At the same time, if you define freedom as what you can legitimately do, then someone else's property does not limit your freedom, except for homesteading actions, which both parties can legitimately consider part of their freedom.

    Your stone throwing example is not the best, as you homesteaded part of the forest as target practice range. But you could also consider that you homesteaded it, then let it go for a while, which means it was unowned again.

  2. If you consider my rock throwing an act of homesteading, we will reach the same conclusion.

    In June, Brian plans to acquire part of the forest to build a cabin, which he has every right to do. In July, I begin throwing rocks. In August, Brian shows up, wishing to build his cabin, but he is disallowed. My action in homesteading placed a restriction on Brian that was not present before.