Locke vs. Cohen vs. Rothbard on Homesteading

Last week in my article The Power of Self-Ownership, I discussed how uncomfortable self-ownership made the great Marxist political philosopher G.A. Cohen. Cohen saw that self-ownership leads to libertarianism, but he rejected libertarianism while he found self-ownership plausible. To save his socialism, he gave up self-ownership, but his reasons for doing so are weak.

If self-ownership survives Cohen’s half-hearted assault, the free market is not yet out of the woods. Cohen has another argument against libertarians, this one directed at Lockean theories of property acquisition. According to the Lockean theory, individual self-owners may, by mixing their labor with unowned land and other natural resources, come to acquire it. (Some people don’t like the phrase “mixing your labor,” but Lockean accounts don’t depend on accepting it. The important notion is that you have to occupy unowned land, or do something to it, in order to acquire it.)

Cohen maintains that this theory fails just by itself to support property rights in land. It is, as it stands, incomplete. For the justification of property rights to be successful, an additional premise is needed. The premise in question is that land is initially unowned. If everyone starts off with rights to an equal share of the earth’s surface and resources, the Lockean theory has nothing on which to operate.

We may grant Cohen his point, but it avails him nothing. Why should we assume that people begin with property rights of the kind he wants? He gives no argument that they do; and the assumption that property is at the start unowned is a reasonable one. Murray Rothbard with characteristic insight dissected the equal shares position:

If every man has the right to own his own person and therefore his own labor, and if by extension he owns whatever property he has “created” or gathered out of the previously unused, unowned state of nature, then who has the right to own or control the earth itself? In short, if the gatherer has the right to own the acorns or berries he picks, or the farmer his crop of wheat, who has the right to own the land on which these activities have taken place? Again, the justification for the ownership of ground land is the same for that of any other property. For no man actually ever “creates” matter: what he does is to take nature-given matter and transform it by means of his ideas and labor energy. But this is precisely what the pioneer — the homesteader — does when he clears and uses previously unused virgin land and brings it into his private ownership. The homesteader — just as the sculptor, or miner — has transformed the “nature-given” soil by his labor and his personality. The homesteader is just as much a “producer” as the others, and therefore just as legitimately the owner of his property. As in the case of the sculptor, it is difficult to see the morality of some other group expropriating the product and labor of the homesteader. (And, as in the other cases, the “world communist” solution boils down in practice to a ruling group.) Furthermore, the land communalists, who claim that the entire world population really owns the land in common, run up against the natural fact that before the homesteader, no one really used and controlled, and hence owned the land. The pioneer, or homesteader, is the man who first brings the valueless unused natural objects into production and use. (Ethics of Liberty, p. 49)

Cohen, of course, dissents. But what happens if we grant him his assumption of an equal initial division of the earth’s surface? The upshot, as our author recognizes, would not be socialism but a variety of libertarianism. Since the people with the initial endowments are by hypothesis self-owners, they would be free to carry on whatever ”capitalist acts between consenting adults” they wished. Hillel Steiner, a British political philosopher much esteemed by Cohen, has devised a libertarian system of precisely this kind; and Cohen says nothing against it.

Cohen has another objection to Lockean property acquisition. Robert Nozick, for Cohen the main libertarian, included an undemanding version of the “Lockean proviso” in his account of property acquisition. As Nozick saw matters, if you acquire property, you can’t make others “worse off,” but it is easy to meet this requirement. Cohen objects that Nozick’s proviso would allow a single person to control all the property in a society. He may do so provided everyone else is slightly better off than he would have been in a society without any private property. Cohen’s student, the philosopher Michael Otsuka, explains Cohen’s objection: “Nozick’s version of the Lockean proviso is too weak, since it allows a single individual in a state of nature to engage in an enriching acquisition of all the land there is if she compensates all others by hiring them and paying them a wage that ensures they end up no worse off than they would have been if they had continued to live the meager hand-to-mouth existence of hunters and gatherers on non-private land.”

This objection rests on a complete misunderstanding of how libertarians believe that property is initially acquired. Cohen reduces the libertarian principle of initial acquisition to the proviso. In point of fact, the proviso is only a modification of the principle. You cannot acquire vast amounts of property just by your say-so, if you follow the principle; you must combine your labor in the appropriate way with unowned land in order to acquire it. If this is taken into account, it seems next-to-impossible that the nightmare Cohen has conjured up could in practice arise. Cohen eliminates the limits on property acquisition contained in the libertarian principle; and, having done so, triumphantly proclaims that libertarians recognize practically no limits to property acquisition.

If Cohen had studied Murray Rothbard, he wouldn’t have fallen into his mistake. Rothbard doesn’t include the proviso at all in his system. Why is it necessary? It is just a source of trouble.

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