Rights, Ethics, and Property

I propose that voluntarists, ancaps, philosophers, and other liberty-minded individuals stop using the words “rights” and “property” entirely. These words are not inherently bad, but due to the accumulated baggage they’ve been saddled with and due to the fact that we now have more parsimonious alternatives, we can express our ideas with greater clarity by avoiding them.

Consider the difference between rights and the NAP. The NAP is an expression of proscribed behaviors (the initiation of force). From this proscription one can derive rights such as a the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, the right of free association, etc. There are two problems with talking about rights, however. The first is that due to frequent misinterpretation it’s essential to add a caveat to any definition of rights that specifies them to be negative instead of positive. Otherwise some people will start from the right to life as a premise, conclude that that everyone has a right to that which is necessary for life and eventually posit that all people are owed universal free internet access and health care. The other problem is that a specific enumeration of rights is wholly unnecessary. The single proscription, “do not initiate force”, covers everything that needs to be said about any right derived from the NAP. Occam’s razor suggests that we should choose the more parsimonious formulation and in practice this helps us communicate by avoiding the land mines of loaded terms with their associated emotional baggage and prior (mis)conceptions.

In order to entirely replace with rights with a succinct list of proscribed behaviors we need to address property, as the NAP alone is not sufficient. The definition of property is a tar pit that should be avoided at all costs, since arguments when fall into this area rarely achieve resolution. There’s just so much historical propaganda surrounding this term that I consider it to be a waste of time to even define, if it’s possible to avoid doing so.

The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is the following: It’s wrong to obtain resources via coercion or subterfuge. We already know that the direct application of violence to obtain resources is wrong based on the NAP. This statement adds the threat of violence and fraud to the list of proscriptions to, as far as I can tell, achieve a complete ethical description of property rights without ever needing to define property or refer to the concept of rights. The basic sanity check on this formulation is to see what it allows. If using or threatening violence, and fraud is forbidden what means of obtaining resources are allowed? Homesteading and voluntary exchange violate none of those proscriptions and they are what libertarian theories of property rights typically permit.

To go further towards the goal of increased clarity we need a succinct formulation of the NAP that’s short enough to explain to other people without exceeding their attention span. To that end I propose, “The only legitimate use of violence is for unavoidable self defense.” This is the most succinct, least subject to misinterpretation and hijacking formulation I can come up with. Combine this with the prior statement and we could say the following:

“Rational morality means: the only legitimate use of violence is for unavoidable self defense, and it’s wrong to obtain resources via coercion or subterfuge.”

My hope is this statement, or an improved version of it, can serve to help people avoid stumbling blocks in conversations by focusing on a short list of proscribed behaviors (ethics) instead of a long lists of enumerated rights and semantic tar pits. If anyone has suggestions, comments, improvements or can identify errors or omissions please let me know.

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