“A man’s natural rights are his own, against the whole world; and any infringement of them is equally a crime, whether committed by one man, or by millions; whether committed by one man, calling himself a robber, (or by any other name indicating his true character,) or by millions, calling themselves a government.”
– Lysander Spooner
A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)
The concept of a ‘right’ pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.
Thus, for every individual, a right is the moral sanction of a positive—of his freedom to act on his own judgment, for his own goals, by his own voluntary, uncoerced choice. As to his neighbors, his rights impose no obligations on them except of a negative kind: to abstain from violating his rights.
The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.
Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.
Rights exist because acts of aggression exist. If there were no aggressors in society, we would have no need to defend ourselves, or to examine whether such defense is just or not, and thus we would not talk about rights. So the question is, how do we define what is to be protected, which is to say, how do we define aggression?
One can define two different types of ownership.
The first type of ownership is the common one that everyone is familiar in our current society. It is the type of ownership based on a legal claim to something, i.e., it is based simply on what the law will recognize based on previous contracts. In this system of ownership, one can consider to own anything and it will remain his until he trades it away. Private Property (PP). This is the ownership system which facilitates and promotes wage-slavery, rent and usury.
Precisely because this ownership is legally constructed is why it requires to be defined through contracts of some sort that will be recognized by the state. Which is incidentally why any social system based on Private Property will require the existence of a state of some sort and extensive laws to clarify and settle disputes.
But this is not the only system of ownership that can exist. There is another one that not only comes naturally to humans but it also avoids all the pitfalls of PP. Possession or ownership based on use. To put it simply, one can only ever lay claim to things that they use personally. This is fundamentally different from PP in that it does not demand an extensive legal system to enforce it and it prevents accumulation of wealth.
The main characteristic of private property is that it allows accumulation of wealth. As each persons claim of ownership is simply based on the law, one can keep massing up as many such claims as they can. As society expands and as people are born without a claim to property, this in turn becomes a leverage for exploitation and, by extension, inequality. Simply put. Someone who does not own land, must sell the only thing he can, his labor (and by extension freedom), and he must sell it at a price that is less than what he would make if he did own land. The excess result of this labor, profit, of course goes to the employer who then uses it to expand his PP. And the cycle of exploitation continues.
Contradict this with Possession, where any one person can only ever own as much as they personally use. As such the scarcity of the land is automatically reduced, as there’s not a few people controlling vast tracts or land and preventing its use. As such, inequality would not be possible without the ability of people to accumulate. Without this incentive people in turn have no reason to exploit and emiserate their fellow humans for it would not bring them any social benefit.
Possession and Private Property are simply parts on a scale of Ownership rights. Private Property and Possession have only differences of detail and degree. Private property rights, once claimed, remain even if the original owner does not use them anymore. Personal property rights remain only as long as use is maintained (with a grace period of non-use based on common sense of course.)
But while this on first view seems like a small difference of degree, in functional terms, the difference is immense. To put it simply, wage labor and rent would be impossible as one cannot be said to own something that someone else uses. And without wage labor you cannot have Capitalism, as it is the most crucial gear by which accumulation (and thus investment) can occur. Once Private Property starts accumulating a system of inequality and authority are built on top of it.
Through the owning of land, private property, the capitalist has made himself the middle-man between survival and ourselves, since he’s claimed the land on which our survival depends. The capitalist allow us to use this land to survive under the condition that we also provide for him through profit/tax/rent. In essence, not very different from serfdom in the feudal society.
Private property, as distinguished from personal property, allows the capitalist/feudal lords to, with the help of Law, hold the means of survival as hostage. Capitalism is an advanced vassal and sub-vassal system of feudalism and the only voluntary aspect of it is that we in theory can choose which feudal lord we feed. But we have to pick one. Living outside this feudal system is labeled as theft and trespassing. You have no choice, you either participate in the capitalist system or you die.
In the absence of a claim, land is free for all to use. For one to make a claim to land is inherently a restriction of others’ freedoms and therefore violence. Upon claiming a piece of land, (or agreeing to buy it at a one-time fee from someone,) I remove some of the rights of others. Before the piece of land was owned, everyone had the right to walk on it, sleep on it, gain sustenance from it.
Albert Nock made the distinction between “labor-made” and “law-made” property. He identified the former with the peasant, and the latter with the landlord.