1. Associated with the recent rightward movement in the politics of Western capitalist societies is the influential political philosophy of libertarianism, whose most impressive exponent is Robert Nozick of Harvard.footnote1 The foundational claim of libertarianism is the thesis of self-ownership, which says that each human being is the morally rightful owner of his own person and powers.footnote2 He is, consequently,footnote3 free (morally speaking) to use those powers as he wishes, provided that he does not deploy them aggressively against others. He may not harm others, and he may, if necessary, be forced not to harm them, but he should never be forced to help them, as people are, according to libertarians, in fact forced to help others, by the supposedly redistributive taxation which sustains the welfare state. That state is, in the libertarian view, entirely wanting in moral justification. Libertarians believe, moreover, not only that people own themselves, but also that they can become, with equally strong moral right, sovereign owners of the potentially indefinitely unequal amounts of worldly resources which they can gather to themselves as a result of proper exercises of their own and/or others’ self-owned personal powers. When, therefore, private property in natural resources has been rightly generated, its morally privileged origin insulates it against expropriation or limitation.

Now, a union of self-ownership and unequal distribution of worldly resources readily leads to indefinitely great inequality of private property in external goods of all kinds, and hence to inequality of condition, on any view of what would constitute equality of condition. It follows that inequality of condition is, when properly generated, morally protected, and that the attempt to promote equality of condition at the expense of private property is an unacceptable violation of people’s rights. Hence the familiar right-wing contention that, when people enjoy the freedom to which they are entitled, inequality is unavoidable.

In my view, left-wing political philosophy should now concert an onslaught against the two ideas that people are the rightful owners of themselves and that worldly resources may, in all justice, be very unequally distributed. In another place, I begin the needed critical assessment of self-ownership.footnote4 Here I demonstrate that, whatever may be said about the principle of self-ownership in its own right, affirmation of it does not warrant the strongly inegalitarian distribution of worldly resources which philosophers like Nozick attach to it. The demonstration emerges from an inspection of Nozick’s theory of the original appropriation of private property, which is the principal target of the present paper.

2. Libertarians, or, to name them more accurately, entitlement theorists,footnote5 are wont to maintain that the market legitimates the distribution of goods it generates, since the market is a process in which people exercise their legitimately self-owned powers. But every market-generated distribution is only a redistribution of titles which buying and selling are themselves unable to create, and the upshot of market activity is consequently no more legitimate than the titles with which it operates.footnote6 How, then, do the titles which necessarily precede market activity acquire legitimacy in the first place?

The question of what would constitute a rightful original acquisition of private property enjoys a certain priority over the question of what constitutes a rightful subsequent transfer of it, on any definition of private property, since unless private property can be formed, it cannot, a fortiori, be transferred. But, in virtue of the way entitlement theorists define private property, the question of how it may be appropriated should, in their case, have even more priority than it generally does over the question of how it may be transferred. For private property in entitlement discourse is private property in what is sometimes called ‘the full liberal sense’, fitted out with all the rights that could conceivably attach to private property; and once an original acquisiton of such robust private property is achieved, then no real problem about its transfer arises, since the full complement of private property rights includes virtually unfettered rights of transfer and bequest. Accordingly, the topic of original appropriation is a most important crux for Nozick’s philosophy, and it is therefore startling that he begins his brief discussion of it by remarking that he will now ‘introduce an additional bit of complexity into the structure of the entitlement theory’.footnote7 That ‘additional bit’ is arguably the most important part of the theory on offer.

Note that even now not everything around us is privately owned, and most people would agree that what remains privately unowned, such as the air we breathe and the pavements we tread, should not be available for privatization. But the better part of what we need to live is, by now, private property. Why was its original privatization not a theft of what rightly should be held in common?

The question would not be so pressing if a certain false thing which Nozick says were true, namely that ‘things come into the world already attached to people having entitlements over them’.footnote8 That is relevantly false, since people create nothing ex nihilo, and all external private property either is, or was made of, something which was once no one’s private property, either in fact or morally (or was made of something which was made of something which was once not private property, and so on).footnote9 In the prehistory of any existing piece of private property there was at least one moment at which something privately unowned was taken into private ownership. If, then, someone claims a Nozicklike right to something he legally owns, we may ask, apart from how he in particular came to own it, with what right it came to be anyone’s private property.