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The Blockean Proviso

September 11, 2007

Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPrivate PropertySubjectivism

I was having an interesting discussion via email about one of Walter Block's arguments. A quick summary. Block says that just as nature abhors a vacuum, libertarianism "abhors" unowned property; that the "whole purpose" of homesteading is to bring hitherto unowned virgin territory into private ownership.

Block imagines someone who homesteads a donut-shaped circle of land, and won't let anyone use his land to get to the unowned property in the middle of his donut. He argues that libertarian homesteading theory "abhors" land which cannot be claimed nor owned because of the land ownership pattern of a "forestaller"--a person who has encircled the land. In other words, if your property is somehow "necessary" for others to use, to get to unowned property, they have a sort of easement over it.{C}(Block argues this in Libertarianism, Positive Obligations and Property Abandonment: Children's Rights; "Roads, Bridges, Sunlight and Private Property: Reply to Gordon Tullock," Journal des Economistes et des Etudes Humaines 8, no. 2/3 (June-September 1998): 315-26; and other publications, such as some of his articles on abortion: e.g. "Terri Schiavo: A Libertarian Analysis"; "Compromising the Uncompromisable: A Private Property Rights Approach to Resolving the Abortion Controversy"; "Stem Cell Research: The Libertarian Compromise"; "Abortion, Woman and Fetus: Rights in Conflict?"; "Toward a Libertarian Theory of Abortion.")

Now his purpose in making this argument is to make an argument about the duty of parents to notify others that they are abandoning their kid and to let them come rescue the child, but we are talking here about his "forestalling" argument itself.

As best I can understand it, Block's "forestalling" conclusion seems to be incorrect. It would imply a general easement right over everyone's property on behalf of everyone else if they "need" that property to "get to" some other property they want to be on. I see no special status of the unowned property; it's just property someone would like to go homestead. If they can't reach it, it's not the fault of those who have this resource surrounded.

In other words, after Rothbard, Hoppe (p. 246) and de Jasay (p. 91) have buried the Lockean proviso, Walter gives us a new one: the Blockean Proviso. The Lockean Proviso says that you may homestead an unowned good but only if "enough and as good" is left for others--that is, if you don't harm them by your homesteading action by making it more difficult for them to have a similar opportunity to homestead some goods of that type. Both Block and I would reject this. But the Blockean Proviso would say that you can only homestead property that is a potential means of access to other unowned resource so long as enough and as good access to the unowned resource remains available!

We can generalize this Blockean Proviso: You can only homestead property that is located between two arbitrary external locations A and B, where some third might potentially want to travel over the property to travel from A to B.

From comments to me, Block also seems to believe that if you own a circle of property and some people live in the territory inside the circle, you are "trapping" them if you don't let them use your property to "leave" the circle. This comment seems to confirm my concerns about his view and how it could be generalized to some kind of "necessity-easement" not limited to the homesteading case.

Let's imagine a rectangular island with 3 people: A, B, and C. B owns the middle stripe, A and B own the pieces on the ends. Suppose A wants to visit C. He has to cross B's property. He has a right to visit C, if C invites him, and if he has a means of getting there. But he has no means of getting there. So?

I assume Block would agree with me in this above example--that A has no easement over B's property; that he can only visit C if B permits him to. But in Block's theory, if C dies, all of a sudden this confers to A an easement-over-B's-land! How can this be?

Let me close with a final quote from Hoppe, pointed out to me by Johan Ridenfeldt:

In fact, what strikes Conway as a counterintuitive implication of the homesteading ethic, and then leads him to reject it, can easily be interpreted quite differently. It is true, as Conway says, that this ethic would allow for the possibility of the entire world's being homesteaded. What about newcomers in this situation, who own nothing but their physical bodies? Cannot the homesteaders restrict access to their property for these newcomers and would this not be intolerable? I fail to see why. (Empirically, of course, the problem does not exist: if it were not for governments' restricting access to unowned land, there would still be plenty of empty land around!) These newcomers come into existence somewhere - normally one would think as children born to parents who are owners or renters of land (if they came from Mars, and no one wanted them here, so what?; they assumed a risk in coming, and if they now have to return, tough luck!). If the parents do not provide for the newcomers, they are free to search the world over for employers, sellers, or charitable contributors -- and a society ruled by the homesteading ethic would be, as Conway admits, the most prosperous one possible! If they still could not find anyone willing to employ, support, or trade with them, why not ask "What's wrong with them?" instead of Conway's feeling sorry for them? Apparently they must be intolerably unpleasant fellows and had better shape up, or they deserve no other treatment. Such, in fact, would be my own intuitive reaction.

Hoppe, Four Critical Replies, last page.

Now, it's interesting that Hoppe here criticizes the state for restricting access to unowned property -- but Block is criticizing private actors who do it... In any event, as Johan noted, the "tough luck!" line is key here. It is not directly relevant, only tangential, but the view expressed here seems to be compatible with my view that there is not any special problem if a would-be homesteader is unable to arrange for the permissions he needs to reach the target unowned resource.

Thoughts?

 

Update: Is Fermilab's Tevatron unlibertarian for encircling a plot of land (and presumably preventing access to it to minimize traffic vibrations interfering with the particle smasher's operation).

Update: My comment below refers to Roderick Long's post Easy Rider: my comments to that have the following updated link: http://aaeblog.com/2007/09/11/easy-rider/comment-page-1/#comment-30130.

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