Mises Wire

Mises and the Lockean Proviso

Unlike Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises did not believe in natural rights. But he can be of immense help to many of us who accept the right of self-ownership and also accept a Lockean account of the initial acquisition of property.

Mises says this about natural rights:

But the teachings of utilitarian philosophy and classical economics have nothing at all to do with the doctrine of natural right. With them the only point that matters is social utility. They recommend popular government, private property, tolerance, and freedom not because they are natural and just, but because they are beneficial. The core of Ricardo’s philosophy is the demonstration that social cooperation and division of labor between men who are in every regard superior and more efficient and men who are in every regard inferior and less efficient is beneficial to both groups. Bentham, the radical, shouted: “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense.” With him “the sole object of government ought to be the greatest happiness of the greatest possible number of the community.” Accordingly, in investigating what ought to be right he does not care about preconceived ideas concerning God’s or nature’s plans and intentions, forever hidden to mortal men; he is intent upon discovering what best serves the promotion of human welfare and happiness. (Human Action, p. 168. It’s clear from the context that Mises is endorsing the utilitarian position, not just describing it)

This doesn’t seem like it could be of much help to supporters of natural rights, but nevertheless it is. When John Locke defends the initial acquisition of property through someone’s mixing his labor with unowned resources, he adds a famous limit, often called the Lockean proviso:

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same. (Second Treatise on Government, chapter 5, paragraph 33)

Robert Nozick in his influential account of libertarian theory in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) accepts Locke’s proviso, although he doesn’t like “labor mixture” as a principle of property acquisition. He prefers a “first occupancy” theory. In Nozick’s account the proviso is fairly easily satisfied, although exactly what he means, like much else in Nozick, is disputed. Some people, though, such as the political philosopher A. John Simmons, accept much more demanding versions of the proviso. In their view, for example, people who have access to valuable natural resources owe compensation to those less fortunate.

With the aid of an insight from Mises we can cut through all these complications. He points out:

It is illusory to maintain that individuals in renouncing the alleged blessings of a fabulous state of nature and entering into society have foregone some advantages and have a fair claim to be indemnified for what they have lost. The idea that anybody would have fared better under an asocial state of mankind and is wronged by the very existence of society is absurd. Thanks to the higher productivity of social cooperation the human species has multiplied far beyond the margin of subsistence offered by the conditions prevailing in ages with a rudimentary degree of the division of labor. Each man enjoys a standard of living much higher than that of his savage ancestors. The natural condition of man is extreme poverty and insecurity. It is romantic nonsense to lament the passing of the happy days of primitive barbarism. In a state of savagery the complainants would either not have reached the age of manhood, or if they had, they would have lacked the opportunities and amenities provided by civilization. (HA, p. 166)

But can’t a defender of the proviso raise an objection to Mises? Even if people are much better off living in a free market economy than they would be without it, aren’t they still entitled to their natural rights? Mises is immune to this objection, since he doesn’t accept natural rights, but what if you acknowledge natural rights? Can you use Mises’s insight to escape the proviso’s force?

Yes, you can. If you accept natural rights, you must acknowledge that your view of them is controversial. Other people may reject natural rights or interpret them differently from you. Even if your interpretation of rights is that other people owe you compensation, you are better off cooperating with them in mutually beneficial exchange rather than fighting with them over the exact scope of your entitlements. To accept this way of looking at things, you don’t have to reject rights, but you need to accord weight to what will best advance your interests rather than insist on your rights, come what may.

Mises uses this point to respond to the legal theorist Robert Hale, who rejects existing private property titles. In Hale’s unusual view, private property is a form of “governance” over those who don’t have access to your property. Mises says about this:

The way in which Professor Hale describes the operation of the market economy is, to say the least, amazing. Thus he declares, “the customer can deny his money to the retailer, and by threatening to deny it can coerce the retailer to furnish him with the goods.”

Now, millions of people in this way “threaten” the jewelers of Fifth Avenue; they “threaten to deny their money to them.” Yet those “threatened” do not furnish them with bracelets and necklaces. But if a holdup man turns up and threatens the jeweler in his own manner, by brandishing a gun, the outcome is different. It seems therefore that what Professor Hale calls threats and coercion comprehends two entirely different things having entirely different features and consequences. His failure to distinguish these two things from one another would be deplorable in a nontechnical book. In a presumably juridical book it is simply catastrophic. (”Freedom Is Slavery“ [1953])

In other words, Hale should recognize the difference between “coercion,” as his own view of property construes it and coercion according to the rules of a legal system. To insist on coercion based on your private understanding of rights blocks social cooperation; respecting existing property titles permits it.

Those of us who follow Rothbard and reject the proviso need not balance utility and rights in the way that Mises suggests. But if you accept the proviso, Mises shows how to derail its redistributionist implications.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

Become a Member
Mises Institute