PROPER AND IMPROPER DESCRIPTIONS OF
WHAT IS OWNED
A serious threat of unwittingly introducing crucial
presuppositions into theories of property comes from assuming
that someone wholly owns a particular corporeal holding or
object, because it is not understood that the description of the
person-thing relation in question is not logically independent
of the relevant description of this thing. Especially
first-occupancy and labor theories suffer from this. To show
how, let us have a look at two examples.
In our first example someone living in a state of nature or
anarchy finds a block of marble and starts to carve it into a
Being convinced that it has become a work of art
'e points at it and says to an
unsuspecting passer-by, "This is my sculpture".
The other person then points at the same thing and replies, "This piece
of marble belongs to humankind" (or, if 'e is a savage, "to mankind").
It is, then, conceptually entirely legitimate to suppose that the
sculptor is the owner of the sculpture (if 'e did indeed manage to make
such a thing) but not the (sole) owner of the piece of marble; in other
words: that 'e is the owner of the object regarded as a sculpture (and,
maybe, as an incorporeal thing) but not the owner of the same object as
a material substance (which is certainly a corporeal thing).
Those who do divorce these aspects of one object may subsequently
maintain that someone's entitlement only extends to the
added value a person's labor has produced, and does not extend
to 'the whole object'.
Here, the significance of the traditional distinction between 'corporeal'
and 'incorporeal' property collapses.
The 'fallacy of quasi-absolute description' is characteristic of those
who hold that property rights in an unowned object merely originate
thru someone's 'mixing
his labor with it'.
Because of the nature of the metaphor and the belief that one description
of an object suffices in all contexts, the adherent of this type of labor
theory is confronted with a number of serious questions, like —as
they have been formulated elsewhere— Why isn't mixing what a
person owns with what 'e doesn't own a way of losing what 'e owns?
and What are the boundaries of what labor is mixed with?
When things are described as natural substances, however (or,
insofar as they are natural substances), it is quite possible to argue
that all inanimate objects on this planet, such as pieces of marble, are
the property of all people on this planet. And when described as
cultural goods or artifacts, such as sculptures, they
may at the same time be considered to be the sole property of certain
individual people or groups of people (inclusive of communities
or states). Thus, while it is indeed useful to take into account
the category the things owned or possessed belong to, it is
obligatory to clarify what would be a or the relevant description
of the things concerned. Yet, even when we confine
ourselves to natural substances, the exact description of what
is owned may still require further analysis, as will become
evident from the next example.
Suppose there once was a small community living in an area abounding with
beaches all of equal worth, at the same distance, equal in all other
respects and clearly distinct from each other.
Hence, in those days there were plenty of them as compared with the
number of then-living people, and every first occupier could take one,
say, by carrying out
'er purpose to build a sand castle
there every afternoon; and so could every laborer, say, by fencing one
off (because fencing is labor, whether one relishes it or not).
If the first occupier or laborer did only take one beach, even the
proviso that enough would be left over for others was not violated.
According to the first-occupancy and labor theorist the beach in question
turned, or was turned, into the private property of the first occupier
It should not surprise us, however, when in later times the number of
people grew faster than the number of beaches. In other
words: the scarcity value of objects (natural resources in
particular) may change. Thus, there is a parallel between
'justice-' and 'truth-preserving transformations' in that they
are equally invalid if one of the premises which is time-dependent,
was true at an earlier point in time, but has become
false at a later point in time. In our example this is the
premise that beaches in the area considered are not scarce, that
is, so abundant that enough of them are left over for everyone
The scarcity value is simply assumed to be constant, whereas it is
Paradoxically, the additional principle which requires that
enough and as good be left over both saves the traditional
occupation and labor theories and kills them. It saves them
from the preposterous and awkward consequences they would have
without the proviso, and it kills them, because they can
consequently only deal with the property of goods which are not
scarce, and those are precisely the goods which are not interesting
for the lord and lady of private accumulation. Hence, whereas it may
still be true that the first occupier and laborer own a number of grains
of sand, they do not own the beaches anymore when they are (or
have become) scarce. But if the proviso is accepted, did the
first occupier and laborer then ever own the beach as beach to
start with? If they did, then they entirely lost all ownership
at the time beaches became scarce, and then the occupation and
labor theories are indeed worthless because not applicable to
A complete theory of property must provide a criterion of title by which
a person or group of persons can own a scarce good.
Thus, if there is to be a grain of truth in the occupation
and labor theories, then only if one speaks of someone's
rightful share in the total amount of goods, even when this
share happens to be 100% at a particular moment with regard to a
particular thing. The people in the original situation of our
example did, then, not own a particular beach in some absolute
sense, but they had the right to a 100% share in that particular
beach at that moment under those circumstances.
The holding of the absolutist occupation and labor or
entitlement theories as complete theories of property (not as
parts of such a theory) leads to horrendous consequences which
can only be evaded by means of tricky inconsistences. Imagine
someone 'justly' appropriated a whole beach or island (not a
100% share in it) at a time they were abundant relative to the
number of people. Then 'e could order a castaway from a
shipwreck off 'er beach or island and let
absolutist might object that such an act would violate the
proviso that enough be left over, this proviso may solely be
applied to the moment of appropriation and does not apply to the
later situation at all, or if it does, changes rightful
ownership itself as well. Thus, the labor or entitlement
absolutist in particular oscillates with giant strides between
the moment of acquisition of the holding (perhaps centuries ago)
and the moment at which ownership is (re)considered, without
being willing to fully accept the consequences of changes
(especially those in scarcity value). 'E will admit that a
person may not appropriate the only water hole in a desert and
charge what 'e will. Yet, if 'it happens that all water holes in
the desert dry up, except for his', 'e does not draw the
conclusion that this only water hole left is the property of the
whole community now (or of the community and the original owner
together, insofar as its value is due to 'er personal labor and
precautions). No, it entirely remains the property of the one,
original owner and 'e is permitted to charge for the water
whatever 'e will. (To limit this ownership requires an external
criterion, but allowing such a criterion will not only modify
the theorist's view on justice in the present, it is also bound
to modify 'er view on justice in the past.)