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Life, Liberty, and Property

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

David Kelley
Philosophy, Vassar College


The words “liberty” and “liberalism” have a common root, reflecting the commitment of the original or classical liberals to a free society. Over the last century, the latter term has come to represent a political position that is willing to sacrifice liberty in the economic realm for the sake of equality and/or collective welfare. As a consequence, those who wish to reaffirm the classical version of liberalism – those who advocate liberty in economic as well as personal and intellectual matters – have invented a new word from the old root; they call themselves libertarians. Both in doctrine and in etymology, then, partisans of this view define themselves by their allegiance to liberty. Yet they spend most of their day-to-day polemical energies defending property rights and the economic system of laissez-faire capitalism that is based upon such rights. Evidently there is a strong link between liberty and property at work here. What is that link?

The history of political thought is full of ideas and controversies about precisely this question. My goal here is to raise the question in a specific form, one that I think captures a basic difference in approach between classical liberals and most libertarians today. The difference is not in the substance of the position – it is not a disagreement about how the ideal society would be constituted – but rather in the way the position is to be defended. The key question is: can the right to property be derived from the right to liberty?

Of course a property right is a right to kind of freedom.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1984

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1 For some examples, see n. 13 below.

2 This would of course be circular if offered as a definition of ‘possible,’ since ‘ability’ would have to be defined in terms of possibility. But I am not trying to define these concepts; I am merely specifying a range of possible actions.

3 Steiner, Hillel, “The Structure of a Set of Compossible Rights,” Journal of Philosophy 74, 767–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Ibid., 769.

5 Ibid., 772.

6 Mack, Eric, “Liberty and Justice,” in Arthur, John and Shaw, William H. (eds.) Justice and Economic Distribution (Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978), 189Google Scholar.

7 Ibid., 188.

8 Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974)Google Scholar.

9 Ibid., 163.

10 It is not surprising that many people have looked to this section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia to find Nozick's basis for affirming property rights, since he does not provide such a basis earlier in the book, where he lays out the framework of individual rights.

11 Ibid., 161.

12 Ryan, Cheyney C., “Yours, Mine and Ours: Property Rights and Individual Liberty,” in Paul, Jeffrey (ed.) Reading Nozick (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981), 329 ffGoogle Scholar.

13 The empasis on production in the case for private property is a recurrent theme in the classical liberal tradition, from Locke's Second Treatise onward, E.g., John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, II 2. For a powerful contemporary argument of this form, see Rand, Ayn, “What is Capitalism?” in her Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1967)Google Scholar.