Words are powerful. In Jewish tradition the action of naming is a divine activity restricted to the gods. When Adam is empowered by God to name the animals, they automatically become his own property: “replenish the earth, and subdue it,” God says, “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen 1:28). Likewise, the employment of inaccurate words may question our full understanding of a given thesis, to such an extent that our whole argument may be compromised. This is the case with “natural rights.”
Libertarians usually argue that property rights are natural rights. Within the framework of political philosophy, natural rights are those not dependent on the laws of men or the tradition of nations. But, why are they called natural? Stoic philosophers such as Seneca the Younger believed that freedom, not slavery, is the natural condition of men, and many were the Catholic thinkers who defied the law of men with a superior natural law bestowed to us by God himself. These are the two ideas I wish to challenge here:
- That property rights should be called natural;
- and the Stoic belief that we are born as freemen, rather than slaves.
As I was leaving Hong Kong for Okinawa, I observed a thick, impending blanket of grey pollution descending upon me, and I wondered how come that all those Hongkongers who usually despise China, the Chinese government, and the Chinese people, do not riot against this clear example of invasion and destruction of their private property –their clean air? After all, a bunch of Hong Kong commies were demonstrating the day before against the imprisonment of seven policemen who assaulted pro-democracy activist Ken Tsang during the 2014 Occupy protests. And then it occurred to me that, in fact, private property was neither a natural right, nor an inferable idea that magically pops out from the brain of a rational human being. That is to say, we are not naturally inclined to private property or any other libertarian concept.
Religious libertarians may argue that, just because we are ignorant of our own rights, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we do not possess those rights, yet possession of rights is a rather problematic issue since it is based upon the idea that property rights are something that humans, and only humans, have –with the unusual exception of cats, who think themselves to have property rights. Since we are, after all, animals, the only explanation that doesn’t fall in an ad hoc justification is that something or someone gave us those rights a priori. We are suddenly confronted with another problem: we should prove the existence of a superior being responsible for those rights or, if we fail to do so, we risk being an easy target for anti-libertarian apologists.
I believe a different answer is possible. We should leave unproven, religious arguments aside and reject outdated terminology loaded with theological significance, obsolete philosophies that are responsible for more wars and deaths than freedom and accomplishments (yes, this means Kant). Property rights are a development a posteriori, and not a priori, that has been possible thanks to our amazing capabilities, technical skills, and personal requirements within society. We were born in poverty, and we raised from poverty thanks to our intellect, the true and only creator of Marx’s utmost enemy: the capital.
This leads us to the second point. Many libertarians argue that we are not born as slaves but as freemen, yet the fact remains that in all traditional societies slavery has been the norm –as it is, in fact, in nature. Ancient empires would slave each other and fight each other, even knowing the unpleasantness of such a condition. Confucianism, as it is understood in China today, also demands children to be submissive to their parents. It seems that poverty, slavery, and war are the truly natural condition of men. And it is our duty to transcend nature and subdue it, to become something else.
Private property, capitalism, wealth, and freedom are not natural, but hardly acquired goods resulting from thousands of years of evolution, strife, and trials and errors. Neglecting this, and thinking that we are born free and wealthy, will eventually lead us down the road of serfdom. Or pollution. Let´s not forget that eternal watchfulness, and not foolness, is the price of liberty.