Junior Faculty Winner. Second Prize ($5,000)


Property rights are human rights grounded in human nature. In fact, all human rights can be formulated as a variation of property rights. Nevertheless, many authors have advanced alleged human rights that confront and violate property rights. In this paper, the differences between property rights and these alleged rights, or pseudo human rights, are analyzed. The differences regarding the concomitant political systems explain why there have been more defenders of pseudo human rights than of property rights.

    There is no such dichotomy as “human rights” versus “property rights.” No human rights can exist without property rights.[1]
    —Ayn Rand

    The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property... All the other demands of liberalism result from this fundamental demand.[2]
    —Ludwig von Mises

1. Introduction

We need not look very long to find unsettling news. Haitians scavenge for food in a garbage dump in Port-au-Prince, a city that has witnessed recent food riots. As food prices spiral, those in places like Egypt, India, Malaysia, Senegal, and sub-Saharan Africa face similar unrest to that of Haiti.[3] In addition to widespread hunger, violence has erupted in Tibet as Chinese security forces attempt to subdue protests by Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans.[4] In Zimbabwe, police gather up election monitors and opposition members as the election process continues in disarray.[5] In Dafur, estimates suggest that as many as 300,000 people have died as a result of the five-year conflict in the region, a situation that some have labeled as genocide.[6] Though recent news is not new news, hunger, stifling of dissent, military conflict, and claims of genocide are characteristic of the times, often invoking calls to respect and enforce human rights.

Over the last 60 years, human rights have become the moral currency of our times, as efforts are made to address social injustices. Such efforts are reflected in the positing and stipulating of human rights. In fact, the number of human rights treaties in international law over the last 60 years has substantially increased. Marking the beginning of this expansion, the Declaration of Human Rights (1948) has been followed by the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), and the British Human Rights Act (1998) among others. This growing industry of human rights is also evidenced by the number of alleged human rights discussed in academic discourse. Human rights language permeates a vast array of social life and is found in discussions of health care, education, wages, welfare, culture, and the environment. In fact, Nickel (2006) has described this as a “human rights inflation.”

The continuously expanding list of human rights is especially alarming from a classical liberal perspective as represented by Smith (1776), Bastiat (1850), Mises (1927) and Hayek (1960), in that it causes a devaluing of important human rights. More precisely, these more recent human rights deal mainly with social welfare, entailing positive duties for the government, requiring its expansion. These more recent human rights stand in contrast to individual liberty and progressively undermine property rights and freedom.

This paper has two goals. The first is to examine the relationship between property rights and human rights. Starting from a Lockean natural law perspective, I investigate which human rights can be considered natural rights. I find that only property rights, and rights derivable from them, are natural rights. Subsequently, the unbridgeable differences between property rights and what I call pseudo human rights, i.e. alleged human rights that are not natural rights, will be analyzed.

The paper’s second goal is to investigate why property rights have found fewer intellectual champions than pseudo human rights. I will show that the reason lies in the abysmal differences between the two types of rights. A capitalist society is grounded in property rights while pseudo human rights are a vehicle to promote socialist ideals. Consequently, I explore the reasons why intellectuals tend to be socialists and therefore why property rights have rarely found staunch defenders while the defense of expansive human rights continues to be en vogue among intellectuals.

2. Property Rights as (Natural) Human Rights

According to natural law theorists, what is just and unjust does not depend on human arbitrariness but is objective. Natural law theorists argue further that the norms of justice are grounded in human nature and can be found by human reason. One of the most important modern natural law theorists, John Locke, developed his natural law theory in his famous Two Treatises on Government, inspiring American revolutionaries and the Declaration of Independence. John Locke (1824, ch. II, § 6) maintains that

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

The right to life, health, liberty or possessions is a central point for classical liberal and libertarian political philosophy and is closely connected to property rights.[7] Property rights can be deduced from two basic twin axioms (Rothbard, 1982): the axiom of self-ownership and the homesteading principle. The self-evident principle of self-ownership (Machan 2002) signifies that every human being has the absolute jurisdiction over his own body.[8] The principle of self-ownership points to the homesteading principle, also known as first-use-first-own or finder-keeper principle. As Locke (1824, Ch. V, § 27) writes famously on mixing one’s labor with natural resources:

Every man has a property in his own person . . . The labor of his body and the work of his hands we may say are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Kirzner (1974) renders this more accurately, that our entrepreneurial actions make us the rightful owner of our findings. When we discover an unowned resource and form a use for it, we are the rightful owners. We have used our entrepreneurial capacities to create an economic means. Parting from the self-ownership and homesteading principles it is then a small step to deduce the rights to one’s production and the right to exchange one’s property. As we are owners of ourselves and especially of our own minds, everything that we do with our homesteaded resources without harming the property of others is just. Consequently, whatever we produce with our resources and mind is ours. Furthermore, we can transfer or exchange our property and enter into contract with other people freely. Property rights also answer the question of when the use force in society is justified. Force is justified in order to defend one’s property and any initiation of an attack on anyone’s property is unjustifiable.

I have thus shown that property rights are natural rights stemming from natural law theory. In fact, property rights form a core element of natural law. However, property rights are not only natural rights, they are also and foremost human rights. Property rights are human rights for two main reasons. First, property rights can be found by human reason and are implied in human nature. Second, property rights only accrue to human beings. Every human being owns these rights by virtue of his human nature (Machan 1997). Things, in contrast, cannot possess a property right.

After demonstrating that property rights are human rights, I now take on the more difficult task of analyzing Murray N. Rothbard´s (1977; 1998) bold claim that human rights are dependent on property rights. In other words, no human rights exist which cannot be formulated in terms of property rights. From this point of view, property rights are a cardinal restraint for what may else be considered a human right. While doing so, I formulate human rights in terms of property rights and define a means of sorting human rights from pseudo human rights.

3. Human Rights Contained in Property Rights Vs. Pseudo Human Rights

Rothbard (1998) claims that any right can be summarized or formulated as a variant of property rights. Following Rothbard, I will now use a property rights approach to sort through the mass of alleged human rights in order to distinguish human rights from pseudo human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) alone provides a list of over two-dozen human rights. These rights can be grouped into six families (Nickel 2006): security rights, due process rights, liberty rights, political rights, equality rights, and social (or “welfare”) rights. The first five groups are commonly called first-generation rights. Social rights are called second-generation rights. More recently, a third group encompassing collective or group rights has been added. In the following section, the legitimacy of these alleged human rights will be analyzed individually.

3.1. First-Generation Rights

The first set of first-generation human rights concerns security rights which protect against crimes like murder, torture and rape. As human rights are commonly seen as restraints on governments, security rights protect against infringement of the government on the lives of its own citizens. Clearly, security rights are implied in property rights, namely to the principle of self-ownership. Yet, these rights not only restrain governments from the use of unjustified force, they restrain the use of unjustified force by individuals. If I own my body, no one has the right to do harm to my body without my consent.

The second set of first-generation human rights concerns due process rights, which protect against unfair trials. Due process rights are also entailed in property rights. Property rights imply that an innocent person cannot be arrested arbitrarily nor punished by an arbitrary trial. Any use of force against innocent persons violates the self-ownership principle.

However, due process rights do not obligate the person whose property rights are violated to go through a burdensome trial.[9] For instance, applying natural rights theory, if someone steals my car and I happen to see it one day in a street, I have the right to take it back immediately. The criminal does not have a right to force me to go through a burdensome trial. In spite of this right to self-defense it is probable that in a libertarian society people would almost universally make use of due process. There is, after all, a higher risk of error and costly restitution of that error without due process (Rothbard 1998). Without due process we might just not have found the criminal but an innocent person. Moreover, we can expect a stronger or even violent resistance of the accused person when we do not make use of due process.

The third set of first-generation human rights encompasses the so-called liberty rights which protect freedom of belief, expression, and association. These rights are to a great extent included in property rights as well. As each is the owner of one’s own mind, he is free to believe whatever he wants. Moreover, each individual has the right to express his beliefs with his own property. Anyone can speak on his own property or use his means to produce or buy media in order to express his opinion. One could, for instance, rent a hall or a yard and speak to an audience, buy air-time on radio and television, acquire and blog on an internet domain or print his opinions in acquired space in newspapers, pamphlets, and books.

All the freedom contained in liberty rights is necessarily limited by property rights and inseparable from them. As Rothbard (1977, 238-39) states regarding the right to free speech:

...He has the right only on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on / the premises. In fact, then there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech;” there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners. (Italics in the original)

The same is true for the right of association. There is no separate right of association but only the possibility to use one’s own property to form with others voluntarily associations, clubs, groups or parties.

The right of association is related to the right to assembly, which brings us to the fourth set of first-generation of human rights, which concerns political rights. Political rights protect freedoms to participate in politics and assemblies, vote, protest, and communicate. Rightly understood, political rights can also be inferred from property rights. Everyone may use his property to protest, assemble, and speak freely. For example, I can call for a demonstration in my yard or I can buy ads in a newspaper to express my political views. I can use my car to drive to the ballot box, make an x with my pencil and cast the vote. Or I can participate in government by using my property. A different assessment arises when it comes to the actions of government itself. For instance, people can use their property to vote on the question of whether an individual’s house and land should be expropriated to build a new highway. The vote in favor of the expropriation itself does not violate property rights. Only at that moment the government expropriates the property, does it violate property rights. For each person has the complete authority over the use of her own property. Similarly, participation in a government itself is legitimate. Participation only becomes illegitimate in the moment when the government violates property rights.[10]

Before turning to second-generation human rights, we can state that property rights do imply many of the first-generation human rights, like security of life, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. In fact, these rights are not separable from property rights. Furthermore, when property rights are infringed upon, these human rights disappear along with them. For instance, when TV channels are licensed or state owned, the freedom of speech is inhibited as opinion in the TV is controlled. The same happen when newspapers are licensed or owned by the government. As Mises (2006, 33) points out “free press can only exist where there is private control of the means of production.” The same curtailment of human rights occurs when private property is violated to the extent that demonstrations, assemblies, or the formation of certain groups are forbidden. Moreover, by prohibiting the use of private property for certain spiritual meetings, religious rights are violated.

3.2. Second-Generation Rights

Whereas first-generation human rights are mainly negative rights, i.e., rights to be left alone, second generation rights are mainly positive in that they generally obligate governments to provide for the socio-economic welfare of others.[11] In this sense, these second-generation rights are sometimes called welfare rights. I will now look at some of these socio-economic or second-generation rights in detail. First, I quote two articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to provide an impression of the nature of second-generation rights. Then, I proceed to present and critique the main argument in for why welfare rights should be considered human rights.

Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 26 (1) reads:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Three main kinds of arguments are brought forward in favor of the alleged human social right to a minimum adequate standard of living, health care, social services, or education. The first kind of argument is egalitarian (Singh 2001). Although various egalitarian arguments differ in their account of equality, these arguments use equality as a norm to justify the claims of welfare rights. For example, James Sterba (2001, 325) takes an egalitarian approach when he maintains that there is a positive right, or “liberty not to be interfered with in taking the surplus resources of the rich what is required to meet one’s basic needs.” He continues (326) asking: “Isn’t it clearly unreasonable to require the poor to sacrifice the liberty to meet their basic needs so that the rich can have the liberty to meet their luxury demands?”

A second line of reasoning promotes human dignity as the norm for justifying the redistribution of resources. For example, Schachter (1983) and Otto (1997) regard human dignity – a term widespread in human rights treatises - as a foundation for human rights. According to this rationale, human dignity or the intrinsic worth of human beings demands, that everyone be provided an adequate means of subsistence or an opportunity to work. Human dignity would also imply, for instance, that every one gets a basic education and a minimum of “distributive justice”.

The third argument made in favor of social rights is based in T. H. Marshall’s influential work: Citizenship and Social Class: And other Essays (1950). Marshall argues that the possession of civil, political and social rights is a principal element of citizenship. If one element were missing, citizenship would be incomplete. Similarly, Beetham (1995) argues that social rights are a necessary condition of human agency. In this tradition, social rights are seen as a precondition of first generation rights. Swan (2001) argues that education is a precondition for liberty and political choice. Likewise, Almquist (2005) maintains a right of suitable cultural equipment[12] as precondition for cultural participation and other individual rights.

The central critique to all three lines of arguments is that to a large extent, second-generation rights violate property rights, i.e., real human rights. Second-generation rights require providing a service to those who cannot afford that service. If no one is willing to voluntarily finance these services, second-generation rights imply the use of coercion in order to provide such services. In such cases, second-generation rights violate property rights, as it is impossible to honor both of them at the same time.

It should be added, that property rights are not prima facie rights that can be restricted or balanced at discretion against some important goal, be it equality, “dignity,” or citizenship. Property rights are natural rights. They restrain the justifiable use of force in society. Their infringement would violate the self-ownership or the homesteading principle and as such stand against human nature. These violations are unjustifiable independent of any noble goals sought to be achieved by them. In addition to this central critique, every one of the three arguments is also susceptible to complementary criticisms.

The egalitarian argument fails, as it requires coercion to make men equal. As Erich von Kühnelt-Leddihn (1952) has cogently pointed out, there is always a dichotomy between equality and liberty. Sterba’s (2001) argument that the poor have the right to violate the liberty of the rich in order to satisfy their basic needs, shows the conflict between liberty and equality most clearly. In order to argue for his goal of a more equal distribution of resources, Sterba presupposes that there is no such thing as absolute property rights. Moreover, as a general critique to egalitarian approaches, Rothbard (1974; 1995) points out that there is no scientific argument that all men should be equal. Why should all men be equal? Naturally, humans have different characteristics; everyone is unique. These natural differences obviously imply a varying use of resources. Even efforts to create a more equal distribution of resources would not be successful in creating more equality. Nor would it be successful in remaining that way as human beings will continue to use the redistributed resources according to their own inclinations and talents.

The dignity argument resembles to some extent natural right philosophy by using reason to determine the intrinsic worth of a human being. Yet, the argument fails because it implicitly demands that private property rights be violated in order to secure, for instance, free education for everyone. In addition, the argumentation is problematic as no clear definition of human dignity is provided. In respect to this reasoning, one wonders above all: Would it not be against human dignity to violate property rights?

The argument that social rights are a precondition of other rights also fails as in order to secure citizenship state intervention is advised. The state is to provide public education, cultural equipment, regulate working conditions and payments. Beside the implication of coercion, social rights are no precondition for human rights. There is no need for universal free education or health care to enjoy property rights. I must not even be literate to enjoy the property in my body or possessions. The only condition is that no one violates my property. On the contrary, universal free education requires the violation of property rights.

3.3. Third-Generation Rights

Even though the list of second-generation rights already seems to be quite long, a new category of human rights has been promoted. In a response to the argument that human rights are too individualistic (Campbell 2004), collective or group rights have been suggested. Among these are the rights to peace (Jones 2006), to a safe and healthy environment (Nickel 1993), the right to development (Rich 1988) or the right to national self-determination (Seel 2001).

Third-generation rights are susceptible to the same central criticism as second-generation rights. Their application requires the violation of property rights. Moreover, third-generation rights are rights of groups. Yet groups cannot have rights, only individuals have rights. Of course, individuals have the right to use their property to form groups or acquire joint ownership of resources. However, it is simply impossible to establish an independent right of collective or group ownership from natural law. This attempt would require that parts of persons are collectively owned by a group, which would in turn violate the principle of self-ownership. Consequently, there is no group right to peace. Only individuals have the right that their property and persons not be attacked. Yet, property rights address these environmental concerns implicitly. No one has the right to pollute someone else’s property.

Similarly, just as a group right to peace does not exist, neither does a collective right to a safe and healthy environment exist. Only individuals have the right that their property not be polluted and destroyed. Furthermore, a right to clean water or an access to wilderness (Swan 2001) would be a welfare right and like second-generation rights, would violate private property rights.

A right to development does not exist either. Every person has the right to develop his own property and capacities. Yet a nation has no right to foreign aid from another nation based on a right to development. Lastly, the right to national self-determination is a fictitious right, as well, because collective entities cannot own rights. Some concession must be made, however, regarding self-determination. First, individuals have the right not to be exploited by a national majority. Second, every individual owns a natural right to self-determination and can join with others to disassociate themselves from a state.

4. Differences Between Property Rights and Pseudo Human Rights

In this section I investigate the differences between property rights, i.e., human rights, and pseudo human rights. These differences will give more weight to my assertion that property rights and pseudo human rights are irreconcilable. Such dissimilarities concern conceptual clarity, universality, coherency, specificity, rule of law, finiteness, response to conflicts, and nature, as well as their influence on governments, moral space, and economic prosperity.

First, the divergence between property rights and pseudo human rights is noted in terms of conceptual clarity. The definition of property rights is clear and precise: A property right gives the exclusive authority of the use of the property. Pseudo human rights, however, are ambiguous and vague. For instance, the alleged right for free basic education neither defines what counts as education nor the quantity and quality of the education that every human allegedly has a right to. Moreover, what is considered basic education and health care might change. During the passing of time outstanding historical events or new scientific theories might be included in the canon of basic education. Likewise, with the introduction of new drugs or more effective medical treatment, health care alters as well.

The next difference lies in the universality of human rights. Property rights are universal rights. They lie in human nature and are applicable to any human society. In fact, they are feasible in any country at any time if people just abstain from the violation of property rights. Yet pseudo human rights are not universal for two main reasons. First, they are not natural rights and as such dependent on legal enactment and the provision of the state. Second, as Cranston (1973) has shown, socio-economic rights are not possessed by virtue of being human but by virtue of being a member of a certain society. If a society is poor, there might not be enough resources to provide basic free education or health care to everyone.

The coherency of property rights and incoherency of pseudo human rights is another main distinction between them. Property rights are coherent and pose no self-contradictions. For example, the right of free speech on one’s own property does not interfere with the right of using one’s property to call for an assembly. Quite to the contrary, pseudo human rights are not only in conflict with property rights but also with each other. Pseudo human rights stand in conflict with each other because there is always a limited amount of resources available to satisfy these rights (Nickel 2006). For example, the right to health care interferes with the right to free education and with the right to security in the event of unemployment. Logically, the resources the government dedicates to health care cannot be dedicated to competing pseudo human rights.

Another dissimilarity between property rights and pseudo human rights lies in their specificity. Property rights are general and abstract, implying general rules of conduct as, for instance: it is never allowed to steal or murder. These rules imply an absence of interference that is difficult to visualize. Pseudo property rights, however, are not abstract notions. They are specific to a situation and are subsequently more visible than property rights. Gordon (1998) actually advocates that human rights should be directly related to concrete life activities. This difference makes pseudo human rights more visualizable than property rights. The alleged right to free basic education or a right to clean water is more visualizable than the abstractness of property rights.

A related distinction is the rule of law in the Hayekian (1944) sense implied in property rights and their absence under pseudo human rights. Property rights minimize the discretion left to government. Property rights entail rules of conduct that are the same for everyone independent of the specific circumstances. In other words, they point to general rules or formal law. Consequently, property rights imply equality before the law. In contrast, pseudo human rights imply certain redistribution from the rich to those who cannot afford the alleged rights. Someone has to provide a service to those who cannot afford the right. Therefore, pseudo human rights demand an unequal treatment before the law. Some are taxed in order to pay for the welfare of others. The interpretation of the particular situation and person gives the government discretion. The specific circumstances of a person call for a different treatment. Individuals make use of the coercive measures of the state to improve their welfare. The particular legislation and vague definitions give room for discretion by the government and violates, consequently, the rule of law. By violating the rule of law, the traditional sense of justice in the population is perverted. As a consequence, corruption flourishes and the population no longer follows universal rules but tries to gain advantages by demanding and interpreting pseudo human rights.

Furthermore, as another distinction, property rights are few, determinate, and finite. Those rights can be summarized in the principle of self-ownership and the homesteading principle. These two principals are similar to a corset which limits the implicit rights in property rights. Quite to the contrary, pseudo human rights are many, indeterminate and in fact expanding (Stoilov 2001). We live in an age in which human rights inflation devaluates property rights. The quantity of pseudo human rights is open and not bound by any principle. Anything that is just important enough and lies in the alleged dignity of humans is deemed as a precondition for other rights or that which makes humans more equal can in principal be advocated as a human right.

A further discrepancy lies in the manner in which property rights and pseudo human rights affect conflicts. Property rights minimize conflicts. By giving each individual exclusive authority over his body and property, conflicts are reduced.[13] Moreover, pseudo human rights create conflicts for several reasons. First, welfare rights create conflicts with property right owners. Property owners who do not want to pay for the welfare rights of their fellow citizens will try to avoid that infringement of their property. Second, conflicts can occur concerning the quantity and quality of those services or resources a vaguely defined pseudo human right implies. Third, conflicts arise between different pseudo human rights when not enough resources are available to meet them all. Fourth, as pseudo human rights are an open sum, conflicts are possible about the question of which new human rights are to be added. Everyone could make the claim to have a certain pseudo human right and use it to justify initiating coercion on another person to provide the right.

An additional difference lies in the type of rights that property rights and pseudo human rights are. Property rights are negative and active rights. They are negative in the sense that they require restraint from doing certain things (Machan 1997), i.e., the non-interference with the property of other people. They are active rights in the sense that they imply the right to do things (Almond 1993). Everyone has the right to do with his body and property what he wants as long as he does not violate the property of another.

Quite to the contrary, pseudo human rights are positive and passive rights. They are positive rights in the sense that they point to positive duties (Jones 2006). For instance, the alleged right of free medical care implies the positive duties of others to provide these medical services. Pseudo human rights are passive rights in the sense that they are rights to have things done to the owner of the welfare right (Almond 1993). Thus, this owner is provided with an adequate living standard and education.

Interestingly, this clear-cut distinction between property rights and pseudo human rights has been disputed. Beetham (1995) tries to show that property rights are also positive or active rights, as they require actions to protect them. Government provides the protection of property rights in the same sense as it would provide welfare rights. As a response, it must first be pointed out that property rights can in principal, and are in practice, protected without the help of government. People can defend themselves, put walls around their property or hire private security guards. Second, it is as Machan (1985, 36) distinctly notes, only the “enjoyment of a right” that needs protection. Property rights exist prior to and independent of any defense. Third, and most importantly, property rights do not need active protection if they are respected. In contrast, pseudo human rights in order to be respected need an active intervention in order to secure the provision of welfare goods and services.

These differences in the types of rights lead us directly to the divergent influences property rights and pseudo human rights have upon government. As property rights are negative rights they restrict the sphere of government. Pseudo human rights, however, give government the authority and even the duty to provide the population with some services, be it clean water, cultural equipment, fair wages, or medical care. Pseudo human rights, in this way, expand the role of government in the economy requiring paternalistic and bureaucratic central agencies.

Another disparity between property rights and pseudo human rights can be found in their effects on human responsibility. As Machan (1992) points out, property rights provide human beings with a moral space. Inside their moral space as limited by their property rights, human beings can act morally and responsibly. This allows for and promotes courage, honesty, generosity, and prudence. Pseudo human rights have the opposite effect. They restrict and violate property rights, consequently restricting the possibility for moral action. Furthermore, they promote irresponsible behavior with resources that are provided for by the government. When people receive resources for free, they tend to waste those resources. When the government guarantees the provision of these resources, the cost of wasting them will be socialized.

This last difference leads us directly to the unlikely effects that private property rights and pseudo human rights have upon wealth creation and economic growth. A system of well-defined and defended private property rights fosters economic growth in several respects. First, private property in the means of production makes economic calculation possible, as Mises (1920) lucidly has shown. His argument is as ingenious as it is simple. If there is no private property in the means of production there are no market prices of the means of production. Without market prices of the means of production rational economic calculation becomes impossible. No central planning agency could possibly command the information necessary to coordinate a complex economy.

Second, private property rights foster economic growth because they provide incentives for individual actors to create wealth and take care of their property. When property is privately owned and not restricted by government, the owner of private property can fully participate in the benefits that the property provides. A property owner bears the costs of their actions, when their property or wealth decreases in value. Consequently, the property owner has the incentive to take care of his property, to prevent waste, and to put it into the most value-productive uses as determined by the consumers on the free market.

Third, secure property rights enhance incentives to save and accumulate capital, which enhance productivity and lead to higher economic growth. In addition, secure property rights create incentives to acquire greater skills in production for the market and earning profits. When property rights are respected the economy grows thereby raising the standard of living. The increased standard of living makes the fulfillment of the goals set by second-generation rights more probable. A higher standard of living gives people the opportunity to provide for health care, basic education, etc.. Moreover, charity tends to increase with increasing wealth thereby providing the means for basic needs of the poor without the violation of property rights.

In contrast, pseudo human rights inhibit economic growth. By infringing upon property rights, they make economic calculation more difficult. By enlarging the role of government and the burden of taxation they discourage the efficient use of resources. Moreover, in addition to the higher tax burden they create legal insecurity. Pseudo human rights are not clearly defined, and also are changeable and augmentable. Therefore, legal insecurity is the result of the inner contradictions and conflicts that pseudo human rights face. As a consequence, savings and capital accumulation are discouraged. Ironically, by curbing economic growth, pseudo human rights make the fulfillment of their goals more difficult. There are fewer resources available than with secure property rights and higher economic growth. Thus, satisfying basic needs is more difficult and less resources available for charity purposes.

Lastly, property rights and pseudo human rights differ in their associated political system and philosophy. The concomitant political system to property rights is capitalism (Machan 1992). The concomitant political value is liberty. Indeed, liberty is implied in property rights. In this sense Hayek (1973, 107) states: “Law, liberty, and property are an inseparable trinity.” We find this same conclusion in the quote by Ludwig von Mises at the beginning of this essay. The political program of classical liberalism can be reduced to property rights.

Quite to the contrary, the concomitant political system to pseudo human rights is socialism. The intervention of the state in human affairs in order to improve society is reflected in such positive rights as universal health care or public education. In fact, Stoilov (2001) argues that the rise of the welfare state was accompanied by the development of social and economic rights doctrines.

The differences between property rights and pseudo human rights discussed in this section are summarized in the following table:


Property Rights or Human Rights

Pseudo Human Rights

Conceptual Clarity

Clear and precise

Vague and ambiguous



Not universal





Abstract and general

Specific and problem oriented

Rule of Law




Few and finite

Many and infinite

Conflict Resolution



Type of right

Negative and active

Positive and passive

Effects on government



Moral Space



Wealth Creation


Inhibit and destroy

Basis of social system



In sum, property rights (which are human rights) and pseudo human rights contain unbridgeable differences and are mutually exclusive. In fact, pseudo human rights destroy the concept of rights by violating property rights and perverting the traditional meaning of justice. If pseudo human rights and property rights are artificially set on an equal basis something similar to the logic implied in Gresham´s Law occurs. Artificially overvalued rights, i.e. the pseudo rights, crowd out the undervalued rights, i.e. property rights. Progressively, property rights are neglected and violated. The inflating pseudo human rights take prevalence in society. In this sense, Hayek (1976, 105), regards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “an irresponsible game with the concept of ‘right’ which could result only in destroying the respect for it.”

5. The Defenders of Property Rights and Defenders of Pseudo Human Rights

In this section I will investigate why there have been fewer intellectual defenders of property rights than defenders of pseudo human rights. There are several reasons for this discrepancy. First, it is much easier to inspire people with practical and visualizable concepts than with abstract concepts. Property rights are abstract concepts with many implications. They guarantee the absence of an action, namely the interference with one’s property. Contrary to property rights, pseudo human rights are more problem-specific and visualizable. Moreover, the goals that pseudo human rights aim at are an adequate living standard for all, or a clean environment, are perceived as noble and practical. Pseudo human rights seem to provide a solution to many burdensome problems of mankind by carrying normative weight for the use of force.

Second, as we have seen, property rights are the “keystone” of capitalism (DiLorenzo 2004). Property rights are correctly associated with exchange, trade, and the market economy. Pseudo human rights, in contrast, are associated with solidarity and the welfare state. They provide a justification of interventions into society. Logically, defenders of capitalism defend property rights and defenders of statism defend pseudo human rights.

Traditionally, there have been few defenders of capitalism and liberty. Lord Acton (1907, ch. 1) observes that “[a]t all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities...” Indeed, the “hegemony of the Left” over the universities is overwhelming (Feser 2004). Consequently, the answer to our question is straightforward: As there have been few friends of liberty among intellectuals there have been also few defenders of property rights. However, we still have not really answered the question why there have been fewer defenders of property rights than defenders of pseudo human rights. We just have moved it to another level. We are now faced with the intriguing question of why the majority of intellectuals have socialist leanings, making them advocates of pseudo human rights.

Even if we assume best intentions, like protecting people through welfare rights, it is important to look at the incentive structure with which intellectuals are confronted. Many intellectuals receive part or all of their income from the government (Klein 2006). Many intellectuals are working in the education sector, which is highly regulated and subsidized, if not outright nationalized, by the government. By subsidizing intellectuals their number increases above the number that would prevail on a free market. Owing their job to the government, many intellectuals - consciously or not - tend to justify government interventions. These government interventions are, in fact, in many cases justified by pseudo human rights. Moreover, as many intellectuals are part of the government apparatus, they indirectly profit from the application of interventions such as those implied in pseudo human rights. With pseudo human rights, the power of the state increases and many intellectuals form part of the state organization.

A second reason is brought forward in Hayek’s seminal 1949 article “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” Hayek argues that many intelligent libertarians do not go into academia or other intellectual jobs but instead go into business. Therefore, left-leaning intellectuals are over-represented in academia.

A third reason denotes human vanity. Everyone likes to feel important. As do most people, intellectuals want to think they do something useful or important. Therefore, intellectuals hired or subsidized by the state favor social engineering. They think they can fine-tune society and call for the state in helping them in this noble task. Incidentally, one way to improve society in the eyes of intellectuals is by fulfilling pseudo human rights. As their quantity, quality, and extension are vague, someone is needed in order to decide on these delicate questions. This is where the importance of the intellectuals enters. They help to answer these questions and also provide justifications for these rights.

A fourth reason, is the hatred that many intellectuals nourish against capitalism. There are several reasons for this hatred. One is the myth of a falling standard of living during the industrial revolution.[14] Another cause of the resentment is, as Mises (2006) notes, caused by frustrated ambitions. Many intellectuals, even though they regard themselves as better educated, earn much less than many entrepreneurs. They envy[15] the success of the entrepreneurs and managers that earn more than they do. Subsequently, they look for a scapegoat for their failure and find it in capitalism. As a result, they resent the system, which allows uneducated entrepreneurs to earn much more than the well-educated and highly intelligent intellectuals. Related to Mises´argument is Nozick´s (1986) explanation of the opposition of intellectuals to capitalism. Nozick maintains that intellectuals have been successful in their school years and rewarded by the central school authority while they have failed socially in a spontaneous market environment. Consequently, they tend to favor a central organization to the market economy.

A fifth reason is that many intellectuals do not understand the market economy (Hayek 1949). As they do not understand it, they see the market economy as something suspicious that must be controlled and channeled into controllable lines by pseudo human rights. They do not grasp the importance of the rule of law and property rights for civilization. They are also unaware of the consequences that the alternatives to capitalism entail. Moreover, they do not know the detrimental effects interventionism has on wealth creation. Nor do they comprehend what adverse effects pseudo human rights have on society.

Sixth, the ideal at which socialists are aiming is more appealing than capitalism. The portrait of a socialist ideal with the brush strokes of pseudo human rights is more appealing and promising than the realistic picture of a capitalistic society. Consequently, in the marketing of ideas, defenders of socialism have been more successful.


Murray Rothbard makes the daring claim that all human rights can be formulated as a variation of property rights. This analysis affirms this claim. Property rights are natural rights resting on the twin axioms of self-ownership and the homesteading principle.

Any human right can be deduced from property rights. In fact, there are no separate human rights distinct from property rights. Instead, human rights are entailed in and limited by property rights. Any alleged right that infringes property rights and jumps the boundaries set by them, cannot be a human right. By violating property rights, the alleged right violates rights firmly rooted in human nature. These alleged human rights that infringe on human rights are therefore called pseudo human rights.

The distinction between property rights and pseudo human rights could not be greater. Property rights are clearly defined, universal, coherent, abstract, general, limited, and stand for the rule of law. They are negative and active rights that minimize conflicts, allow for moral space, restrict government, and foster economic growth. In contrast, pseudo human rights are vaguely defined, situation-dependent, contradictory, specific, open for augmentation, and contrast with the rule of law. They are positive and passive rights that breed conflict, restrict moral responsibility, expand the role of government, and inhibit economic growth.

With regard to these distinctions, we must ask why there have been more defenders of property rights than pseudo human rights. The solution lies in the concomitant political systems of these rights. Property rights are the pillars of a capitalist society. Pseudo human rights promote socialist measures. Socialism is still the dream of many intellectuals. As such, many intellectuals use the language of human rights to give moral weight to social welfare goals. Indeed, pseudo human rights give intellectuals a task to work upon. They must find justifications, refine definitions, create additional rights, and quarrel about quantity and quality of pseudo human rights. Consequently, pseudo human rights give intellectuals a role in society. Property rights, in contrast, are less visualizable and less academically inspiring. They restrict government and consequently the space for government-employed intellectuals. All this explains why intellectuals tend to be defenders of pseudo human rights and why these kinds of human rights are a growing industry. This inflation of the human rights concept is like a cancer in the flesh of a capitalistic society devaluating its basis: property rights. Hopefully, this cancer can be treated by a new inspiring liberal utopia as Hayek (1949) describes: “a liberal Utopia, . . . which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism.”

That being said, we are still confronted daily with disturbing images from around the world that call for remedy. Though some might interpret a property-rights-based criterion for defining human rights as uncaring, we should be reminded that the distress we see in the news is aggravated because property rights and human rights derived from them have not always been secured. If anything, a free-market society that protects such rights will most likely flourish and have more to share with those less fortunate. A clear understanding of property rights simply does not imply apathy about the plight of others. If anything, such an understanding is pre-requisite for creating the appropriate social changes to address these misfortunes. Inflating the moral currency of human rights to include advocacy of welfare rights can only add further injustice to those situations in which changes are sought.


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[1] Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 91.

[2] Mises, Liberalism – In the Classical Tradition, p. 19.

[3] See Lacey (2008).

[4] See Jacobs (2008).

[5] See Dugger (2008).

[6] See Charbonneau (2008). U.N. says Darfur dead may be 300,000 as Sudan denies.

[7] Property rights can be defined as the exclusive authority over an object. They imply a right to use the object, to its services and the right to transfer it to other persons (Alchian, 2008).

[8] The alternative to self-ownership is slavery. Slavery, however, does not fulfill the universalization test of an ethical theory. There would be different rules for different people, as some people would be masters and others would be slaves. Therefore, slavery is unethical and must be held as a violation of natural law.

[9] For a libertarian account of the natural law meaning of just punishment, see Rothbard (1998).

[10] Government infringes on private property by regulations, expropriations, forced labor, or taxation. Classical liberals maintain that taxation in order to fulfill government’s function of protecting private property would be legitimate. Libertarian anarchists regard any taxation as a violation of property rights.

[11] For the difference between positive and negative liberty see Berlin (1969).

[12] Almqvist defines cultural equipment as skills (e.g. how to write a motion), tools (e.g. computer) and know-how (e.g. computer literacy).

[13] So called public property rights do not resolve conflicts very well. The existence of public streets, jobs or television lead to conflicts about their uses. Shall the streets be used by immigrants or by a demonstration for animal rights? However, private property rights, which we mean in this article as general property rights, solve those problems.

[14] For an analysis of this legend see Hayek (1963).

[15] See Schoeck (1987) for the importance of envy for the human race.