• Is the idea of a property ethic coherent?
  • Which ideas of property justice are compatible with argumentation?
  • Is justice in property timeless and universal, or contingent on history or persons involved?

The questions above divide the world of possibilities into 4 possibilities of interest:

  • The idea of a property ethic is incoherent.
  • Property ethics that are incompatible with argumentation can be true.
  • Historically contingent or particularistic property ethics that are compatible with argumentation can be true.
  • Only timeless, universal property ethics that are compatible with argumentation can be true.

I will attempt to show that the idea of a property ethic is coherent and that we may eliminate two of the categories of property ethics from consideration (those incompatible with argument, and historically contingent or particularistic ethics). Thus, given the proper conception of what is compatible with argumentation, I will have recapitulated Hoppe’s proof of the private property ethic by accepting the weak assumptions of his critics. The differences between my approach and Hoppe’s, if there really are any, concern making certain steps in the argument more explicit and taking a slightly different angle of approach. Hoppe’s approach emphasized the refutation of rival ethics, and I have doubled down on this, taking it even further. It may be that really this is exactly what Hoppe intended, though if so, he did not make his thought sufficiently explicit to avoid confusing his critics, who insist on misinterpreting him and refuting claims that he does not make. Or it may be that I have recombined the bits and pieces of Hoppe’s argument together with the complaints of his critics to achieve the same result in a slightly different way.
One way for a critic to oppose Hoppe is to accept the basic analysis, but question the criteria used to draw the line between what is and is not compatible with argumentation. For instance, this probably provides the substance of the difference between Hoppe’s approach and that of Habermas and Apel. (I must admit, I have not been able to lay my hands on the relevant work of Habermas and Apel, so I am not certain of this.) In this blog entry, I will abstract from that dispute, perhaps to take it up on another occasion.

Property justice is coherent. 

What would we mean if we tried to deny the possibility of property justice? To claim that property justice is incoherent is to claim that property regimes are and of necessity must be completely arbitrary, that no process of logic, experiment, reflection, intuition, utility calculation, cost/benefit analysis, or trial and error could possibly tell us anything about the characteristics or desirability of any ideal property scheme or the truth of propositions comparing or describing them. We don’t need to decide which of these are or are not appropriate for our purposes here, so long as we agree that at least some approach applies.

[T]his is a self-contradictory “norm of following no norm.” It is a proposed norm, and thus fails as impossible merely by being stated. Hoppe also makes clear that every alternative to the NAP implies some property norm.

(Graf, LIBERTARIAN PAPERS 3, 19 (2011), page 23.)

What does it mean to deny the coherence of property ethics? Some sort of mutual understanding of the default arrangement regarding who may possess and use objects is a practical requirement of a civilization. What are the conceptual alternatives? Arbitrariness, might makes right? Is it possible to imagine a third possibility, which endorses niether “might makes right” nor some evaluation of property justice, a pragmatic or arbitrary property scheme with no justice claim? But both “might makes right” and pragmatism can be viewed as property norms, though not the sort that are easy to justify. What does it even mean to reject this mode of analysis, what mode can we use to replace it? Individualism, where each person makes their own subjective evaluation of the property regime? We can imagine persons giving different importance to different aspects of a property regime, but their analysis still takes place within the same framework. 

In effect, what we are assuming by using this framework is that the idea of a standard by which property ethics can be measured makes sense, without necessarily claiming to know what standard is best. Hoppe’s analysis provides a basis for a standard, and only makes sense if the idea of a standard makes sense. Similarly, if the idea of a standard makes sense, it seems to me that Hoppe’s analysis makes sense.

For now I will treat the idea as coherent, and delegate to my critics the job of explaining why they might conclude otherwise.

Property must be compatible with argumentation.

Let’s ignore for the moment what precise criteria we can use to determine which property schemes are or are not compatible with argumentation, but examine the abstract outline of Hoppe’s approach. He claims that a large subset of property regimes violate this stricture. He wishes to convince us that no one can coherently advocate a property regime that contains a premise that contradicts a truth presupposed by the act of argumentation itself. This logic seems clear, only the content of this essential truth seems contestable. 

Let’s use Frederick’s approach, and just refer to this critical proposition upon which argumentation depends as q. Argumentation presupposes q is true. Following Hoppe’s critic Frederick, let’s stipulate that this truth is contingent upon argumentation, that is, that we only know for sure that q is true when someone participates in argumentation, and we only know it is true for that person. Frederick went to great lengths to show that his sketch of Hoppe’s argument cannot conclude that q is true universally and timelessly. Here is Frederick’s syllogism sketching Hoppe’s idea:

  • (a)  A necessary condition of argumentation is that q is true.
  • (b)  In order to decide a truth claim, one must argue.
  • (c)  Therefore, one can dispute the truth of q, only if q is true.
  • (d)  Therefore, anyone who disputes the truth of q is mistaken.

But note that even Frederick’s version can refute a large class of [propositions] property regimes. Any property ethic that claims to be timeless and universal and [proposition that ] claims that q is false for all persons at all times will be refuted by a single counter-example. Hoppe’s [pragmatic contradiction] argument, even with Frederick’s weak assumptions, is sufficient to provide such a counter-example. Let’s embellish Frederick’s argument for this purpose:

  • (e)  Let P be [any proposition ]all property ethics that entail[s] q is false for all times and persons.
  • (f)  If there exists a counterexample where q is true for one person at one time, all propositions in P [is ]are refuted.
  • (g)  I am arguing now.
  • (h)  q is true for me now.
  • (i)  all propositions in P are [P is ]refuted.

So we may conclude that all [propositions]property ethics that claim q is always false for all persons are themselves demonstrated to be false. We may eliminate this class of [argumentation-incompatible propositions]property ethics from our consideration. This leaves behind only the class of [propositions]property ethics that are compatible with argumentation for us to consider, which we may divide into those that are timeless and universal, versus those that are historically contingent or particularistic.

Timeless and universal, or historically contingent or particularistic?

We may again divide the remaining set of argumentation-compatible ethics according to whether the property ethic describes a universal, timeless norm, or a particularistic or historically contingent rule. The logic above does not exclude the idea that a property ethic might deny q but only at certain times or for certain persons. The logic above only eliminated ethics that deny q at all times for all persons. 

An example of a serious historically contingent norm proposal is provided perhaps by Marx’s different attitudes toward private property in the context of a feudal society, a capitalist society, and a socialist society. Hoppe would dismiss such regimes simply for failing universality. 

My previous interpretation of Hoppe’s argument excluded the possibility of using universalizability, but I imagined using it in a different way. Like Frederick, I had supposed that Hoppe’s argument was an attempt to prove q is true always for everyone. In that circumstance, it would beg the question to assert that q is a norm so it must be universalizable. In that context, I thought of Hoppe as reasoning about q, and so assuming it to be a universal norm should be an explicit (and very questionable) assumption. At that point in the imagined argument, we know nothing about q, and must gather what we know about it from our reasoning. In the current approach, I think of Hoppe as considering all possibilities and eliminating some. In this instance, universalizability seems much more legitimate, though perhaps I could say a bit about why norms that are particularistic or historically contingent don’t make sense.

[A]rgumentation implies that a proposition claims universal acceptability or should it be a norm proposal, that it be “universalizable.” Applied to norm proposals, this is the idea, as formulated in the Golden Rule of ethics or in the Kantian Categorical Imperative, that only those norms can be justified that can be formulated as general principles which without exception are valid for everyone. Indeed as it is implied in argumentation that everyone who can understand an argument must in principle be able to be convinced by it simply because of its argumentative force, the universalization principle of ethics can now be understood and explained as implied in the wider a priori of communication and argumentation. 


[A]ll of the practiced alternatives to libertarianism and most of the theoretically proposed nonlibertarian ethics would not even pass the first formal universalization test and would fail for this fact alone! All these versions contain norms within their framework of legal rules which have the form, “some people do, and some people do not.” However, such rules that specify different rights or obligations for different classes of people have no chance of being accepted as fair.


Do I really believe universalizability? Where does it come from? Arguments that make no assumptions about people can’t draw distinctions between people. So either moral arguments do not draw distinctions between people, or they are based on assumptions that critics can’t deny. Such assumptions appear very rarely, if at all.

Timelessness? I can make an argument similar to the one for universalizability. But an additional factor appears in the analysis. It makes no sense for morality to approve of something when it happened 3000 years ago, but to disapprove of it today. So if slavery is wrong now, it was always wrong. It is wrong. It will always be wrong. The additional factor appears when something utterly new is devised, so people can do new things to or with each other. This could complicate things, as morality can’t say much about something that is impossible, until it becomes possible. I think this is sufficient for Hoppe, that homesteading that happened at the dawn of humanity we must consider legitimate, and therefore we must now consider homesteading legitimate.


I used Frederick’s syllogism to disqualify all timeless property ethics that lack compatibility with argumentation. Hoppe uses universalizability to eliminate all particularistic or contingent ethics. If the analysis is logically and conceptually coherent, the only remaining possibility is that some variant of a timeless, universal, argumentation-compatible property ethic must be true, because we also eliminated the possibility that no property ethic is true. My analysis has not shown that all such ethics are true, just that at least one of them must be. In effect, Hoppe has added another criterion for valid norms (argumentation-compatibility) to those (timelessness and universalizability) previously known to philosophers.

I have attempted to close off all possibilities of denying Hoppe’s analysis. If, as I have argued, property ethics must be timeless and universal, and if they must be compatible with argumentation, as Hoppe argues, then critics have two avenues of attack remaining. They may deny the coherence of the conceptual basis of Hoppe’s argument. Above I have attempted to address this, though I may not have foreseen every possible creative twist possible. Or they may try to show that their favored alternative is compatible with argumentation, an issue I have not addressed here. To reiterate, the skeptic must show one of the following:

  • Property norms may be particularistic or historically contingent.
  • Property norms do not need to be compatible with argumentation.
  • This entire analysis is incoherent somehow.
  • Timeless, universal property ethics that are compatible with argumentation but not classifiable as private property ethics do exist.

I’ve done my best to argue against the first three in this blog post. I may take on the fourth in a future post. (I am tempted to think that critics who choose this approach are not really critics but friendly revisionists, though perhaps Habermas provides a counterexample. In other words, just getting opponents to consider whether a property ethic is compatible with argumentation is a victory of sorts.) Hoppe has attempted at length to show what a property ethic must provide in order to be compatible with argumentation. Still, it might be interesting to collect his reasons together in a blog post.