Human Rights are Property Rights

The phrase “property rights” appears to refer to the rights of property. That of course is meaningless because property aren’t people, and therefore property cannot have rights. Property rights refers to the notion that humans have the right to their private property. Therefore to place property rights in some form of opposition to human rights — as I did in the previous post — is silly. The two essentially mean and amount to the same basic idea. Human rights are property rights, and vice versa.

It all begins with the axiom of self-ownership. To quote Murray Rothbard, the brilliant libertarian economist, from an April 1959 article:

. . . each individual, according to our understanding of the natural order of things, is the owner of himself, the ruler of his own person. Preservation of this self-ownership is essential for the proper development and well-being of man. The human rights of the person are, in effect, a recognition of each man’s inalienable property right over his own being; and from this property right stems his right to the material goods that he has produced. A man’s right to personal freedom, then, is his property right in himself.

From that you can easily derive other rights — such as the right to free speech and the right to assemble. Rothbard —

. . . there are no human rights that are separable from property rights. The human right of free speech is only the property right to hire an assembly hall from the owners, to speak to those who are willing to listen, to buy materials and then print leaflets or books and sell them to those who are willing to buy. There is no extra right of free speech beyond the property rights that we can enumerate in any given case. In all seeming cases of human rights, then, the proper course is to find and identify the property rights involved. And this procedure will resolve any apparent conflicts of rights; for property rights are always precise and legally recognizable.

Go read Rothbard’s Human Rights are Property Rights at FEE. The article is much older than you are.

Alright, now to the question of whether the state should protect weapons (which are in the final just property of the state, meaning that it is collective property) against enemy attack or should the state protect people (who are not the property of the state)?

Baransam1 concluded in his comment that the citizens should be protected instead of weapons. He came close to what I believe is the correct answer but missed it because of an assumption of irrationality.

The answer depends on the reasonable assumption that the enemy is rationally interested in self-preservation and therefore can be deterred from actions that would lead to his assured destruction.

If the weapons of country A are protected, then country B would not attack country A because A has the capacity for retaliatory harm. Therefore by protecting weapons, the people are protected from first strike harm.

Thomas Schelling (1921 – 2016) (2005 economics “Nobel Prize”) made that point over 60 years ago.

Schelling’s early work was on the most important issue of the Cold War: preventing it from becoming a hot war. In his classic 1960 book, The Strategy of Conflict, Schelling laid out some important applications of game theory to the issue of nuclear war. In one passage, he discussed the U.S.-Soviet conflict in the terms of a hypothetical duel. He wrote “if both [duelists] were assured of living long enough to shoot back with unimpaired aim, there would be no advantage in jumping the gun and little reason to fear that the other would try it.” Thus “schemes to avert surprise attack have as their most immediate objective the safety of weapons rather than the safety of people.” This means that to have a credible deterrent against a Soviet first strike that would destroy many of its people, the U.S. government needed to defend its weapons first, rather than its citizens first. While the government may appear to be placing the value of its weapons above the lives of its citizens, the threat of deterrence is not credible if the weapons are exposed.

The above is from a brief biography of Schelling at It is worth reading.

Just in passing I note that the fact that I am an economist is because I accidentally read Schelling’s book Micromotives and Macrobehavior. Take a look at some of the comments that review the book at

{Followup post Rationality in a World of Suicidally Deluded People.}

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “Human Rights are Property Rights”

  1. Alright, now to the question of whether the state should protect weapons (which are in the final just property of the state, meaning that it is collective property) against enemy attack or should the state protect people (who are not the property of the state)?

    State’s job is to defend people’s right to property. State can spend money towards that goal. Whether it should spend it on building weapons on protecting existing weapons is completely irrelevant IMO, state may spend money proportional to the benefit its citizens might get out of those weapons.

    It probably makes sense for India to have just enough nukes to ensure Pak or China do not think of using their nukes against us. What does not make sense is USA owning enough nukes to nuke the entire earth 10 times.


    1. Aks, certainly there is a quantum of weapons that need to be protected against attack to serve as a deterrent. But that is almost certainly lower than that currently observed in the US. The problem is the “Industrial Military Complex” that President Eisenhower warned against — and what he feared had come to pass. In brief, the voters are to blame. The voters would never vote for a president who promises to dismantle the MI complex. Each constituency has an interest in keeping the production of weapons of mass destruction, not realizing that they are victims of a multi-player prisoner’s dilemma game. C’est la guerre.


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