Defending the Reecean Proviso

On March 7, I published an article which discusses a libertarian theory of property rights as well as a proviso thereto which covers the case of a conflict between one person’s self-ownership and another person’s private property rights in external objects. This invited a lengthy criticism by Coralyn Herenschrict in the comments section which bears addressing in the form of a point-by-point rebuttal.

Another in a long historical line of strenuous but unsuccessful attempts to undermine property rights by exception. …Attempting to turn property ownership from a fundamental human right of an individual by virtue of his interactions with the natural world into a privilege conditionally granted by other men by virtue of their state of being.

The Reecean proviso is not an effort to undermine property rights; it is an effort to examine what happens when one person’s property rights in one’s body comes into conflict with another person’s property rights in external objects. That property ownership is a fundamental right of an individual by virtue of one’s interactions with the natural world is not being questioned.

Thus, private property rights over external objects are dependent upon the property right over one’s physical body. That which is dependent cannot overrule that upon which it is dependent. Therefore, self-ownership stands above private property rights in external objects.

This conclusion makes two errors. It confuses states that must coexist both with states that must remain true and with states that have hierarchical precedence. It also confuses negative rights with positive rights.

This is not so, as we shall see.

For example, I must own myself to homestead land for that act to be valid. But once valid, it is forever valid. Regardless of if I die, sell myself into slavery, or otherwise subsequently lose ownership of myself. The dependency on my self-ownership is scoped temporally to the period in time of the act of homesteading. The dependency does not extend into the past before that period nor into the future beyond that period.

This is not entirely true. A person who loses self-ownership loses all corollaries thereof a fortiori, and private property is one such corollary. This happens if a person dies or commits murder while having no heirs or will and testament. Death is the cessation of the biological processes which produce self-ownership. Committing a murder negates one’s self-ownership through the violation of another person’s self-ownership because the moral hypocrisy of claiming one’s own rights while having irreparably violated another person’s rights cannot be rationally advanced in argument. One cannot sell oneself into slavery; as Murray Rothbard explains[1],

“A man can alienate his labor service, but he cannot sell the capitalized future value of that service. In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced—for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance. In short, a man can naturally expend his labor currently for someone else’s benefit, but he cannot transfer himself, even if he wished, into another man’s permanent capital good. For he cannot rid himself of his own will, which may change in future years and repudiate the current arrangement. The concept of “voluntary slavery” is indeed a contradictory one, for so long as a laborer remains totally subservient to his master’s will voluntarily, he is not yet a slave since his submission is voluntary; whereas, if he later changed his mind and the master enforced his slavery by violence, the slavery would not then be voluntary.”

Herenschrict continues:

I must simultaneously have various rights in order to blast a watermelon with a shotgun for fun. I must have the right to be on the land. I must have the right to use the shotgun. I must have the right to destroy the watermelon. But none of these rights requirements takes philosophical priority over the others by virtue of the need they coincide. In case of conflict between these rights, philosophy does not supply any basis to grant dominance to any one of them.

None of these rights are dependent upon any other of these rights, so it is correct to conclude that philosophy does not supply any basis to grant dominance to any one of them.

Your claim that a property right in one’s own body is not actually a property right but is a different kind of right taking precedence over property rights is not established.

This is a straw man; I did not claim that a property right in one’s physical body is not actually a property right. I made the case that the property right in one’s physical body is logically stronger than a property right in an external object. This is established by the fact that the property right in one’s physical body arises through direct appropriation and inhabitation, while property rights in external objects can only be established through exercising the property right in one’s physical body. There is a clear relationship of dependence here, so the precedence of the property right in one’s physical body over property rights in external objects is established.

Self-ownership does not convey a positive right obligating others to action to keep me alive. I will not repeat the extensive argumentation elsewhere demonstrating the invalidity to the notion of positive rights except to mention its conclusion that positive rights necessarily contravene property rights.

This is another straw man, as a positive right obligating others to action to keep someone alive is not being defended. In fact, the Reecean proviso does not even call for obligating others to inaction to allow a person to keep oneself alive, as a property owner could prevent the proviso from being used simply by making the life-saving property unreachable or by defending it in such a way that it cannot be taken without posing a threat to the property owner.

First, the person’s life must be in jeopardy due to the aggressions of another person and not due to the person’s own action or inaction. Otherwise, a person could make a series of poor choices so as to engineer a situation in which the person is reduced to a stark choice between using another person’s private property or dying and then take advantage of this situation to take private property from another person by underhanded means. Because one inherently consents to what one does to oneself, one cannot commit acts of aggression against oneself. Thus, the threat to one’s life that would allow the Reecean proviso to be used cannot be of one’s own making.

This is an impossible standard to set up as existing philosophically above respect for private property. It is indistinguishable from arbitrary behavioral standards which necessarily must be subordinate to respect for private property. Various degrees of action or inaction may make encountering various types of aggression more or less likely. What constitutes “of one’s own making?”:
– If I fail to save money or work hard enough to feed myself or defend myself
– If I fail to read enough books and develop my negotiating skills enough to optimally manage my interpersonal relationships with potential aggressors and/or allies
– If I fail to make wise choices of career or neighborhood to live in

Can any or all of this be mixed in a pot and out pops a determination that a particular act of aggression upon me was “of my own making” or not due to various particular actions or inactions on my part? That’s an impossible determination to make on any basis other than completely arbitrary.

This is not impossible or arbitrary; in fact it is quite simple. A situation is of one’s own making if it was not forced upon oneself against one’s will by an external agent. As such, all of the above examples would be of one’s own making and not sufficient cause to apply the Reecean proviso.

How would a property owner be able to make this determination on the fly when he detects someone claiming qualification under the Reecean proviso trying to take his stuff? How would a victim himself be able to make such a determination on the fly to know whether he may morally take someone else’s stuff? To think the integrity of one man’s property rights would be philosophically dependent on some other men’s personal views on such matters makes a mockery of the notion of property rights.

This may well be impossible in practice. However, a property owner may be unaware of such a taking until it has already occurred, which would remove the need for the property owner to make such a determination. A person who is in such a position to use the Reecean proviso will know it, as it requires one to be near death and without any other means of preserving one’s life besides appropriating owned property. The objection that the integrity of one person’s property rights would be philosophically dependent on some other person’s views on such matters confuses theory with practice.

Second, the person must not knowingly endanger the life of the property owner.

How in the world can the person know what endangers the life of the property owner?

It is simple to know that some takings would endanger the life of the property owner. If a person is kidnapped and taken to a desert area where only one cactus is within reach, and that cactus bears fruit which is being used by its owner as his sole source of sustenance, then taking some of it after witnessing the owner do this would endanger the life of the property owner and thus be outside of the Reecean proviso.

How in the world can the person know the financial situation of the property owner, his health care needs currently and in the future, his quality/quantity of life trade-off equation, not only for himself but for spouse, his children, his heirs, or other beneficiaries of his property?

This is unnecessary because a person cannot be responsible for knowledge that he does not have and lacks the means to get, as a person in position to use the Reecean proviso would.

Since the sole philosophical role of property is the support of human life, and limits to life directly correspond to limits of property used to support and extend it, any deprivation of property is inherently life threatening by nature. The larger the deprivation, the larger the threat to life.

Does a solitary person who owns thousands of apple trees suddenly suffer a life-threatening circumstance because a desperate person picks one apple? Of course not.

Third, the person must not appropriate any more privately owned resources than are required for survival in the moment. Going above and beyond the bare minimum is an act of theft, as it is not required for survival in the moment. Even taking some extra “for the road” is not allowed, as it cannot be proven that doing so will be the only possible method for survival. Fourth, a person may only travel through territory in which the person is unwelcome if survival requires that one do so. Doing so when there is another path available, or when survival is not in jeopardy, constitutes trespassing. Fifth, a person who is traveling through territory in which the person is unwelcome must traverse the territory as quickly as possible. Taking more time than is reasonably required constitutes loitering and trespassing.

Herenschrict objects to all of these by asking who would determine what is required, what the bare minimum is, what constitutes survival, and what constitutes as quickly as possible. The theoretical answer is that there are objectively true answers to all of these questions, therefore no one determines them. The practical answer is that the property owner, proviso user, and any dispute resolution services they retain will come to some agreement after the fact, as is the case for any other civil dispute.

Survival is an odds game. It is a continuum.

Survival is a binary function; either one lives or one dies. There is no state of being in between the two.

The more resources and easier journey, the higher my chances of survival. If I can slowly trespass on 100 miles of private land in a valley with lush fruit for me to eat, or quickly trespass on 1 mile of private land across high mountains with dangerous arctic snowblasts, am I morally justified to trespass on one but not the other?

One would have to take the shorter, more treacherous path because it minimizes the appropriation of private property belonging to other people.

If I can avoid land trespass entirely by commandeering a car at gunpoint to maximize speed of property violation and maximize my survival prospects, is that the only morally justifiable path?

Herenschrict demonstrates a level of misunderstanding here that can only be intentional. Commandeering a car at gunpoint threatens the life of a property owner, therefore it is not permitted under the Reecean proviso.

If you think transferring private property from some parties to others under certain conditions leads to a more prosperous, happy society, then by all means make voluntary relinquishing of those property rights a condition of membership in your private defense organization so such rules apply among mutually consenting parties. But don’t act as if your vision of a society that disregards property rights for the greater good just some of the time has any philosophical basis and binds even those who do not agree.

This is yet another straw man, as no such things are argued by the Reecean proviso.

Sixth, a person who deprives a property owner of value in order to survive must make restitution for that value if and when this becomes possible.

You know your philosophical reasoning has gone completely off the reservation when you must solve the socialist calculation problem in order to employ your principles. What constitutes “fair” restitution, below which one violates the Reecean proviso and cannot morally seize another’s private property but above which one fulfills it and can morally seize another’s private property?

This would be a devastating criticism if there were any truth to it, but there is none. There is no need to solve an economic calculation problem because the property owner, proviso user, and any dispute resolution services they retain can come to an agreement on what restitution, if any, should be made without making such a rigorous calculation. “Seize” is not the most accurate term for what the Reecean proviso allows, as it does not allow for force that threatens the property owner.

Ask any eminent domain victim how well involuntarily imposed determinations of “fair” compensation for seizures of their property work. Since values are subjective, “fair” prices for goods are settable only by their owners. And such individual prices can vary wildly from item to item from moment to moment, depending on the owners personal circumstances, state of mind, and decisions, including may items owners rightfully regard as “not for sale at any price.”

The field of straw men keeps growing, as the compensation is to be determined voluntarily between the property owner, proviso user, and any dispute resolution services they retain, not involuntarily imposed. The only exception to this would occur if the proviso user refused to make any restitution for the property that was used, in which case force could be used against the proviso user to get said restitution. An item rightfully regarded by its owner as “not for sale at any price” will either be something that has high sentimental value or something that the owner requires to survive. The former is not needed by the proviso user for survival (and probably cannot be obtained without threatening the property owner), while taking the latter would threaten the property owner. In both cases, the item cannot be appropriated within the Reecean proviso.

Passively owning property is not interfering with the self-ownership rights of another.

In the vast majority of cases, this is true. The Reecean proviso exclusively addresses so-called “lifeboat scenarios” in which it is false.

If a property owner put a sturdy, impenetrable fence around his property he would be guilty of aggression because this would thwart the attempts of Reecean-proviso-qualifying individuals to seize his property. By your reasoning to remain moral he must provide his private property to them on demand, because if they demand it, it’s not his property any more, it’s theirs by right.

The Reecean proviso allows people who are in extreme circumstances a negative right to keep themselves alive. This is not a positive obligation upon the property owner to assist in such an act. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the property owner may thwart the Reecean proviso by making the life-saving property unreachable or by defending it in such a way that it cannot be taken without posing a threat to the property owner. The property is not theirs by right; they may simply use it if and only if they can and they must.

One may, in spite of the above limitations, try to equate the Reecean proviso with a form of socialism or forced redistribution. But if there is to be forced redistribution, then there must be someone who will do the forcing. Such a person would be acting as the jeopardized person’s agent, and would therefore be subject to the same restrictions on conduct that apply to the jeopardized person.

Enter the ambulance-chasing attorney eager to become the agent of anyone and everyone around the planet who fulfills the conditions of the Reecean proviso (for a cut of the loot he can obtain for them, of course). If there is an impoverished rice farmer in rural India whose life becomes imperiled by aggression but could be saved by his seizure of private property, the attorney will be there in a flash offering to become his agent.

As explained in the original article immediately following the quoted section, if one is able to get someone to forcibly redistribute wealth to keep one alive, then one will have other, less aggressive options available, such as arranging survival aid and evacuation from the desperate scenario to be carried out by the person who would act to forcibly redistribute wealth. The arrival of the attorney gives the imperiled person an alternative to appropriating another person’s private property, as the attorney should be able to make a return trip with the imperiled person, thus removing the person from the imperiling condition. Note also that by inserting himself into the situation, the attorney makes the vehicle in which he arrives as well as his personal possessions prime targets for appropriation, which disincentivizes ambulance-chasing attorneys from seeking such cases.

Then, armed with the full moral authority of Reecean proviso, the attorney can appropriate the private property of anyone. Of course if the Indian farmer suffered severe, traumatic injuries from the aggression requiring an immediate helicopter flight to a major city and immediate extensive reconstructive surgery in order for him to survive, his medical bills could be substantial. Fortunately for him, by the Reecean proviso every private property owner in existence is obligated to pay these bills to make sure this man does not immediately die and the attorney will gleefully make sure they do.

This is completely false, due to the defenses that private property owners may make against the Reecean proviso, such as making such property unreachable or by defending it in such a way that it cannot be taken without posing a threat to the property owner.

The Reecean proviso amends Rothbard’s response to say that the encirclers may not keep the encircled in a situation where survival is impossible.

You may not amend Rothbard’s response. Rothbard’s response was what it was for a reason. Your amendment contradicts it.

I may do whatever I wish with Rothbard’s response. However, my readers will be the judge of whether such an action is legitimate by voting with their donations and page views.


  1. Rothbard, Murray (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. p. 40-41
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