The institution of private property is a fundamental aspect of economics and social interactions. It serves the practical purpose of avoiding conflicts over scarce resources so that efforts may be put toward better purposes. Theories concerning the creation, acquisition, trade, inheritance, and defense of private property form much of libertarian philosophy. What has gone largely unexplored in libertarian theory thus far is the role of conquest in the determination of property rights. Almost all inhabited land on Earth has been conquered by one group of people or another at some time in the past, so as long as this remains unexplored, libertarianism will be left open to attacks from all manner of enemies of private property rights. Thus, it is necessary to examine conquest from a libertarian perspective.
Man vs. Nature
The starting point for all of libertarian philosophy is self-ownership; each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body and full responsibility for actions committed with said control. Note that in order to argue against self-ownership, one must exercise exclusive control of one’s physical body for the purpose of communication. This results in a performative contradiction because the content of the argument is at odds with the act of making the argument. By the laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction, self-ownership must be true because it must be either true or false, and any argument that self-ownership is false leads to a contradiction.
Because each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body, it is wrong for one person to initiate interference with another person’s exclusive control of their physical body without their consent. This is how the non-aggression principle is derived from self-ownership. Because each person has full responsibility for the actions that one commits with one’s physical body, one may gain property rights in external objects by laboring upon unowned natural resources. This works because one is responsible for the improvements that one has made upon the natural resources, and it is impossible to own the improvements without owning the resources themselves.
In a sense, all property rights are based on conquest, in that property rights are created when man conquers nature by appropriating part of nature for his exclusive control and use. This is a powerful antidote to the contention of many opponents of private property that property titles are somehow invalidated by a history of conquest, of people taking by force what is not rightfully theirs. But we can do even better than this, as the next sections will show.
Man vs. Man
As stated earlier, property rights are useful in practice because they minimize conflicts over scarce resources by establishing who rightfully controls what territory. This results in a significant amount of loss prevention, which allows the people who would have died and the property that would have been damaged in such conflicts to instead survive and prosper.
But what happens when such norms are not respected? Let us consider the simplest possible example and extrapolate from there. For our first case, consider a planet which has only two sentient beings. Let us call them Archer and Bob. Archer has mixed his labor with some land and thus acquired private property rights over that area. Bob wants the land that belongs to Archer. That Archer has a right to defend himself and his property from the aggressions of Bob by any means necessary, and that Archer has the right to retake anything that Bob takes is not disputed by any reputable libertarian theorist. But what if Bob kills Archer? In that case, the property does not rightfully pass from Archer to Bob in theory. But Bob now has exclusive control over the property and there is no other sentient being present to challenge him. Thus, Bob becomes the de facto owner, even though this is illegitimate de jure.
The above case is interesting but trivial because social norms are irrelevant if there is neither a community to observe them nor a mechanism to enforce them. As such, we will spend the rest of this essay adding complexity to the first case to arrive at meaningful results. For our second case, suppose that there were another person present to challenge Bob. Let us call him Calvin. Because libertarian theory is a logical construct, it is subject to logic in the form of rationality and consistency. To violate the rights of another person while claiming the same rights for oneself is not consistent. Hypocrisy of this kind cannot be rationally advanced in argument; it has the same effect at the subjective level that a performative contradiction has at the objective level. In other words, all people do not lose the right to life because someone somewhere somewhen commits a murder, but the murderer does. This means that Bob cannot claim a right to his own life or to the property he occupies because he murdered Archer and stole his property. Thus, there is no moral prohibition on Calvin killing Bob and taking the property from him. With Archer and Bob both dead and Calvin the last sentient being on the planet, Calvin is now the de facto owner of the property. But unlike Bob in the first case, Calvin is also the de jure property owner because he has exerted effort to remove property from the control of a thief and the rightful owner died without an heir.
Another level of complexity may be added by giving Archer a rightful heir, whom we may call Delia. Let our third case proceed as the second case; Bob murders Archer and steals his land, then Calvin kills Bob to eliminate a murderer and take stolen property away from a thief. But with Archer dead, Delia is now the rightful owner of Archer’s land. However, without Calvin’s labor in killing Bob, Bob would still be occupying Delia’s territory. Thus, both Calvin and Delia have legitimate property claims. They may resolve this issue by one of the two methods available to anyone: reason or force. With reason, they may negotiate a fair settlement in which Calvin is compensated for his efforts and Delia reclaims her property minus the compensation. With force, they may fight, which will end in the first case if one kills the other. Short of this, fighting will only alter the particulars of a fair settlement or lead to the fourth case described below.
Family vs. Family
Because the moral limitations of groups are no different from the moral limitations of individuals, we may now extend these results to consider conflicts between small groups. For our fourth case, let us modify the third case by giving spouses to Calvin and Delia. Let there also be other people somewhere who can procreate with the aforementioned people, but do not otherwise involve themselves with the property concerns at hand. Suppose that Calvin and Delia do not resolve their issue, and Calvin continually occupies the property. Calvin and Delia each have offspring, then several generations pass such that Calvin and Delia are long dead. The descendants of Delia wish to reclaim their ancestral homeland from the descendants of Calvin. But do they have the right to do so? Calvin and his descendants have spent generations occupying and laboring upon the land, thus continually demonstrating and renewing their property rights. Delia and her descendants have not. One might argue that an injustice was done to Delia by Calvin, but the responsibility for crimes dies with the people who commit the crimes, and debts do not rightfully pass from one generation to another. This is because the descendants were not involved in the disputes between their ancestors, being as yet unborn. Therefore, they are not responsible for any wrongdoing that may have occurred, being non-actors in the disputes of their ancestors. The answer, then, is that the descendants of Calvin are now the rightful owners and the descendants of Delia have lost through abandonment the claim that Delia once had.
Man vs. Society and Family vs. Society
Next, let us consider issues that may arise when a single person has a property conflict with a large group of people. Though it is not a priori true that a single person will always be overpowered by a group, this is the historical norm, and it has occurred with sufficient frequency to take this as a given for our analysis. For our fifth case, let us reconsider the first case, only now Bob is replaced by a society. Let us call them the Bobarians. The morality of the situation does not change; if the Bobarians physically remove Archer and occupy his land, then the Bobarians who occupy the land are guilty of robbery and possessing stolen property while those who willfully aid them in doing so are accessories to these crimes. If the Bobarians demand that Archer obey their commands and pay them tribute, then they are guilty of extortion. Archer has a right to use any means necessary to reclaim his liberty and property, however unlikely to succeed these efforts may be. If the Bobarians kill Archer either during their conquest or afterward, then those who kill him are guilty of murder and robbery. But if Archer is dead without an heir, and there exists no other group of people capable of holding the Bobarians accountable for their crimes, then the Bobarian conquest of Archer’s property is valid de facto even though it is illegitimate de jure.
For our sixth case, suppose that Archer does have surviving heirs who wish to take back the property which has been stolen from them by the Bobarians. All of these Archerians have been wronged by the Bobarians, and thus have a right to reclaim the stolen property. But just as before, this needs to occur within the lifetimes of the conquerors and their supporters because descendants are not responsible for the crimes of their ancestors. Note if the Archerians had a timeless right to return to their ancestral lands or collect reparations from the Bobarians, it would encourage the Bobarians to finish exterminating them in order to prevent an effort to retake the land in future. A standard which encourages mass murder is questionable, to say the least.
Society vs. Society
The last set of issues to consider concern conflicts between societies. For our seventh case, let us consider what role might be played by another group who wish to hold conquerors responsible for their murder and thievery. Let us call them the Calvinites, after the role of Calvin discussed earlier. Suppose they witness the Bobarians kill Archer and all of his relatives to take their lands, as in the fifth case. What may the Calvinites rightly do? Of course, they may denounce the conquest and engage in social and economic ostracism of the Bobarians. But this is hardly sufficient punishment for the Bobarian aggression, nor does it do anything to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains. As per the second case, there is no moral prohibition on the Calvinites physically removing the Bobarians from the former Archerian lands by any means necessary. All Bobarians who took part in the conquest or aided the effort are fair targets for defensive force, and any innocent shields killed in the process are acceptable losses. Should the Calvinites succeed in removing the Bobarians, they become both the factual and rightful owners through their labors of justice.
For our eighth case, let us modify the seventh case by having some Archerians survive the Bobarian assault. With many Archerians dead and the rest in exile, the Calvinites intervene. The Calvinites succeed in removing the Bobarians from the Archerian homeland. The Archerians seek to return to their land. As in the third case, the surviving Archerians can come to terms with the Calvinites to resettle their lands and compensate them for their efforts in removing the Bobarians, try to remove the Calvinites by force, or let the Calvinites have the land and go somewhere else. A war between the Archerians and Calvinites will only result in alternate terms of negotiation or the Archerians leaving unless one side completely exterminates the other. If the Archerians leave and the Calvinites stay for several generations such that the original disputants die off, then as per the fourth case, the Archerians lose the right to return because the Calvinites now have the legitimate property claim.
The ninth and most important case to consider in terms of real-world occurrence is that of incomplete conquest, in which a conqueror does not exile or exterminate a native population, but instead conquers them for the purpose of ruling over them. Suppose the Bobarians seek not after an Archerian genocide, but only to annex them into the Bobarian empire. Of course, the Archerians have every right to resist their new rulers; there is not even the illusion of consent of the governed in such a case. But unlike the cases discussed above, a state apparatus initiates the use of force for as long as it operates. Whereas a forced exile or extermination is a crime typically done by one generation of people, a long-term occupation for the purpose of collecting taxes and/or breeding out the natives over the course of generations is a continuing criminal activity. In such a case, the Bobarian occupation will never become just and the Archerians will always have the right to declare independence and remove them. This only becomes difficult to resolve to the extent that Bobarians intermarry with Archerians and produce mixed offspring, but the historical norm is that cultural and genetic vestiges of an occupation remain with a people long after they declare independence from and remove an occupier. After all, the individuals born of such conditions cannot help their lot, the actions of particular individuals are not necessarily representative of the state apparatus, and carefully excising such a cultural and genetic legacy is generally impossible without committing more acts of aggression.
Through application of these nine cases to real-world circumstances, one can theoretically resolve most of the property disputes between population groups, however unlikely the disputants may be to accept these results. What cannot be justified through these examples, however, are the interventions of the state concerning instances of conquest. Any good that a state may do by punishing conquerors is fruit of a poisoned tree, for the state acts as a conqueror over its own people, extorting them for resources and demanding obedience to its edicts. Instead, this is an appropriate role for individuals and private defense agencies who may free oppressed peoples and take payment either in monetary terms or through property claims over territory that has been conquered and liberated from occupation. The libertarian must be wary of state efforts to imitate the market by hiring private contractors or issuing letters of marque and reprisal for the purpose of bringing conquerors to justice.
There is a legal maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, and the libertarian analysis of conquest shows that this is doubly true; not only does a delay in the provision of justice allow injustice to persist, but given enough time, it renders the plaintiff’s grievances invalid. This amounts to a natural statute of limitations and statute of repose, meaning that the arbitrary and capricious statutes of limitations and repose imposed by statist legal systems is generally unnecessary, at least with regard to the property crimes and crimes against the person involved in conquest. In this sense, the libertarian theory of conquest naturally stresses the urgency of seeking justice in a way that statist legal systems can only attempt to simulate.
Another legal expression reinforced by this analysis is that possession is nine-tenths of the law. The idea is that the current possessor or occupant of physical property is assumed to be the owner unless a stronger ownership claim by someone else is proven. This must be the case because the only other consistent position would be to assume that the current possessor or occupant of physical property is not the owner, which quickly leads to absurdity as claims rush in from people who wish to take all manner of property and continually redistribute it ad infinitum.
Finally, one might misconstrue the above analysis to say that libertarian theory defends the idea that might makes right. But in order to believe this, one must ignore all of the arguments in favor of defensive force to separate conquerors from the spoils they have taken. Rather, the libertarian theory regarding conquest recognizes and respects the fact that might makes outcomes. This is a fact which will never change; the only thing that changes throughout space and time is who will have might and how much power disparity will exist between opponents.