Operational Property

In Dissecting Propertarianism I state that I currently believe that the core Propertarian proposition is :

Libertarian/Misesian economics is a pseudoscience because it uses induction (scientific method) rather than operationalism.

I then request concrete examples. It sounds to me like Propertarianism might have something to do with property, right? Can property be formulated operationally? How do we do that?

Libertarian definitions of property usually begin with ‘self-ownership’. In the theory, self-ownership is evident because only you can move your limbs or choose which thoughts to think. You control your body, therefore you own your body. Rothbard uses self-ownership as the first form of property, and then uses the Lockean idea of mixing labor with nature to create ownership. This is known as the Labor Theory of Property (LTP). Because you own yourself, if you then use your body to plant a seed and tend and water it, then the resulting fruit is your property. According to this theory, then locking a man in a cage or forcing him into slave labor is a violation of his ‘liberty’, or his property right in himself.

You will notice that in this  we have abstract concepts that cannot be observed or measured: ownership, rights and liberty. Then these abstract concepts are used as building blocks and to extend out and build all of Libertarian economic theory based on this definition of property. From a review of Ethics of Liberty:

Rothbard, by contrast, reasons by strict deduction from self-evident axioms.


Rothbard is much more consistent and rigorous than even I had imagined.

One illustration must here suffice. As even Macaulay’s schoolboy knows, Rothbard grounded his political ethics on the principle of self-ownership: each person rightfully owns his or her own body. Few libertarians would dissent; but few if any have seen the implications of this principle so clearly as Rothbard.

To many libertarians, freedom of contract is the be-all and end-all. As Rothbard notes, unlimited freedom of contract, far from being a consequence of self-ownership, in fact contradicts it. Given self-ownership, and acquisition of property through “mixing one’s labor” with unowned property, of course, one may enter freely into all sorts of agreements with others.

Notice the givens: self-ownership and the Labor Theory of Property. Do you see how these are fundamental, but untestable (not empirically verifiable) self-evident axioms? Whenever we read a term like self-evident axioms, realize that it is time to start thinking very critically about what follows.  From here Rothbard clearly sees the implications of the principles. Consistently and rigorously. I would add Platonically.

We see the assertion in the review that what Rothbard is doing is scientific, rigorous and consistent. I think this is what CD means when he says that Mises created a pseudoscience. Libertarian economic theory uses the language of science and uses logic to build an entire theory based on self-evident axioms such as self-ownership and the LTP. Where is the science? Where is the measurement? The repeatable experiments? Nowhere. This is Platonism: high theory with no grounding back into reality. It functions logically, as long as you don’t stray outside of the boundaries created by self-evident axioms.

The problem that CD articulates throughout Propertarianism.com is that this definition is a very narrow definition of property. CD includes the term Demonstrated Property in the glossary:

DEMONSTRATED PROPERTY – an expanded definition of property that is based upon the full scope of what humans consider to be property, based upon what they demonstrate that they consider to be property. Demonstrated Property is the definition of ‘property’ used in Propertarianism.

What we are now trying to determine is ‘what humans consider to be property’ operationally. How is that operation performed?

From The Evolution of Cooperation:

2) Property: The scope of those things they act upon, or choose not to act upon, in anticipation of obtaining as inventory (a store of value), constitute their demonstrated definition of property-en-toto.* (See Butler Schaeffer) “That which an organism defends.”

In A Century of Mysticism, CD makes the following statements:

  • “Mises’ intuition was correct that if you cannot reduce an economic statement to human action, it cannot be true.”
  • “Economics is not deducible from human action.”
  • “I try to reduce ethics back to operational statements with testimonial truth”.
  • “Your testimony can be supported by an existence proof if it is reduced to operational statements.”
  • “Mises is wrong that economics is not empirical because we cannot deduce all of economics from our initial assumptions about human action. We can however observe all the possible results of human action, and then find a way to describe it.”

I think I would now like to amend what I believe to be the Propertarian assertion of economic pseudoscience previously formulated in Dissecting Propertarianism:

Libertarian/Misesian economics is a pseudoscience because it creates rational (reasoned) logical arguments deduced from untestable and unprovable assumptions (Platonic rationalism) rather than observable human action (testimonial truth, Instrumentalism, operationalism).

Nowhere in the Libertarian/Misesian system is there an existence proof of property. In operational terms we see this amazingly simple definition of property: That which an organism defends. What is the existence proof that something is your property? You defend it.  That is something that is observable. Defense is an operation.

So we see the Libertarian view of property as very narrow, applying only to physical objects, because of the way in which it is theoretically rationalized. But if we take ‘that which an organism defends’ as an operational definition of property, then we see that ‘property’ expands, to include very intangible forms. Under ‘Propertarianism’ in the glossary:

b) That the human concept of property is broad in scope, encompassing their bodies, their physical property, genetic relations, associations, opportunities, norms, and even cherished memories and beliefs. That humans treat as property all that they have acted to invest in. And that they will only invest in what they can treat as property. And when that entire scope of property is enumerated, all human behavior is reducible to expressions of changes in the the state of property, and all emotions reactions to changes in the state of property.

That leads to a broad definition of property, again from the glossary under Property:


Types of property based upon observations of what people actually consider to be their property:


Personal property: “Things an individual has a Monopoly Of Control over the use of.”

a) Physical Body
b) Actions and Time
c) Memories, Concepts and Identities: tools that enable us to plan and act. In the consumer economy this includes brands.
d) Several Property: Those things external to our bodies that we claim a monopoly of control over.

Cooperative Property: “relationships with others and tools of relationships upon which we reciprocally depend.”
a) Mates (access to sex/reproduction)
b) Children (genetics)
c) Familial Relations (security)
d) Non-Familial Relations (utility)
e) Consanguineous property (tribal and family ties)
g) Racial property (racial ties)
g) Organizational ties (work)
h) Knowledge ties (skills, crafts)
i) Status and Class (reputation)

a) Recorded And Quantified Shareholder Property (physical shares in a tradable asset)
b) ARTIFICIAL PROPERTY: (property created by fiat agreement) Intellectual Property.
c) FORMAL INSTITUTIONAL PROPERTY : Formal (Procedural) Institutions: Our institutions: Religion (including the secular religion), Government, Laws.
d) INFORMAL INSTITUTIONAL PROPERTY: Informal (Normative) Institutions: Our norms: manners, ethics, morals, myths, and rituals that consist of our social portfolio and which make our social order possible.
“Those properties in which we have invested our forgone opportunities, our efforts, or our material assets, in order to aggregate capital from multiple individuals for mutual gain.”

If you are familiar with the Libertarian conceptions of Property, then this list of types of property can be mind-blowing, especially concepts such as ‘informal institutional property’. But, this is where you end up when you leave the Platonic playground and actually begin to instrumentalize economics, and to use operational definitions. As we dig deeper, you will find that many of us already intuit this broad range of property, we intuit what we should and should not defend. I expect that many Libertarians will scoff and retreat back into their little walled garden of property, because this expanded definition is a lot to tackle, but those who can actually understand the difference between science which uses observable phenomenon versus pseudoscience which is based on ‘self-evident axioms‘, will want to dig deeper into the topic.

That is what we plan to do on this site. I welcome your comments, insights and contributions, as we move forward exploring this vast intellectual landscape that CD has exposed for us.


7 thoughts on “Operational Property

  1. My definition of ‘life’ is ‘that which defends a goal.’ Normally it goes recursive, and it defends the ability to continue to defend goals, that is, its life. Notably this definition can include robots, though all present robots will let themselves die from neglect.


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  4. This is pretty thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to reading more. My first thought is, what kind of property gets the privilege of being defending by some sort of state apparatus? Maybe basic social mores should be defended by the state, such as it being illegal to have sex in public. But how about one’s feelings? That would seem to imply the imposition of censorship. Although I find the overall idea very interesting, I’m now very curious about the implications and where this all may lead intellectually.


    • Thanks, I’m glad you’re interested. 🙂

      State apparatus will be used to defend whatever the owners of the state apparatus consider to be their property. Operational property does not build a rationalized theory of property that can then be morally defended, instead the very act of defending something is an assertion of ownership, it is an assertion that whatever is being defended is worth defending which can only be because there is some benefit derived from it.

      Feelings: Curt has a quote somewhere (which I couldn’t find as I am writing this) that basically emotionally responses can be viewed as a response to changes in state of property. I found this similar idea in a comment here:
      a) all emotions are reactions to changes in state.
      b) changes in state are pre-rational (intuitive)
      c) state changes consists consist of what what we term ‘property’
      d) evolution did not require our rational understanding of changes in state. Only our emotional reactions to it.
      e) Property is intuitive and pre-cognitive.
      f) The mind is a difference engine.
      g) Our emotions are caused largely by differences in property.
      h) Where property is that which we have acted to obtain.

      We also see ‘reputation’ listed as ‘Interpersonal Property’. Someone can damage your reputation, which will produce an emotional response, as the state of your property (your reputation) has been altered in state. So, feelings themselves are not being defended, they are the physical manifestation in the body of an intuitive calculation of the state of property.

      Censorship happens all the time. What you are allowed to say or not say is really a negotiated contract. Part of the contract is that you can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. You also can’t openly recruit an army to overthrow the government. Censorship is part of living in any society. ‘Free speech’ is not an end in itself, it is merely a useful means to achieve a functional society (provided it is limited wisely). Obviously, there are situations where we are all better off when bad actors are repressed in any number of ways.


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