Unravelling the Bundle of Rights: Are Human Rights Property Rights?

Justin Ong

Justin Ong

Justin Ong is an active contributor to the Adam Smith Center. His latest work is a series of introductory-level articles spanning various topics of politics, economics and philosophy. He is also an incoming student of philosophy with Nanyang Technological University.

What Are Human Rights?

Rights are sacrosanct in safeguarding fundamental human freedoms and entitlements necessary for human flourishing, but what exactly are our rights?

According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, your rights extend beyond the right to life and property – it also comprises of the right to healthcare, social security and even leisure time. Current political discourse in the 21st century perpetually expands the bundle of rights without evaluating the nature and source of rights. But we’ve not carefully ascertained how to de-conflict competing rights or formulated a flexible or pragmatic framework for rights. Consider the following dilemmas:

  • Does the right to healthcare supersede the right to property such that hospital services and medication must be distributed for free?
  • Is the right to leisure time absolute such that I cannot trade it out with my employer in exchange for higher wages?

Property rights as a foundation

It can rather uneasy for many of us to equate something as sacred as human rights to property rights. However, economist Murray Rothbard argues that property rights are instrumental and even inseparable from human rights.

Rothbard explains, ‘For not only are there are no human rights which are not also human rights, but the former loses their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard’.

The impact on free speech in a world without property rights is analogous to an Orwellian dystopia. Nobody other than the state would have an indefeasible claim to property. Once the state nationalises all media companies, no citizen would own any medium to express his ideas freely and thus, no free press. If the state owns all assembly halls, it could deny permits to anyone it despises for political reasons and hence, there can be no freedom of assembly.

The right to free speech is not absolute. While it may be important for one to express a particular opinion to others, one has no right to barge into someone else’s house or a movie theatre to stage his protest. (Image credit: Futurity)

Rights do not operate in a vacuum – one only has rights insofar as his property rights permits him to. The right of free speech only arises upon renting a space to deliver a speech, selling pamphlets one has published, etc. The right to free speech does not imply the right for anyone to barge into someone else’s house to express his opinion.

Some have disputed the utility of property rights in constructing reasonable restrictions on rights. They contend that public policy considerations offer a more comprehensive framework. For instance, public policy considerations would preclude someone recklessly shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema from free speech entitlements. However, if we examine the scenario in the lens of property rights, we would arrive at the same conclusion. The person shouting ‘fire’ would be violating the property rights of patrons to watch the movie in peace, which they are entitled to from purchasing the movie tickets.


Value of economic rights

Many intellectuals have underestimated and undermined the value of economic and property rights. John Stuart Mills held that economic liberties are secondary to liberties such as the right to fair trial and free speech. In more recent times, philosopher John Rawls calls for a democratic socialist society that, in its pursuit of justice, would suspend property rights for the redistribution of wealth to society’s most vulnerable communities.

These propositions are oblivious to how central economic rights are to our lives. Property rights are the bedrock of economic decisions such as trading our labour for wages, renting out our property for income, purchasing products. John Tomasi reminds us that economic decisions are not trivial and are a manifestation of our self-responsibility in light of our own dreams, values and character. From Tomasi’s perspective, denying individuals economic freedom is akin to condemning individuals to a stunted life.


Though everyone knows that their votes individually count very little towards the outcome of elections, Jason Brennan claims that many of us still insist that economic rights are not as valuable as political rights. (Image credit: USA Today)

Philosopher Jason Brennan forwards a compelling case for how economic rights are even more precious than political rights.

Individually, we hold so little influence over the outcome of an election such that we are more likely to win the Powerball lottery multiple times than to actually cast a vote that changes the outcome of a presidential election. Brennan describes democracy metaphorically as akin to the crowd at Mardi Gras, ‘We were all equals. Our individual movements equally decided the collective movement of the crowd. Yet, we were each powerless’.

Unlike the economic realm where individuals dictate the rules of their lives by the decisions they opt into, individuals are subject to the whims of the majority in the political realm. Moreover, politicians never perfectly represent our interests and we can’t swap out our politicians like we do with our purchases – leaving us with little choice other than to vote for those we consider as the least terrible candidate.


Thou shall not steal

If we accept that each of us has ownership over ourselves, it would be common sense that each of us should have absolute property rights over our talents and the products of our talents – the case of ‘self-ownership’ made by philosopher Robert Nozick. Without our consent, no one else has the authority to dictate our lives and use us as a means to an end.

In China, where state development projects are plentiful, there are many stories of residents who fervently cling on to their property rights and refuse to surrender their homes to the state. Their homes are known as “nail houses”. (Image credit: Independent)

Unfortunately, far too often, the opposite occurs in the name of the ‘common good’. Under the banner of equality and fairness, many governments have convinced its citizens to forfeit their economic freedoms.

Nozick passionately debunks the myth of the ‘common good’. If, according to deontologists, everyone is to be treated as ends of themselves, then it implies that individuals are ‘distinct moral entities’. Thus, the ‘common good’ is nothing more than the sum of all individual goods and there is no ‘greater society’ to justify trampling on individual rights.

Only free market exchanges backed by a rule of law that protects property rights honour human dignity and freedom. No state nor individual should lay claim to which they don’t own and coerce someone into surrendering their property – otherwise known as theft.

If we follow Nozick’s teachings, our destinies may finally rest in our own hands.



Rothbard, Murray. “Human Rights” as Property Rights. Mises Institute, 2007

Tomasi, Jon. The Moral Case for Economic Liberty. Index of Economic Freedom, 2014

Brennan, Jason. Political Liberty: Who Needs It? Social Philosophy & Policy Foundation, 2012

Murray, Dale. Robert Nozick: Political Philosophy. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy


Featured image from KHN.

Justin Ong

Justin Ong

Justin Ong is an active contributor to the Adam Smith Center. His latest work is a series of introductory-level articles spanning various topics of politics, economics and philosophy. He is also an incoming student of philosophy with Nanyang Technological University.