PHOTO: The Sumerian Kings List – Libertarian proof that we’ve always had a king of the world.
Libertarians maintain a significant rhetorical advantage by focusing public debate on the future at the expense of the past. By insisting that, moving forward, all wealth transfers must be governed by the principle of voluntary consent, they can finesse uncomfortable questions about how that principle was applied in the past — and what implications that has for the present.
When pressed, however, Libertarians have developed a last defense to fall back on: the homesteading principle. This argument deploys the rhetoric of freedom as well by insisting that, in the absence of any prior claim, everyone should have the freedom to claim whatever land and resource they like; functionally, it counters charges of inequity by demonstrating that even the most disproportionate distributions of wealth are compatible with principles of freedom and consent.
Occasionally, Libertarians buttress this rationalization with some variation on a “mixing labor” argument, which effectively argues that the homesteader has earned his claim as soon as he invests and labor into the land or resource — or alternatively, that one cannot without consent deprive of a person of the labor they’ve invested into property, which effectively means that the holdings their labor is “mixed” with cannot be confiscated, either.
I’d like to proceed on the understanding that we can disregard the “mixing labor” argument, which is dumb enough that there are even Libertarians who don’t buy it. For one thing, there’s rarely any meaningful sense in which labor has actually been inseparably “mixed” with the holdings in question, nor do we usually think there needs to be; I do not have to cultivate every inch of land in a field before I can fence it off and call it my own. Moreover, it’s obvious that the very act of mixing labor is itself the assertion of a claim over its object; the investment I have made into the land or resource doesn’t somehow precede the right I am claiming over it. There is necessarily an assertion of the right to claim this from the outset, and that right itself must be weighed against the rights of all other potential claimants. Thus even the “mixing labor” argument necessarily devolves back to calling “dibs” before anyone else.
History shows us who called dibs
This brings us to an interesting question. If establishing property rights is just a matter of calling dibs before anyone else, it’s obvious that one could legitimately homestead everything with a single, sweeping claim. And though the earliest landowners certainly swept up significant tracts of Africa, Mesopotamia and India pretty quickly, it definitely did not take too long before the first megalomaniacal god-king or insane warlord thought to declare himself ruler of the entire universe. Anyone remotely acquainted with ancient history knows that this was essential de rigeur for anyone who wanted to be an Egyptian pharoah or a Sumerian ruler.
So there’s only one thing left to figure out: who homesteaded the world? As far as I can tell, it was probably Lugal-Anne-Mundu, a Sumerian king from circa 2400 BC – and crucially, the first on record to claim the title “King of the Four Quarters of the Universe…who exercised Kingship over the entire world.” There were almost certainly identical claims by various warlords and alphas probably dating back millions of years to the emergence of speech and the entrenchment of social hierarchies, but his is the earliest that we can establish for certain.
From here, provenance becomes tricky, since many of the legal details of ownership are likely lost to history – it’s not even known who Lugal-Ane-mundu’s immediate successor was. Still, by tracking legitimate lines of inheritance when we can, and leaping to the next known claimant when we must, I suspect that a consistent application of homesteading rights through recorded history will reveal a much different distribution of rightfully acquired property than what we recognize today.
That’s the subject for a future post – but while we’re still behind the veil of ignorance, I’d like to confront Libertarians with a challenge.
Knowing that this exercise isn’t likely to work out in their favor, what new rules of property would Libertarians like to endorse in order to ensure a more equitable outcome? And how, exactly, will you do this while avoiding something like redistribution?
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.