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Today we are going to take a look at how an Austro-Libertarian system understands property and ownership. This is important because without ownership of property there cannot be contracts and, without contracts, there cannot be co-existence.


At its most basic, the term “property” is simply a label that we apply to stuff. Property does not imply ownership. Property can be owned or un-owned (more about this in the next section). For convenience, we will split property in three types.

  • Tangible
  • Intangible
  • Self


Tangible property

This is the common sense understanding of stuff. It is something that exists in the physical world. The word tangible comes from Latin (tangere) which literally means “to touch”. It is something that you can touch, see and possibly smell (if it happens to have odour). It is something made of atoms or sub-atomic particles (such as electrons). Examples of tangible properties are rocks and houses, plants and smoke, water and fire and even our bodies (but this is a special case that we will comment latter on).

Everything that surrounds us is tangible because we live in a physical universe. Some tangible things may be difficult to capture or store in a bottle, such as fire or smoke, but they are composed of atoms nevertheless. Some tangible things may be difficult to see, such as air or electricity, but they are tangibles nevertheless.

As long as something has physical presence in the universe, it is a tangible property, no matter how hard it may be to see or capture.


Intangible property

If everything that has a physical presence in the universe is a tangible property then what is left? Ideas. Information.

Let’s clarify. An idea or information is something that our brain does. It is a process. For example, things that surround us are full of information, but we need our brain to recognize that this information exists. Things in and by themselves are not aware that they are full of information.

Dealing with information is tricky. For example, we could say that a big rock has more information in it than a small one. This would seem to indicate that when it comes to information size does matter. And if size matters, this would indicate that information is somehow dependent upon physical qualities; this is, physical matter. However, we just defined information as non-physical! How is this possible?

In a sense this is correct, but we need to elaborate further.

We said that an idea is a process, but we did not say how is this process stored. We need to separate information processing and storage from the concept itself.

In order to produce ideas and store them, we need physical means. However, this does not mean that physical means are ideas, this means that ideas are somehow coded in physical means. One way of looking at this is a simple rock. A rock could be smooth and gray. This would tell us that it was probably rounded by the action of water over millennia and that it was igneous (i.e. fiery) in origin. The information is there but without our brain to interpret it, without our brain to process it, it is meaningless. A round gray rock means nothing to another round gray rock or the universe for that matter. A bigger rock will have more information in it than a smaller one, but we still need our brain to see the difference.

Some people argue that information is tangible because it can be measured. This is correct (the measurement part). We can measure information. However, in order to measure something, we first need to recognize that it exists and without our brains, without the process that goes on in our brains, this is impossible. Measuring information is simply a way that our brain has come up with to define how much information is there in a manner in which we all agree (i.e. a standard). If we shut our brains down, we cannot say how much information is there or if information even exists! It is all a matter of interpretation. However, physical means exist independently of our brain. If our brain functions or not, the sun is still there; that little round gray rock is still there.

And so, ideas and information are processes that our brain does. They are dependent of physical means to operate, be codified and therefore transmitted to other people (for example, a message on a piece of paper), but they are not physical means. They do not exist independently in the universe.

We have no doubt that intangible property exists. But we need to walk carefully in this area since it is easy to get it wrong.


Intangible property in contracts

A contract is simply an agreement between parties to exchange something for something else. We have discussed this in our lesson Contracts Are The Key To Coexistence. As Absolute Austro-Libertarians we have an absolute right to contract anything we choose, no matter how ridiculous or stupid it may be. On the other hand, we are also absolutely responsible for delivering such contracts. As such we can contract for intangible properties. As with any other property, the value of such intangible property is fully subjective and dependent of the views of each contracting party. Take a look at the following example. I wrote a book and believe it is valued at 25000 Pounds. The publisher believes it is pretty bad and he is offering only 100 Pounds. We settle on 1000 Pounds. He gets my book and I get the money. This is an example of a contract on an intangible property. What I was selling was not the paper and ink on which the book was written, but the ideas in the book.

From this perspective, intangible properties are properties.


Intangible properties in Intellectual Property Rights

But if intangible properties are properties, would this not indicate that we have some sort of “rights” over it? More specifically, the rights broadly defined as Intellectual Property Rights (e.g. copyrights, patents, etc.)? No.

The multiple problems with Intellectual Property Rights were dealt in our lesson Intellectual Property Rights Are Dumb. Suffice to say that the “rights” of Intellectual Properties is what creates issues, not the concept of Intellectual Property itself (which is simply a different type of Intangible Property).



Self-property is simply a tangible property; it is us. It is our body and our mind. But this type of property has wider implications for Libertarians, and so we separate it. This type of property is important because it contains us. Without our bodies, we cease to exist (for now). Therefore it is extremely important.

Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.

Continue to Property, ownership and competition - the human trinity - Part 2

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