Natural Rights: The Inherent Conflicts

One reason that these additional natural rights get glossed over in the literature is that they are impossible to fully maintain as the population grows. Consider the right to hunt at will. If everyone were to do so today, mass extinction of game animals would be the result, and rather quickly at that. Similarly, wild plant foods were never abundant enough to support the current population of humans. The giant natural park model breaks down into environmental destruction and mass starvation.

Similarly, the right of the Walkabout interferes with the right to privacy. The right to exploit any natural resources interferes with the right to keep the products of your own work. Consider one group of people who decide to put their efforts into clearing land and planting crops and another group that herds animals. Either the labor of the farmers gets stolen when the herd animals eat the crops, or the walkabout and natural resource exploitation rights of the herdsmen get infringed.

The history of the American West provides many examples of such conflicts. The rights of hunter-gathers (Indians) collided with the rights of herdsmen (cowboys) which collided with the rights of farmers (the guys with the barbed wire). And within each group there were wars over hunting rights, water rights, grazing rights and mineral rights – wars over the things of value not created by human hands.

Private property provides a powerful tool to make the most efficient use of the land. People who own land can hunt at the optimal amount to get meat without driving the game extinct, or they let the optimal number of animals graze without destroying the grass, or they can clear the land and prepare it for farming. And the farmers who own farmland have incentive to preserve the soil, rotate crops and possibly set up irrigation systems; this is in contrast with the slash and burn agriculture of semi-nomadic societies. Private property allows people to keep the fruits of their labor when their labor gets mixed with the land, thus preserving one of the classical natural rights.

However, private property interferes with the right of the Walkabout, and the right to Forage. And neither private property nor completely public property preserve the right of Pristine Wilderness. This requires a government or other powerful institution to maintain large tracts of wilderness while restricting exploitation rights. As for the right to privacy in the wilderness, this requires limiting the number of people in the wilderness at the same time.

The natural rights described in this section cannot all be inalienable. I think it is for this reason that many philosophers have glossed over them. But these are still important rights. There are hundreds of millions, if not billions of people who are more poor than those who live in a state of nature – even though most of these remaining state of nature people are living in the nastiest places on Earth, such as the Arctic Circle and the Kalahari Desert.

And the right of private property in land and other natural resources presents some serious theoretical problems in regard to who gets the original title to land.

We will explore some possible solutions in the next section.

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