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Hillel Steiner’s Original Rights and Just Redistribution (Summary)

In Original Rights and Just Redistribution, Hillel Steiner attempts to answer three questions: to what sorts of things do we have original property rights?; how do we distinguish these sorts of things to which we have non-original property rights?; and finally, who counts as being one of ‘us’ with these rights? He begins with the concept of self-ownership: for someone to have any rights at all, he must not be part of another’s bundle of possessions. After establishing that laboring within’s one domain produces products within one’s domain, he asks how initially unowned things outside of one’s domain becomes justly ownable. He concludes that our equal original property rights entitle us to an “equal share of (at least) raw natural resources.”

In the section titled “Persons and bodies,” Steiner explores the issue of offspring rights, asking “how can we each own what we produce if we ourselves are others’ products?” Steiner whittles this question into what he calls “the paradox of universal self-ownership,” which he proposes to ameliorate via modification of the propositon, “All persons (originally) are the fruits of other persons’ labor.” He contends that reproduction occurs via a mixing of labor with natural resources in the form of “germ-line genetic information,” hence avoiding the contradiction with the proposition “all self-owners own the fruits of their labor” that generated the paradox in the first place. Thus, once children reach the age of majority, they become self-owners (all rights relating to their foetal and minority statuses are really legal powers and liberties held by adults).

Steiner turns to the question of the rights of the dead in “Persons and times.” Appealing to Hohfeldian jural relations—that rights and powers in one party are correlative to duties and liabilities in others—he argues that transfers of ownership involve an exchange of correlatives which is impossible with a testator. While a gifting process transfers rights and powers from the gifter to the receiver, and a restriction from the receiver to the gifter in turn, a testator incurs no such restriction. In other words, the transfer of ownership of property can only be performed by a living person. Thus, the dead have no rights and their property is rightfully treated like a natural resource. Steiner then connects his discussion of rights of the dead with rights of future persons: because having a right, according to Steiner, is to be in possession of the powers to waive or demand and enforce compliance with its correlative duty, a future person has no rights against present persons.

In the final section, “People and places,” Steiner underscores the meaninglessness of international boundaries with regard to persons’ original rights and the rights derived from them; they do not “suddenly evaporate” at arbitrarily drawn boundaries. National boundaries only demarcate group territorial holdings, so natural resource entitlement is global in scope. He also addresss the flaws in the ‘theory of magic dates,’ a problem faced by individual rights theorists like Locke who are anti-secession. He argues that there is no justification for a date prior to which rights-holders are empowered to jointly enter into agreements for the protection of their rights by an agency of their chosing, but after which those rights are truncated.

In the Epilogue, “Just Redistributions,” Steiner fleshes out his notions of redistribution, beginning with the process of redress as a mode of acquiring just titles to things, and how redress can be manifested through a global fund. Steiner generalizes that in a fully appropriated world, “each person’s original right to an equal portion of initially unowned things amounts to a right to an equal share of their total value.” Thus, “over-appropriated” persons owe a contribution of value to a global fund from their duties correlative to “under-appropriators’” original property rights. Another thesis advanced in the epilogue include that persons using “germ-line genetic information” must pay competitive rent on its value, as it is a natural resource; hence, adults with children with more valuable offspring (genetically speaking) must compensate those with offspring less so.

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