Homesteading is lost Opportunity. Private property is theft.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

This is pretty much Proudhon in a nutshell.

But the easiest way to understand how original appropriation cannot be justified within a conservative/libertarian framework is by focusing on the idea of opportunity costs. When an individual declares perpetual ownership of some piece of unowned land, every other human being on earth suffers an opportunity cost: their opportunity to use that land has now disappeared. Opportunity costs are real economic harms.

To be concrete about this, consider an example. The piece of land down by the river is owned by no one; so everyone can use it. Sarah declares — on whatever property theory she prefers — that the piece of land by the river now belongs to her exclusively. But, wait a minute. The previous ability of others to use the land by the river has now vanished! They have been hit with opportunity costs. If one of the dispossessed were to say “this is silly, I do not consent to giving up my pre-existing opportunity to use the land down by the river,” Sarah uses violence (typically state violence) to keep the dispossessed out.

Unless unanimous consent exists, the original grabbing up of property results in violent, non-consensual theft from others. It is really just that simple. What follows from that conclusion is that the conservative/libertarian positions that depend on the sanctity of property rights are totally bogus. For instance, you cannot complain that taxes violently take material resources from you without your consent when property itself is predicated on just that. You cannot claim your enormous wealth was gotten fairly when the ownership of that wealth is predicated upon the non-consensual violence just discussed.

This basically skewers the “homesteading principle” which is at the core of most, if not all, right-libertarian property rights. The only thing (I am aware of) that tried to tackle this, is the Lockean proviso, which has its own, very significant failings in regard to the loss of freedom from such enclosed lands.

 

 

71 thoughts on “Homesteading is lost Opportunity. Private property is theft.

  1. I'm really surprised more people don't lean towards Epicureanism in the first place. Most religions try to usher their followers to some shadow of "happiness" with rules and requirements and prayer and more, but a philosophy like this requires nothing but mindfulness, and it is little but logical conclusions! Perhaps more people don't take it up because its somewhat obscure, and one usually doesn't usually stumble across it unless they are looking, and it HAS been quite discouraged and tarnished by the religious… : (

      1. Not as cool as the typical passive-agressive attitude of someone who cannot stand to be contradicted and so dodges the matter with cheap irony- yet another typical leftist attitude…

          1. I think that I understand things better then someone who does not understand his own arguments…

          2. No, which is why I'm out of here, since there are no adults for me to talk with..

  2. I mean his use of the concept of opportunity costs. Every decision in life has an opportunity cost. That's why they are decisions. I don't find it instructive to look at it that way as opportunity costs aren't really real economic harms so much as an accounting concept. In the example used, the harm is the violence used to expropriate the land in question. Looking at it through the lens of someone else's lost use obscures the issue of the violence used to obtain it.

    1. The use of the opportunity cost is to counter the equally economic concept of homesteading, which on a theoretical level, does not involve violence.

      In the end, there various argumentation paths, that will work on various people. This is one of them and there's no reason why one shouldn't present it.

      1. I said I didn't agree with it and explained why, but that's not the same as saying he should never present it. But to further my reasons, the opportunity cost will be present regardless of how the land was obtained. Whether the current user/occupant has it taken by force, or whether she gives it up willingly (as in trade for some other land), or even if she abandons it completely and migrates to Patagonia, the lost use of the land remains. So, the issue then is not the lost use, but the manner in which the use was lost. And while I've not actually read Locke, I don't think his concept of homesteading necessarily involves violent displacement, as you indicated it does not at a theoretical level. So then the argument as presented isn't really an argument against homesteading per se but rather against something else. Colonialism, maybe? And for clarity's sake, I personally subscribe to a theory of occupancy and use, not perpetual title to property gained through Lockean homesteading.

        1. And while I've not actually read Locke, I don't think his concept of homesteading necessarily involves violent displacement, as you indicated it does not at a theoretical level. So then the argument as presented isn't really an argument against homesteading per se but rather against something else.

          How do you figure? The argument here was against permanent claim of ownership (i.e. private property) via some form of homesteading. It is set to counter precicely non-violent forms of land grabs.

          1. Then the argument was presented poorly, because the article in question focuses on original appropriation.

          2. …within a conservative/libertarian framework. It's right there on the start of my quote.

          3. Fair enough, but to correct my poorly constructed sentence (thinking about one thing and writing another), what I meant was the article focuses on one type of violent appropriation. Which is not necessarily an argument against homesteading.

          4. The article didn't even mention homesteading. I did. And of course I meant homesteading in combination with private property rights which is really the most common use of homeasteading you hear about. I will concede that mutualist homesteading isn't affected by this particular criticism.

          5. Fair enough again. I just clicked-through the link and didn't notice the title was not the same as the title of your post. Mea culpa.

  3. But to further my reasons, the opportunity cost will be present regardless of how the land was obtained. Whether the current user/occupant has it taken by force, or whether she gives it up willingly (as in trade for some other land), or even if she abandons it completely and migrates to Patagonia, the lost use of the land remains. So, the issue then is not the lost use, but the manner in which the use was lost.

    Actually, no. The issue still is the lost use. The fact that there's various ways for this use to be lost is fairly irrelevant. The fact remains that as long as the land is taken permanently, everyone else in the word loses.

    1. And what if her use is not lost? What if she remains on the land? It's use is still lost to everyone else.

      1. That is a fact of reality, that is impossible to work around, and thus only alleviated via mutual aid to make up for this lost opportunity. However making this use permanent, regardless of occupancy or use, adds an extra opportunity loss that is not alleviated. If anything, mutual aid is further suppressed in those cases, further exaggerating the harm.

        1. Which is why I said the lost use is irrelevant and the issue is the manner in which it was lost. The lost use will always be present.

          1. Actually no. The extra lost opportunity by "sticky" property is not always present. Private Property claim opportunity above and beyond what laws of reality demand.

          2. Whether the lost opportunity results from some perpetual claim of ownership or the actual productive use by any and all comers, it is still there. Even land being put to productive use has foregone some other use. There will always be an opportunity cost, the only difference is whether that cost is known beforehand. Which brings me back to my original point of why opportunity cost is not an argument against homesteading.

          3. There's opportunity cost for the land you step on, and the food you eat. But this is true for all humans and impossible to work around. As such it's irrelevant to take these into account, since every human exercises them. The same is true for land you live on, or productive means you use.

            However the same is not true for private property rights and thus claiming homesteading along with them, adds an additional opportunity loss, and that is what cannot be excused.

          4. I don't get, why you make an exeption for "living on a piece of land". It is an "additional opportunitiy cost" which could be avoided by living as nomads, non? Same could be said for having productive means.

          5. Even as Nomads you have this loss. It's simply that its constantly moving. You can't avoid this loss. You can only alleviate it so that it's equal for all.

          6. No, not being able to stand where someone else stands right now is not the same as the loss that occurs when someone exclusively cultivates a piece of land for years. You say that private property is an opp cost above what the laws of reality demand, so is farming.

            And the next thing I do not understand is why one hasn't to account for the gains of a certain regime in your view.

          7. You say that private property is an opp cost above what the laws of reality demand, so is farming.

            Which is why someone witholding land from everyone else for farming, should share the results of that farming that go beyond their personal needs with those who have lost the opportunity to farm themselves. i.e. alleviate the opportunity cost. As I said already.

          8. Ok, I meant living on a piece of land (which you historically do for purposes of farming) and which you excluded:

            "As such it's irrelevant to take these into account, since every human exercises them. The same is true for land you live on, or productive means you use. "

            Why did you eclude the productive means? And why is land by the river not a productive mean?

            Could a private prop regime where the opp costs are not equally distributed but the gains outweihted the losses of not having private prop for everyone be justified in your view?

          9. Why did you eclude the productive means? And why is land by the river not a productive mean?

            I think you misread. I did not exclude them.

          10. Hm, yeah could be, my English gets worse, the more agitated I get:-) But can you explain than what you mean by:

            "There's opportunity cost for the land you step on, and the food you eat. But this is true for all humans and impossible to work around. As such it's irrelevant to take these into account, since every human exercises them. The same is true for land you live on, or productive means you use.

            However the same is not true for private property rights and thus claiming homesteading along with them, adds an additional opportunity loss, and that is what cannot be excused."

            I read:
            – irrelevant opp costs because impossible to work around : land you step on, live on, productive means
            – not irrrelevant opp cost: pp

          11. but the gains outweihted the losses of not having private prop for everyone be justified in your view?

            How would you figure this out?

            I would say that the detriments coming from a PP framework, especially due to loss of freedom, always outweight the benefits.

          12. And the next thing I do not understand is why one hasn't to account for the gains of a certain regime in your view.

            I do not understand this.

  4. If the piece of land down by the river is not owned and also not being used, then there is no opportunity cost because nobody is dispossessed.

      1. I don't think that you do. The opportunity cost of something is the value of the next best option. Not of every other possible option combined, or of potential future options, as this seems to be saying. For instance, by deciding to homestead this particular piece of land, the opportunity cost would be the value of the next best piece of land that could have been homesteaded instead. Or depending on circumstances, the value of the next best thing to homesteading anything at all.

        It is in this sense that opportunity cost explains the concept of comparative advantage, and it deals only in opportunities for which you presently have the power to exploit, but which you do not exploit because there is just one thing you'd rather do instead.

        The fact that any given bit of land has not already been occupied is proof positive that everybody else in the world either lacks the means to occupy it or values something else highly enough that they're content to leave it alone. Either way, there's nobody that could make a case against the homestead on the grounds of economic harm, seeing that it is all just hypothetical, future loss of opportunity. If you admit that kind of speculation into considerations of harm, it would be impossible to do anything at all, since even by mere personal occupancy the homesteader is denying everybody else in the world the use of some land. Are they to be attacked for the harm they are doing to people who might someday wish to occupy that same land and who are unable or unwilling to convince the homesteader to move?

        1. The opportunity cost is the lost opportunity for others. Not for yourself.

          Either way, there's nobody that could make a case against the homestead on the grounds of economic harm, seeing that it is all just hypothetical, future loss of opportunity.

          It's not hypothetical. Everyone else DOES lose the opportunity to use that land that someone else has permanently claimed. When most of everyone else is dispossessed otherwise, then this translates to real economic harm as they are denied opportunity on arbitrary reasons (i.e. someone else was there first).

          1. "We were here first" is hardly a rare justification in human morality. Hell, in practice it's pretty much the basis of most arguments for indigenous land rights. Why should the civilized world be denied so many precious minerals and oils that some tribes aren't even using just because they got the land on top of it first? Why should they expect any share in the value of resources which they would not otherwise know existed and which they do not have the means to exploit? Why indeed.

            Well, they were there first, but I guess that is pretty arbitrary.

          2. The excuse they were giving was not that they were there first, it was that they were using that land. And yes, they were using the land, but not in the way that the invaders wanted to. I.e. they were using it in a sustaining manner which required more space to provide their needs through the use of their current technology.

            And it wasn't as if they didn't share the use either. But far from me to stop your disgustingly selective view of history.

          3. There's always someplace where a corporation or government is trying to use undeveloped land for resources while the natives and their activists fight appropriation of the land for that purpose.

          4. That still just comes down to "they were there first." Because they got there first, they got to start using it first, and so could potentially maintain control of it indefinitely. Had somebody else gotten there first, they could have started using it instead and might still be doing so. It's just as arbitrary.

          5. It's not arbitrary that they're still using or occupying the land. They have to use or occupy *something*. What's arbitrary is claiming permanent ownership or things you do not use or occupy.

        2. If you admit that kind of speculation into considerations of harm, it would be impossible to do anything at all, since even by mere personal occupancy the homesteader is denying everybody else in the world the use of some land. Are they to be attacked for the harm they are doing to people who might someday wish to occupy that same land and who are unable or unwilling to convince the homesteader to move?

          Humans have to occupy something by rules of reality. That is inescepable. Claiming more than they occupy however isn't. Such extended and permanent claims are an opportunity cost for everyone who hasn't had a chance to occupy such a place first. Extracting rent for the use of those places, is downright exploitation.

          1. It seems to me that speaking of anything that has yet to be put to use as having values or costs is vacuous at best. Until somebody actually exploits some resource, it might as well be on Mars for all the good it does anybody, and might never have been exploited at all. You see this, for instance, when Exxon Mobile discovers some oil in some non-industrial land, and then has to pay the local government for mineral rights. How absurd, when the oil might have stayed in the ground forever if they hadn't been the ones to actually go thru the trouble of finding it. Yet people still act as though they are entitled to a share in the value of something that, for all they'd otherwise be concerned, Exxon Mobile might just as well have conjured ex nihilo.

            A lot of emphasis seems to be getting put on the permanency of homesteading claims. So, what if you just had private property that allowed for relatively easy squatting? Most private property systems already do recognize the concept of abandonment. (The current example of minerals notwithstanding, due to such things almost always being appropriated by the government by default.)

          2. It seems to me that speaking of anything that has yet to be put to use as having values or costs is vacuous at best. Until somebody actually exploits some resource, it might as well be on Mars for all the good it does anybody, and might never have been exploited at all.

            It has potential value for everyone. And while you can use it if nobody else is. To permanently claim it, regardless of use or occupation and/or not make up for such loss of opportunity for everyone else to use it, is wrong.

            The same is true for Mars. If people found a way to occupy it, and the first one who went there claimed it all for themselves, that would be an opportunity cost.

          3. You see this, for instance, when Exxon Mobile discovers some oil in some non-industrial land, and then has to pay the local government for mineral rights. How absurd, when the oil might have stayed in the ground forever if they hadn't been the ones to actually go thru the trouble of finding it. Yet people still act as though they are entitled to a share in the value of something that, for all they'd otherwise be concerned, Exxon Mobile might just as well have conjured ex nihilo.

            Oil companies have to make up for the loss of all the people who will not be able to work such land for themselves (for oil or otherwise) and the destruction of the environment that will occur from such extraction.

            Not that any such arrangements would be good anyway. States working with corporations only ends up harming almost everyone else.

          4. Ahh, so it all comes back to this absurd entitlement mentality, where you own a small part of everything solely by virtue of your existence.

          5. entitlement? The only entitlement I see here is from greedy fuckers who feel entitled to own more than they ever use themselves.

            Nobody owns the Earth (Or to put it more accurately, everyone owns it collectively). Anyone who lays permament claims on it, based on some arbitrary criteria such as homesteading is the one with the entitlement complex.

          6. A lot of emphasis seems to be getting put on the permanency of homesteading claims. So, what if you just had private property that allowed for relatively easy squatting?

            It would still be worse than not having private property at all.

          7. Well, I figured you'd think so. I meant in regards to this specific objection on the grounds of permanency.

          8. The objections against PP are not simply on the grounds of permanency, but nevertheless, if you're going to have PP which has caveats that make it indistinguishable from possessive ownership framework, then why call it "Private Property"?

  5. Your argument explains what happened to the American Indians. However, without private property, we would be no further developed. Your blog would be written on a piece of tree bark.

    1. False. There is not historical truth to this. PP sprung up from the discovery of agriculture and the unpreparedness of tribal customs to re-arrange themselves to the new technological levels. I.e. it was technology that allows for PP, not the other way around.

      There is no reason whatsoever why people can't advance without PP.

      Also this line of argument is fallacious. A kind of "appeal to origins" so to speak. Even if PP or capitalism was required to reach a specific technological level, it still doesn't make it good or the most optimal system of ownership. With the same reasoning, one can claim that monarchy or slavery is also good.

    2. Please provide logical proof that the Internet could not exist without the concept of property.

  6. I understand that we are talking about land and resources, but this has implications about the suspect validity of claims to ownership of any private property. Say for instance that I have a guitar. Does justice dictate that this guitar is public property for anyone to take and use at anytime they want? If more than one person wants to use the guitar at the same time, how is it to be decided who gets the guitar?

    1. Very similar to the same way it is now. A guitar is a personal possession. Not land or productive means of which there is a limited amount.

      1. Oh and I guess the material from which that guitar is made is in no way limited- in comparison to land or (wood) resources. :))
        Also, I can see that it is implied by a twisted use of vocabulary that personal possession =/= private property. :))

        Last, but not least, this "article" is a typical example of leftist, egalitarian, pseudo-argument. It is nothing but an attempt at deconstruction of some principle or concept (in this case private property), without any alternative being presented.

        1. I wanted to say above that you imply that personal possession = / = private property (does not equal)

  7. I think this is a compelling argument against perpetual ownership of land and natural resources, and I understand why ownership of guitars, watches and cars is a different matter. I am not sure how the opportunity cost argument applies to all productive means, however.

    Suppose me and my close friends operate a barbershop that we have built from scratch. To make it more socialist, it is a co-operative where the decisions are made democratically and the profits/surplus value/whatever shared equally (or if you want to Marx it up a notch, for each according to their needs*). We have worked hard for some time now and would like to take a month's vacation. Now the barbershop is idle and nobody is using it, so in a private property regime there would be an opportunity cost for anyone who wanted to do something in that particular building. (Notice that we are not talking about abandonment, in which case squatting would be quite understandable.) But in a non-propertarian society, would others be free to use the building, or would they need to consult us first? If they were, then would it be permissible to stop them from using it after we had returned? (And even if they returned it to us, what if they left the building completely revamped so that we could not work the way we used to before a thorough renovation?) If not, would we not have de facto ownership of the building even if we did not use or occupy it at the moment? Would a non-propertarian society have to be communistic to avoid such conundrums?

    Maybe I have been conditioned to think in propertarian ways, but these seem to be conditions under which it is completely justified to say "I have control over this, not limited to mere use and occupancy". Being against haciendas, abandoned factories etc. I can easily understand, but this is where I draw the line. The problem of opportunity costs does not vanish by invoking use/occupancy, unless one is willing to leave all that markety petty bourgeois stuff behind and embrace communism, which raises more questions than it answers. (Not to mention neither Bakunin, Proudhon nor Tucker would then qualify as a "true" anarchist.)

    *Yes, I do understand the slogan actually applies to a communist society and not a single enterprise.

    1. Look, you have to look at these things from a societal "common sense" perspective. Does it make any sense on a societal level for a shop to be considered free-for-all when it's owners decide to take a month long vacation? You have to remember that the whole society would be full of such owners and co-ops. Why would they consentualy agree on such rules, when it would be to their detriment?

  8. That makes sense, and this is the way I would like to approach possession in an anarchic society as well. Would you agree, then, that any attempts to create universal rights from any kind of first principles (be they Lockean or use/occupancy) are futile?

    Conundrums like this also expose weaknesses in the whole "property is theft" rhetoric. Sure, it's powerful and creates discussion, but unless you explicitly specify that you're not against mom&pop shops but against property on unused and idle land, monopolies on natural resources etc., people are going to be left confused. (There's enough trouble explaining to obtuse right-libertarians how anarchists can still own computers, cars and guitars, so the petty bourgeois stuff only complicates things.) When pragmatic right-libertarians make the case for property rights, they don't glorify Dagny Taggart's natural rights to her railroad – they stress how nice it would be if your home or small business were completely protected from predatory corporations who use eminent domain (with help from the state) to seize property. (The implication being "You're not on the side of corporations and the government, are you?")

  9. Having stumbled across this blog’s socio-political musings I simply
    can’t believe there are still lucid, rational and intelligent people on
    the interwebs.

    At the very least it seems we’re outnumbered hundreds to one by the libertardian / objectivist pond scum horde.

    No one ever talks about the “homesteading” bullshit attempt at justifying what is essentially perpetual theft from the commons and what ought to be public property.

    1. Well, don’t despair. The good news is that right-libertarians etc only really exist on the internet. 😉

Comments are closed.