Responding to Stefan Molyneux: "Theft of time", NAP, and common sense

So, apparently one of my articles has drawn the attention of Stefan Molyneux of the Freedomain radio, I’m guessing after it was crossposted and discussed in this forum thread. You might remember Stefan from the time I tried to call his online station after he asked for input from Anarcho-Communists and I wasn’t particularly impressed back then. This time Stefan made a video responding to my criticism of the Non-Aggression principle which I felt compelled to respond to.


After a few introductory words which addressed minor things (Note:  saying that something is “not half bad” is a figure of speech. Not to be taken literally), Stefan presented his first argument basically arguing that “You cannot say that the initiation of force is virtuous. Thus Non-Aggression is virtuous”.

My contention is not whether the initiation of force is virtuous. The contention is on what exactly constitutes intiation of force, or more explicitly – violence or threat of violence. Yes, of course aggression is not virtuous, but this does not mean that the Non-Aggression Principle becomes suddenly useful as a moral guideline. Yes, aggression is bad and not aggressing is good. Murder is also bad. Not murdering is also good. But we do not create a basis for our entire ethical system out of “Thou shalt not murder”. Not only does one need to first define “murder”, but it is just far too limited a guideline to base one’s entire sociopolitical system on.

The reductio ad absurdum that Stefan attempts, might prove that you cannot have Aggression as a moral guideline, but it does not logically follow from that, that Non-Aggression is a useful moral guideline instead.

Further to that, Stefan makes a huge logical leap: From arguing that Aggression cannot be a virtue, to concluding that “Property Rights are the only thing that can work”. This is not at all evident from the arguments put forth and is blatantly begging the question.

Stefan then goes on a tangent, explaining how Self Ownership leads to property rights. I understand that this is what right-libertarians tend to accept, but it is largely irrelevant to the subject at hand, especially given that I reject “Self Onwership” as an internally contradictory concept. Nevertheless, the reason this is brought up, is to show that one is responsible for one’s actions, and therefore that “theft is theft, is because you’re stealing someone’s time”.

This is the main thrust of the argument here I believe, but “Self-Ownership” was not required to make this point, so I’m unsure why it was brought up. Nevertheless, I’ll take the time to address this argument from “theft of time”.

The idea presented is as such: When someone puts forth labour to create something, and someone comes around and takes that thing away, then that person can be assumed to have stolen all the time required for creator to make it, which is similar to slavery.

This argument looks solid at first glance, but unfortunately, when one challenges the premises behind it, it shows that it is on very shaky ground based on assumptions of specific property rights.

The most basic counter-argument I would make against this concept of “theft of time” is: Who says that whatever you put labour into creating, belongs to you automatically? Ownership is a split gradient1 which can take many forms based around social agreement on what constitutes a valid claim or disposal. It is not a universal law. What happens here, is that the type of ownership that Stefan prefers, is assumed into the argument. But as soon as one challenges the premise of what you can own and how you come about owning it, things become much less solid.

Do you own something you created out of the commons? Stefan would say yes, I would say yes as well, with stipulations. My stipulations of course being that you only own whatever you created as long as you keep using it. As long as you do not, it goes back into the commons for anyone else to use. Stefan would have no such stipulation however. Whatever you create, no matter if it came from the commons or not, belong to you forever.

So if Stefan makes something out of the commons and doesn’t use it anymore, and I come and use it in the meantime, for Stefan that amounts to slavery for I have “stolen his time”. Were that to be enforced however, Stefan would have in effect enclosed the commons. An immediate split forms on what is ethical in this case. I do not recognise Stefan’s right to enclose the commons and he does not recognise my right to steal his time. Who is rights is an argument for another day, but suffice to say that “theft of time” only works if you look at it from a propertarian perspective, which is not something everyone will or should do.

Furthermore, Stefan’s argument ends up with some telling conclusions when in mind of his larger worldview as well. The larger worldview of course being Capitalism which is naturally permeated by wage slavery. In this world, taking someone’s labour is just fine as long as it’s voluntary. A wage slave toils all week but does not get to own the product of his labour at all. Rather, they end up with a price for the creation that is lower than the market value of such a creation. In Stefan’s worldview this is a clear “theft of time”, but it’s OK because as it’s voluntary. That is, as long as the wage slave agreed to be one. This naturally leads us to the conclusion that Slavery is OK as long as it’s voluntary.

I’m sure the argument will be put forth that working for a wage is nothing like being a slave so this is not an apt comparison, to which I will counter that in a similar vein, “theft of time” is nothing like slavery either. You can’t have it both ways and I won’t even bother to argue on whether voluntary slavery is AOK either.

Finally, I’ll just make the most obvious counter to this argument. Stefan says verbatim:  “The reason that theft is theft, is because you’re stealing someone’s time”. But this is just a tautology and doesn’t really tells us anything. Theft is theft because you’re stealing? Yes, of course. Perhaps he meant to say that “Theft is wrong because you’re stealing someone’s time” which only makes marginally more sense as it ends up telling us that “theft is wrong because it’s theft”. Circular reasoning.

The argument only “works” at first glance, because Stefan is basing himself on intuitive assumptions and biases from the audience, which is expected to already believe that theft is bad within a specific framework of ownership rights. As soon as those premises are missing, as soon as the audience does not share Stefan’s conclusions, this conclusion becomes baseless. Theft of time is wrong *why* exactly? This needs to be argued, not simply asserted. And it is in the process of arguing “Why is Theft of Time bad?”, where all the nuances and exceptions and outright mistakes will be pointed out and addressed.

After this brief overview of the “theft of time” argument, Stefan concludes that it’s not arbitrary to not-aggress, or respect private property. This, again, does not follow. Those two are still subjective.  The non-aggression principle remains a moral guideline, all of which are subjective (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but as I explained before it is comparatively useless on its own. The stateless propertarian framework is normative as well as it’s put forth as a superior socioeconomic organization (And there’s nothing wrong with that either). It is not a science like physics as Stefan likes to imagine. Defining “aggression” within the stateless propertarian framework, which not everyone accepts, is what is arbitrary and that is wrong.

Next Stefan addresses the difficulty of figuring out what constitutes initiation of force within a propertarian framework, admitting that shooting trespassers is not acceptable and so on. However he misses my point. He ends up discussing how “degree” (degree of what? violence?) is not as important as morality. I.e. it’s not as important to figure out how to deal with something bad, as it is in defining that something is bad in the first place. And I agree with that. Societies of the future will find their own ways to deal with aggressors. But the reason I pointed out the impossibility of intuitively defending against violation of private property rights is to point out that given differing expectations of ownership, the non-aggression principle coupled with private property ends up excusing actual violence against non-violent people. The degree is not important either. The fact is that if I start working on land you are not using, you will have to aggress against me (likely with literal violence) in order to stop me.

To give you a contrast within a possessive ownership framework, If you started using land I am already using for myself, you can have either of two purposes: Co-operate or Violate. If you co-operate with me, then we can share the fruits of our labour, thus benefiting us both. If you violate my work, then you are being visibly destructive and threatening to my livelihood. You are aggressing against me and thus literal violence is then justified to stop such destruction.

The point thus, is that the “Non-Aggression principle” does not help us understand or resolve the former case in the slightest. The point is that both parties can have differing understanding of what constitutes “aggression”. The problem is in declaring that it’s the owner of the private property that decides what is aggression.

Finally Stefan makes the argument that all these issues on attempting to see how the NAP can be useful in the real world, are inconsequential because people work these things out intuitively and organically. And here’s the funny part, I absolutely agree. The difference is that Stefan assumes that people would work out things in such a way as to allow private property to flourish, and this is not just untrue, it’s ahistoric. The example of “tailgate parties” that he brings up is a perfect example of this. I doubt in any of those parties you see people taking up more space than they can personally use. If anything, the temporary ownership setup in those parties is possessive, i.e. claims based on occupancy and use.

It is precisely because societies naturally organize themselves according to possessive and communal ownership, that capitalism requires a state to support it. Because private property is not common sense and it is not an acceptable arrangement by the dispossessed. A society “working these things out naturally” and ending up with some people owning vast tracts of land and factories, while others own just the clothes on their back and live day to day on subsistence is unrealistic in the extreme. The people on the lower scale would absolutely take the first opportunity to use the unused land, reclaim and re-institute the commons and expropriate their productive means. Or do you think that someone working on subsistence on a mega-farm is going to “work it out” with the landowner who owns it? No, the farmers would expropriate the land the first chance they got, while the landowner would declare aggression and bring in their private state defence company to restore order.

To think that such arrangements will be upheld naturally is wishful thinking. There has never been a single society or community where anything remotely like this wasn’t upheld by force. Not one.

So yes. Aggression is likely to be absent from a free society, but not because people morally adhere to a stale moral guidelines such as the NAP, but rather because people absent oppression tend to work out things via possessive rights, making “aggression” primarily about violence, which is dealt with intuitively.

And if people can work things out intuitively even in a propertarian framework, it seems to me the NAP remains unnecessary. It seems to me, that the only purpose of the NAP is to give an ideological excuse to private defence companies to…”reform” individuals who somehow just can’t seem to work out Capitalism naturally with the capitalists and landowners . Those silly people.

  1. By which I mean that the various types of ownership differ by a degree, but there is a hard split in the middle, between possessive ownership and “sticky” ownership” systems because those two are incompatible []