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.
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.
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 [↩]
Right-Libertarians, “Anarcho”-Capitalists, and assorted propertarians very frequently cite the Non-Aggression principle or Zero Aggression principle (Commonly called NAP or ZAP) as a core tenet of their ideology. It is brought up as the building block of voluntaryism on which free markets can be built and proudly displayed to show how morally superior such a society would be compared to anything else which, by the absence of the NAP, is defined to have an involuntary aspect.
But what exactly is the NAP? The specific details might differ depending on the encompassing ideology, but the central point generally seems to be that no human should aggress over another human. This is meant to mean the initial use of coercive force as well as the threat of such.
Now, if left to this end, this is not a half-bad principle, basically saying that people shouldn’t attack or threaten to attack others. However at this stage, it is also pretty much unnecessary to be given an explicit existence as a “principle” as the generic principle of freedom already encompasses this (i.e. attacking another person would violate their freedom). Other moral theories, particularly the utilitarian variants already encompass such rules (with stipulation) as a natural consequence of their suggestions. In the end, this basic form of non-aggression ends up sounding like a shallow “Thou shalt not kill” which, while pretty clear, when strictly adhered to can lead to worse results (such as foregoing killing in self-defence) or requires a more advanced moral framework above it which clarifies when it is, in fact, acceptable to kill.
But propertarians do not generally leave it at just that but rather try to sneakily expand it by linking it with private property rights. You see, the NAP is frequently derived directly from the Self-Ownership “axiom” and thus the wrongly derived property rights are treated as an extension of the self. Therefore one can then treat violation of private property rights as an act of “initated force”, even though no actual violence or threat of violence has been perpetuated. This is turn is used as a cause to use actual violence or threat of violence on the violator of property rights.
It thus becomes that the NAP, when combined with Self-Ownership conveniently becomes an excuse for someone to initiate real, literal violence against someone else. The right to freedom or utilitarian moral rules reserve the right for people to defend themselves against aggression, that is, to take only as much action as needed to stop the aggression against their person. This is pretty self-evident when achieved, both to the one being attacked and to any observers (i.e. it’s obvious when two people have stopped exchanging blows and threats). When extended to private property however, things get far far more complex.
While it’s easy to understand that someone “aggresses” when they steal something from another person (which is why most other moral systems do not require a NAP to label theft as wrong), things get pretty murky when one goes beyond that. Do I “initiate force” when I use a productive machine without paying rent? How about if I pay only enough rent to cover the cost of the machine? Do I “initiate force” when I toil the unused land that is owned by someone else? How about when I trespass?
This is further complicated by the claims of the NAP proponents that the NAP does not excuse any and all acts of self-defence but is rather limited by the level of aggression. We’re informed that it does not in fact, grant the right of shooting trespassers. But this again does not really clarify the matter. Whereas in literal aggression, one is always aware of the level the initiator is using (threats, shoving, punching, lethal weapons etc) and can respond in kind, in this extended field of aggression you’re left to comparing apples with oranges. What is the correct response to someone trespassing your property? Trespassing on their property? Forcibly taking them out? Threatening to shoot them and then follow through if they don’t comply? The truth of the matter is that unlike literal aggression, you cannot discover how you can respond in kind intuitively.
Thus we see that unlike actual aggression where equal reaction can cancel the aggression (i.e. shoving can defend against shoving, punching can defend against punches etc), in “aggression” on property via the NAP, the self-defence enacted is and must always be different and stronger than the act of “aggression”. A trespasser cannot be removed by counter-trespassing. They must be forcibly removed and this is very likely to require (threats of) lethal force if they do not comply. This get even more complicated if that person does not accept the NAP and considers the literal acts of aggression against them as the initiation of force it is and defends in kind.
There is no solution to this issue. The NAP, as a moral rule is incapable of making any suggestions or providing any solutions as it does not say anything substantial other than the vacuous “Thou shalt not initiate violence”. Rather we are told that an extensive legal system will be required which will either interpret some kind of “natural law” or be somehow employ objective judges which make the perfect decisions. Something like the system of wealthy libertarian judges that Murray Rothbard proposed, which would follow some kind of “libertarian law”. In short, nothing more than a subjective legal system built around the principles that people like Rothbard prefer.
And all these issues occur before we even consider that extrapolating private property rights from the “axiom” of Self-Ownership is a non sequitur as it’s impossible to deride a particular set of ownership rights out of it (which is why you can see how much and how many libertarians disagree on what specific ownership rights to use). Due to this, a NAP that ideologically protects a particular set of ownership rights is nothing more than a subjective argument against the things a particular person does not like. That one does not like people trespassing on his property so he calls that “an initiation of force”. That other one does not consider trespassing to be such, but it’s certainly an “initiation of force” when workers don’t pay him rent for a factory’s costs he’s already recovered.
The NAP is shown to be pretty much a shallow principle. When limited to actual physical force, it’s superseded and made obsolete by moral systems which can explain when force is justified or not. When extended to concepts which are not immediately intuitive, its subjective nature quickly devolves it to shouting matches which can only be settled by a homogeneous system of courts and enforcement agencies. A de-facto state.
To me, when someone explains that according to the NAP, this or that is wrong, they mostly sound like “This or that is wrong, because I say so.”
My eating an apple prevents someone else from eating that same apple, or entraps them in their “ghetto” as you call it.
A one time consumable good is not the same as an indefinitely productive property. Every major thinker in anarchist history that I can think of has always considered the consumable goods to be important, but ultimately small potatoes in comparison with what is truly critical. This is the reason behind the possession/property distinction that most anarchists find critical going all the way back to Proudhon, while so-called “anarcho”-capitalists seem to think it is a clever plot to make them look like jerks. Indefinite private dominion over all productive resources, enforced upon the unwilling, is hardly legitimated by your need to eat apples.
This is the kind of issue skirting in fact that subconsciously annoy me when arguing with AnCaps and the like. Usually I can’t put my finger on it but Voltairine immediately calls it out.
Once again I must return to the subject of ownership rights and how there’s two very distinct ways to define them: Private Property and Possession. That is not of course to mean that there’s no further variation between each of those systems, such as variation on the time to abandonment, the scale of ownership (individualist or collective) etc but rather that there is a hard core difference which splits the ownership scale in half, making each half incompatible with the existence of the other within the same social structure.
This idea, that Private Property as an ownership system is distinct from Possession as an ownership system should not be difficult to grasp. It is after all one of the core concepts of most forms of Socialism and anyone trying to do a substantial critique – especially of communism – should as a bare minimum be able to understand what socialists actually oppose when we speak about “abolition of private property” or what collective ownership means in practice.
And yet, time and again, instead of seeing valid criticism against socialist theory from defenders of the capitalist mode of production, we see an endless string of strawmen centered around misunderstanding (purposefully, one starts to think eventually) the socialist opposition to “Property”. This is even more cringe-inducing when it is stated as a novel and irrefutable argument against socialist theory. As if it so easily proves that all socialists are just too silly to see and understand the obvious flaws in their opposition to Capitalism. It’s like someone bringing up the “Mud Pie” example as a new and exciting criticism against Marxian economics.
Such is the most recent example where we are guided to understand what “property” is and that communists “seem to forget” a bunch of stuff about how human societies function and the positive aspects of being able to own stuff. It once again trots out the classic red herrings about people who would prefer private property over anything else and that the only way to stop them must be via a state. Yadda yadda. Regular readers of mine should already know how easy it is to refute this nonsense.
It is all, in the end, based on simply calling all “Ownership” as “Property” and thus claiming that we, as humans, can’t function without “property”.He therefore obscures the fact that there is a difference between “Possessive property” and for lack of a better word now, “Sticky Property” and its significance. He pontificates on the voluntary aspects of “property” and how everyone else got it so wrong, while failing to make any point on whether Possession or “Sticky” property should be preferred, something which is at the heart of the socialist idea. In short we replace arguments over substance with arguments over vacuous semantics.
You see, it does not really matter what we call the various systems of ownership, we could call them blue and purple bananas for all the good it will do us. The important thing is that we understand the same concepts. That the socialist criticize the ownership system which facilitates and promotes wage-slavery, rent and usury and promote one which makes that systematically impossible. That this is not a discussion on how we’re going to enforce it (voluntarily or coercively) but on simply which system we ought to prefer.
To simply take your own or what you assume are the “right” definition of the word ‘property’ and superimpose it onto socialist critique, is simple a recipe for strawmen fallacies. Perhaps you have the most popular definition. Perhaps you have the proper or more the most clear. Perhaps not. The important thing to remember, as Proudhon pointed out in the past, is that if you’re going to call all types of ownership “property” then you really need a way to distinguish between possession and “sticky property”. He suggested to call the later the more appropriate name of “theft” of course but I doubt the propertarians will agree on that.
As a communist, I have a reason why I prefer the definitional distinction to be between “Private Property” and “Possession”. Property is generally understood anyway to be “sticky” that is, to remain with someone until they sell or abandon it, regardless of occupancy or use. As such, it does not take much effort, other than explaining that there’s other possible forms of ownership other than that, to clarify my opposition to it. But it’s not important to use those concepts if they confuse someone. I can easily switch to a terminology that one feels more comfortable with if that will make things easier for them. However this is still my preferred terminology for the reason I just explained and thus find it incredibly silly for someone to make strawmen based on what I write for the general audience and then defend their actions on the grounds that their definitions are superior or more correct.
OTOH, what I most commonly end up seeing is that propertarians do not choose to call everything “property” because it is easy to discuss the concepts around it, but because it conveniently allows them to pretend that other valid forms of ownership do not exist. They will attempt to argue that “Property” is necessary and by that lump all concepts of ownership into the same umbrella, even when incompatible with each other. This is necessary in order to make their core arguments from “self-ownership” lead to Laissez-faire Capitalism, something which would be weakened if possession was a valid form of ownership, distinct from private property. Therefore it’s better to assume that the former is simply a subgroup of the latter. In fact, this is surprisingly similar to the way they try to argue that they’re open to the idea of communism…as long as it exists within a greater propertarian framework.
But I digress into an anti-AnCap rant again. What I’m trying to point out is that the words we use are irrelevant as long as we end up understanding each other and making substantial arguments. I long to see someone making a solid critique on why a Possessive system is unfeasible or even simply inefficient, or how private property is more ethical and whatnot…without having those points demolished by decade-old anarchist arguments or simple facts of reality.
And until then, all misguided propertarians who insist on making strawmen and presenting them as the most insightful thing ever and the absolute refutation of any and all forms of Socialism – should and will receive at best a quick dismissal as the waste of time they are, or at worst a well deserved ridicule for being obnoxiously ignorant.
From a reddit discussion I ended up discovering a post from Kevin Carson who expresses amazingly well the reason why I keep getting annoyed when discussing with propertarians of various forms. It’s the implicit double standard that is implied every time I’m accused of wanting to steal stuff, of having no respect for the capitalist’s “labour”, of being authoritarian. I’ll let Carson put it best.
Here’s an opposing case for you: Imagine I’m renting a house under a Lockean property system, and get permission to plant a garden on it. I invest a lot of effort in composting and green manuring, and even spend money on granite dust, greensand, rock phosphate and the like to improve the soil. When I get done with it, what was hardpan clay has been transformed into rich, black, friable soil. And when I cease renting, I lose the value of all the improvements I made. That’s the sort of thing that happens all the time under Lockeanism. But I suspect that Reisman would say that I made the improvements with my eyes open, and am entitled to no sympathy because I knew what the rules were. I certainly doubt that he’s shedding any tears over the invested labor that the South Central Farmers are in danger of losing.
The difference is, when it happens under the system he’s defending, it’s just life; when it happens under the system he’s demonizing, it’s an outrage.
And this here above is exactly the thing you get to hear all the goddamn time!
The wage-worker not keeping the full value of his labour or his labour not being enough to ensure his subsistence? That’s just life. A wannabe-capitalist not being able to extract a profit from his workers? Outrage!
A tenant-farmer’s labour not being enough to homestead the land he’s working on because a landlord has already a claim to it? That’s just life. Someone not being able to claim ownership on more land than he can possibly use himself? Outrage!
Capitalists requiring a special class of wealthy judges to interpret the “libertarian law” and a private defense complex to enforce them? That’s not a state, just life. Workers banding together and using means such as peer pressure and ostracism to enforce that nobody exploits and dominates anyone else? Outrage! Statism!
I could go on and on but you get the idea. It would be funny if it wasn’t depressing to have to argue against this so often.
This whole thing starts from the classic error of the propertarians taking their chosen system of ownership as given and a “natural law”. Once you start by assuming that Private Property is an objective rule set then it’s not difficult to jump to the conclusion that act that violates those rights is an outrage. The fact that it is not a violation when the whole system has been rejected simply does not cross one’s mind. It reminds me of some Liberal lawyers arguing that a violation of copyrights was wrong because it’s the law and not being able to grasp that we challenged the validity of the law in the first place.
In recent posts I’ve been arguing a lot with various strands of Free Market Anarchists on the benefits of using such a free market approach and on trusting in them to achieve a better result for the society. The more I discuss, the more it dawns to me that there is a fundamental distinction between them and it basically relates to the reasons why one embraced Free Market Anarchy as a social theory.
The way I see it, there are two different reasons why one can end up being a Market Anarchist.
Free Markets are the best way to achieve liberty.
Liberty is the Free Markets.
Proponents of the first type are generally the ones who are far more interested in achieving the most personal liberty rather than in the specific system they will use to do so. This is the utilitarian perspective which considers that the best result for humanity as a whole is by maximizing each person’s individual liberty and are under the belief that free markets facilitate exactly that. I generally have no problem with this type of Market Anarchist as sooner or later they will come to the conclusion that the best way to maximize individual liberty is by achieving egalitarianism as well and thus turn socialist. This seems to be the way most Mutualists I’ve spoken with think of it at least.
In short, for the first type, Liberty and by necessary extension Equality are the most important part, the end goal. The Free Markets are merely the best way they believe we have to achieve this result. Such a perspective is open minded. Given enough arguments and solid criticism showing that the free markets cannot, in fact, achieve this goal, that person will discard this belief and embrace something that can. That is not to say that all will, but the fact that they are open about it is what will facilitate dialogue and constructive discussion.
It is the second path to Free Market Anarchism that I find flawed.
The latter type are nominally for liberty as well but they have a very distorted view of it. One seems to start again from questing for the best way to achieve liberty but then somehow is quickly immersed in Free Market rhetoric from the likes of the Austrian school of Economics. Using theoretical proofs of “working (propertarian) free markets” based on pure logic and unrealistic assumptions, the concept of liberty is conflated with the concept of propertarian free markets. It becomes dogma.
The original question of “what maximizes liberty?” is forgotten. All arguing commences from the position “Libertarianism is the Free Markets” which ends up misrepresenting the position of anyone who argues against this as authoritarian and easily devolves into flamewars. Even worse, when the logical consequences of such a perspective are pointed out as non-libertarian, an extreme rationalization kicks in to turn black into white. “It’s libertarian as long as it’s voluntary“, “It’s libertarian if no fraud or violence is involved.” etc etc. It is through such a distortion that the clear, authoritarian nature of a hierarchical relationship such as the one between boss and wage-worker can be rationalized away as “libertarian”, even though the worker maintains no freedom while working. It is through such a distortion that voluntary slavery can be defended as “libertarian.”
If the original question is brought up again, if the original economic assumptions are challenged, I very often receive a fallacious responses of a religious fervor. The most common being an argument from authority, most usually the authority of the Austrian school of economics naturally. When that fails, the most common fallback arguments I see is either the abstraction of the free market to the irrelevant or the trounce card of arguing for private property rights (and by extension Free markets to control distribution) via the Natural Law concept.
So the main difference between these two paths to Market Anarchism can be separated between Utilitarian and Ideological perspective. The Utilitarian perspective starts from the trying to achieve a utilitarian result, discovers that maximizing liberty is a necessary part of it and considers that free market anarchism is the best way to achieve this. The ideological perspective on the other hand starts from various asserted axioms, eg “Private Property rights are an objective reality”, “The Non-Aggression principle leads to greater liberty”, “Free Markets are Pareto Efficient” etc and finds that Free Market Anti-Statism is the ideology that brings them all together in one package.
Thus, whatever the practical result of such a Free Market Anti-Statism might be is irrelevant as it has already been defined to be “Libertarian.” And it is this exact reason why I often find it so frustrating to discuss with (or even read) the latter type of Market Anarchist, as something that is obviously authoritarian or exploitative in nature is ignored at best (“It can only happen via the state”) or defended at worst (Slave Contracts).
But there is one particular argument I hear from the ideological market anarchist. When I point to a very possible authoritarian result of propertarian markets, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, crypto-feudalism or simply widespread wage-slavery, a common response (right after defending it as “voluntary”) is to claim “Oh that would probably never happen without the state anyway”. But then I have to ask: Why do you care about that? Whether that comes to be or not should not matter at all as long as it is the result of the “free market” should it?
In these market anarchists I see a strained dualism, where that person really wants to have a generally libertarian society, where hierarchy and authority are minimal if not abolished but at the other hand, just cannot bring themselves to consider discarding the propertarian free markets concept as all. It manifests itself in expressions such as “Certainly the worker has to sacrifice his liberty as a wage-slave and certainly sweatshop wage-slavery is not a good result but in a truly free market, the increased competition would give all workers such a competitive advantage that sweatshops could never exist and most people would be able to be self-employed if they really wanted to.”
If you would not like to see widespread wage-slavery, propertarian feudalism, hierarchy from 3rd institutions etc then why do you not start from this position in the first place? Why don’t you start by considering a socioeconomic system which would make such possibilities systematically impossible. Perhaps this will be possible via the free markets. Perhaps you’ll have to abolish private property. Perhaps you’ll have to move away from the markets altogether. But as long as your basic results are achieved, you shouldn’t care anyway, right?
However, the issue here is not as simple as merely saying that Block made a flawed logical reasoning, or that it was all a mistake or anything as simple as that. The quote above is simply a pointed example of the intellectual dead-end one reaches when his whole ethical framework resolves around respect for Private Property and fetishism of voluntarism.
The issue here is that what Block wrote, unfortunately is a logical conclusion of suggesting voluntarism and the non-aggression principle within a propertarian environment as the core of ethics. It is, unfortunately consistent with “Anarcho”-Capitalist principles.
Most defenses of Private property I’ve seen (for an example, see the No Third Solution argument) orbit around the concept that harassment is prevented by the Non-Aggression principle and the lack of an explicit contract to allow it to happen. In short they consider the problem to be simply one of a contractual nature. They miss the elephant in the room by looking at the murals.
You see, there’s basically two arguments put forth here. So lets look at them in turn
“The Problem is not that the boss is harassing the secretary, but that he is harassing her without having an explicit clause in their employment contract allowing him to do so.”
This argument in short suggests that there is nothing wrong with a boss who only hires secretaries as a personal semi-harem, as long as he makes that known from the start. It assumes then that any secretary which agrees to this contract cannot then consider the sexual advances she agreed to, to be harassment.
This argument, while on the surface seems legit, is not in fact any more different than Block’s. It simply moves the agreement of the secretary from the implicit to the explicit. Whereas block asserted that the secretary’s continuous acceptance of the sexual harassment (i.e. not quitting her job over it) was an implicit agreement to it and thus not “harassment”, the contractual argument simply desires to take the same exact situation and legitimize it via the legal stamp.
However this argument misses the point that in both cases, the implicit or explicit acceptance of the harassment from the secretary is not caused because she wants it but because of the lack of alternatives. Because the other choices that remain to her if she does not accept the harassment or sign the contract are worse (ex starvation of her and her family.) The same secretary which “volunteered” to be harassed without a contract in Block’s example will also “volunteer” to sign the contract. Does the nature of her harassment change because she signed a piece of paper? Does the moral condemnation the boss deserves for abusing his position disappear?
Of course not, because the moral condemnation does not spring from the “aggression” the boss performs against the secretary but from the fact that he is using his position of power, which stems from inequality of wealth, to passively coerce the secretary to accept behaviour she would not otherwise accept if she was on equal standing.
The second problem which logically follows from the propertarian system is this:
“The boss can initiate a sexual advance towards the secretary who is at all liberty to refuse. However the boss then is at all liberty to fire her and there is nothing at all wrong with this.”
I believe that this is even more tricky for propertarians to defend. If we assume that the boss would not go straight to pinching (which the right-“libertarians” can then jump to label as “aggression”) but would initially “test the waters” so to speak by starting with subtle advancement and then growing bolder the more such advancements are accepted we end up exactly in the original Blockean argument once more.
Let’s say that this Boss does a subtle sexual advancement which the Secretary refuses. The Boss then fires her (terminating their “voluntary contract”). Next secretary? Same thing. And so on until he finds one secretary which is in a desperate enough situation that she tolerates his initial advances. He then becomes bolder and bolder until we reach the phase of pinching. Can we call that “aggression”? No since the secretary did not show outright refusal to such an advance and for the boss it can look like a normal progression of human relationship (or some other similar phrasing of his excuse). After all, the secretary is free at any point to make it clear that she does not appreciate his advances…and get fired.
In fact, the prudent “libertarian” boss, would not offer a sexual contract upfront to his potential secretaries but would rather follow the above actions until he’s determined that she’s desperate enough, and before moving on to actual physical contact, he would simply request that his secretary sign a new job contract volunteering to his sexual advances so as to legally cover his arse…just in case, you know.
Is there any way for Voluntarism and the NAP to morally condemn the actions of the boss? I fear not. And this again points out the intellectual bankruptcy of this ideology which cannot be covered by shallow “I was wrong to say that” excuses. The problem is that Block was not inconsistent with his ideology. He simply took it to his natural conclusion as he’s done with his acceptance of slave contracts. It just so happened that his argument struck a chord in the feminist movement who saw through the bankruptcy of voluntarism and forced him to backtrack hurriedly, even if he can’t explain the reasoning behind this.
Unlike vulgar-libertarians, a boss firing a secretary because she would not accept such a debasement is immediately a cause for moral condemnation by egalitarians1 as we condemn all situations which passively coerce people to “volunteer” to such humiliation. It is the same reason why we condemn wage-slavery just as much as we condemn sexual harassment. The only difference between those two is that the latter has been taken out of the status of “normal” by the brave actions of the feminist movement while the former is still seen as something natural. But the underlying causes for one to “volunteer” to sexual harassment are exactly the same as what causes one to “volunteer” to wage slavery: Private Property.
Of course I maintain that one cannot be a consistent libertarian without being egalitarian as well but that’s beside the point [↩]
In the Mutualist Political Economy I’ve reached the point where Kevin is now discussing the similarities and differences between the property systems as proposed by Lockeanists, Georgists or Mutualists. What struck a chord with me was the point where he expressed the opinion that none of these three systems could be proven by a logical deduction from “the axiom of self-ownership” but rather only by social consensus.
Now while I agree with this position, I cannot help but ask why would we wish in the first place to logically deduce the property rights to use from an axiom which is meaningless and logically inconsistent to boot. This is asking us to take an ideological concept and from that discover normative propositions for people to follow. Not only that, but the more this ideological concept approaches the sterilized status of an axiom, the more incapable it becomes of providing a clear path to a normative proposition, as can be seen from the three different property concepts that can follow from it (and that is while ignoring the rest of the varied ideas that can stem from an “axiom” of self-ownership)
To leave it to the ideologues then is akin to waiting for the metaphorical priests to decide how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Any type of argumentation will most likely be based on shaky erections of logic which would simply lead to different people espousing the one that is closer to the current mentality and social status. A stagnating perspective.
But if the type of ownership that one society should use is not deductible from ideological positions, then how would a social consensus decide on a “particular set of allocation rules”? What kind of argumentation can be used to not simply reinforce currently held but also to actually change them based on some sort of proof?
The answer lies in departing from the ideological perspective altogether and looking for the answer from a utilitarian one. To put it more simply: Which type of ownership system would lead to the maximum amount of good for the maximum amount of people? In this kind of problem-solving, there is no space left for vacillations on the degree of difference between sticky or non-sticky property. There is no use pondering on which ownership system (Lockean or Mutualist) respects abstracts concepts the more. Just figure out what makes people live happy lives and what is the best system that will allow them to experience them.
The first part should be relatively easy1 to discover using scientific principles in psychological and sociological research.
However the later is a normative question and as a result must involve an ethical reasoning which cannot be based on scientific methodology. It is from this reasoning that the type of property system we should be using be discovered then discussed and finally spread memetically to a larger and larger amount of people, until the required consensus is achieved.
And in this attempts for consensus, ideological concepts and logical structures erected around them only serve to distract, confuse and ultimately slow down this process.
“Easy” Only inasmuch as we already have the scientific method which we know is best for discovering descriptive facts about reality [↩]
Quite large discussions seem to have been sparked by my recent article counter posing Private Property to Possession, both in the comments of my own blog, and on the Austro-Athenian Empire. In both cases it’s an argument mostly between me and my generally communist views and Lockeanists who argue for the homesteading principle as defended by Murray Rothbard.
The discussion has already unfortunately grown impossible to manage through the comments of the AAE and as several questions have been put to me lately, I thought I might answer then in a new post. This might also give an opportunity of other Anarchists/Communists to engage or state their opinion on this, plus it will hopefully allow the discussion to flow better in my comment system which is built for it 😉 .
RE: Private Property and Possession have only differences of detail and degree.
Mostly based on Kevin Carson’s article, is the idea that Possession and Private Property are simply parts on a scale of Ownership rights1, from less “sticky” to more, that is for Lockeanists, property rights, once claimed remain even if the original owner does not use them anymore or rents them out, while for Socialists, property rights remain only as long as use is maintained (with a grace period of unuse based on common sense of course)
But while this on first view seems like a small difference of degree, in functional terms, the difference is immense. To put it simply, for Socialists, wage labour and rent would be impossible as one cannot be said to own something that someone else uses.
While Lockeanists tend to concentrate on terms of unused land and claim something like “oh, the difference wouldn’t be so big between our systems. Why are we fighting then?” they miss the really fucking big difference it would make on the kind of society which would be formed on it. This is because without wage labour you cannot have Capitalism, as it is the most crucial gear by which accumulation (and thus investment) can occur. The difference does not lie in the original distribution of land, of which in the Lockeanist system will look benign, but in the results of this “sticky” possession.
This is why claims by Rothbard that all previous claims to property are null ring so hollow, since Rothbard ignores that along with the state enclosing on the commons or creating a buying monopoly (which he acknowledges), the Capitalist backed state also imposed the mentality of “sticky” property that most people did not hold, and which was of course for the benefit of the Capitalist. Thus to nullify the claims of the land but to insist that people retain a Lockeanist concept of property is as invalid as not wishing to nullify property claims at all. The result in any case would be similar. Property would start accumulating again and a system of inequality and authority would be built on top of it.
On the other hand, anarchists insist that you cannot make any difference unless, along with the state and the unjust distribution it enforced, you also utilize possessive ownership which will allow the egalitarian system (for which people undoubtedly revolted for) to remain in place.
RE: Wouldn’t lending undermine the concept of Possession?
The question put by Roderick seems to be this: Even in a possessive system, lending would still happen, that is, people would still allow others to borrow their cars, or use their lawnmowers. If this is possible without having to change ownership in between, then this would mean that the difference between possession and PP is a matter of degree.
Certainly lending would still be possible under a possessive system, but it wouldn’t be based on rent. A rent for any item, can be seen to mean that the other person is paying towards ownership of it. As such, if I borrow your car for a day or a week, by common sense most people would recognise that it’s not my car now as it was based on a favour. People would have to throw their senses out of the window to recognise either result (It goes against all people’s interests basically). However in order for you to somehow convince me that I would have to pay you an amount to borrow your car, but then your car would still be yours, would require something more. It would require inequality.
Think of it this way. Such acts of renting do not happen between friends even now, even though such acts would be perfectly legal and in the self-interest of those involved. Even under dire circumstances, a friend would not ask another for money to help (quite the contrary in fact). This is because friendships, at the core, are about equal individuals wanting to relate to each other. This equality and most importantly, the recognition of it in the minds of those involved, is what instinctively prevents them from asking for rent. Likewise, in an egalitarian society, such as those based on possession, any lending would happen based on needs, and not for profit. Were one to ask for such a profit from the other, it would immediately sour their relationship, as well as most likely the relationship they have with the rest of society. Just think of how would you react if you suddenly needed a friend’s car to head for a week vacation and he asked you for rent (obviously, over any maintenance that may happen). You’re most likely to decline the offer and go rent from a shop, even if it’s more expensive.
So in short, while lending would still happen with a possessive ownership, it wouldn’t undermine it, nor would it put it on the same scale as Lockeanism. It would simply be based on common sense and maintaining the egalitarianism that exists.
That’s it for now. There’s more question posted over at the AAE but I think this post has already grown quite long. I urge you to check it and give you perspective as the contributors seem an amiable bunch 🙂
Mutualists generally call all ownership rights ‘Property’, but this is different from my use of ‘Property’ by which I generally mean the Lockeanist take. [↩]