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

Is “theft of time” an appropriate defense of private property? Is Capitalism an intuitive and natural system for societies?

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 gradient ((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)) 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.

In which I try to clarify LibCom for Stefan Molyneux

I’ve just finished talking in an online Anarcho-Capitalist talk-show. Unfortunately, while I was there after the host requested clarification, I came away disappointed.

really really free market!
Image by Shira Golding via Flickr

Last week in a video from Freedomain Radio was posted in /r/Anarchism with the notice that its host, Stefan Molyneux – apparently an “Anarcho”-Capitalist of some renown – was honestly curious about some aspects of Social Anarchism, such an Anarcho-Communism or Anarcho-Syndicalism,  and wished that “someone competent” from that movement call him to clarify some of his contentions.

Although the fact that he didn’t understand some aspects about this very popular movement and for some reason couldn’t find out sources of clarification (although a wealth of information is at best, one internet search away) was immediately suspect, I decided to take him up on this “challenge” (Yes I do understand it wasn’t a formal challenge, I’m just using this word for lack of a proper alternative).

After some fiddling with the way to call-in ((Blogradio’s builtin call-in feature sucks in GNU/Linux. I don’t know why this is so but calling via it, the voice reaches me as if in slow-motion. /rant)) I’ve finally settled to using Skype to call their landline number and soon it was my turn to speak. You can find the discussion here starting at 22:30 (I’ll post the Youtube vid when Stefan uploads it). I’m not nearly as glib as Stefan and thus you have to suffer through my thick accent and “umm”s as I’m trying to make my point (although hearing my playback, I don’t think I was as muffled as he claimed). Which is incidentally why I have not made any videos 😉

Unfortunately I must say that I was disappointed in the end. While Stefan proclaims his wish to understand the Social Anarchist movement, I got away with the impression that this is simple rhetoric to appear open-minded. I didn’t get the feeling that he was trying to clarify points he was not sure of, but rather throwing various concepts at me in an attempt to trip me up so that he can take over and proceed to claim intellectual superiority, as you will find out he did.

The points we discussed in rapid succession were:

  • Does LibCom discard Property Rights?
  • How can a society progress from Primitivism to LibCom?
  • How does  new industry get created?
  • How would a future LibCom society work?
  • How would you proceed to a future LibCom society?

Now each of these points, especially the last two, takes some explaining and I could only give the vaguest framework in all of the ~15 minutes I was on the phone (of which I spoke for about 7 at best). In the last one especially, arguably the most detailed and important part of Anarchist thought, I was given the whole of 1 minute before being abruptly cut-off mid sentence.

But what irked me most is that after being cut-off Stefan proceeded in a long-winded monologue in which he assumed ignorance of my part of what a LibCom society would look like and proceeded to claim superiority and attack my presumed ignorance of both the details of the future and of how Free Markets really work.

Needless to say he didn’t make any arguments I couldn’t counter, only that I didn’t get a chance. In fact, I found out this way of kicking off your caller and then making a closing statement without allowing a rebuke as a low trick which doesn’t really raise my perception of Stefan a lot. If he really didn’t have enough time for me, then just leave it at that. Don’t silence your opponent so that your argument goes unchallenged.

So here I’m also going to take the opportunity to address what Stefan said after I was disconnected:

1. You need to think in some detail.

Here Stefan made the assumption that I didn’t have any details on my ideas other than some vague concept of “Strikes and so on”. This is in fact quite far from the truth and such an impression was only given due to the short amount of time I was given to express them and the constant switching of subjects which was not allowing me to elaborate more on any one of them. Anarchists have about 150 years of political theory and needless to say that everything that needs it, has been described in as much detail as possible. Further than that, we also have around 100 years of actual, practical experience in social struggle and revolution which the theories have taken into account and been modified accordingly (which is the reason for example why social anarchists reject reformist tactics).

On the opposite side, AnCaps have at best 60 years of theorizing about a future Utopia of free markets and absolutely no idea how to get there. Stefan boasted about his 1 year of thinking about this, which is practically nothing in the larger picture of things. And this is why I was trying to explain that it’s not worth spending so much time visualizing the perfect AnCap world, when you don’t have the progression tackled first.

2. You need to work within the system before you criticize it.

The gist of this argument was basically that unless one is an enepreneur or capitalist, they don’t understand the system and thus they should refrain from criticizing it. Here Stefan considers that since his experiences in this have convinced him of the superiority of the Free Markets, then it’s obvious that someone who criticizes them must not have enough experience to make an educated criticism.

Of course he realized the trap he put himself into, when he admitted that he could also be called on criticizing the government while not being a politician. He attempted to get out of this by claiming he has enough experience in working with the govt and being educated by them that he can now make an accurate criticism. However he misses the point that Anarchist and all other critics of the Capitalist system have as much of “peripheral” experience of the Capitalist system and the markets as he has of the State. We too have worked for Entepreneurs. We too have had to suffer “market discipline”. We too have been educated and propagandized ad infinitum by a system which treats Capitalism as the natural state of affairs. The indoctrination towards this is as big, if not bigger than the indoctrination towards Statism.

And thus Stefan’s contention can be turned back upon him. If he wished to support the system, he should try becoming a wage-slave on a third world country to see how privileged he is currently. Or he should take an unskilled job at a MacPosition  to see how superior the entepreneurs and bosses really are. There’s lots of experiences that Stefan has not lived in order to judge Capitalism as a good system, Experiences which the Anarchists and other Socialists have lived through, which is incidentally why the movement was started: From experiencing the true nature of the system as the majority of the world does rather than the privileged few.

He also did a grave mistake of pointing out programming and web developing as an example of the free market (that one should experience). A mistake that undermines his own position as an “Anarcho”-Capitalist. You see the environment he works in, is a peculiar one because it differs from a capitalist system in some very important variables. The most important one, is that the workers own the means of production. Programming languages are free. Web Servers are free. Replication is free. The only cost one has to start their own business online is the small cost to get a hosting plan, and most often than not, not even that ((All because of Free Software naturally))!

As such, to point to the internet as a free market paradise is to concede that a truly free market can only work via Socialism, much like Mutualists have been claiming for ages. In fact, what Stefan sees and is inspired of, is the kind of thing Tucker was seeing in the 19th century, when the land was free and people could start their own homestead or business at very small upfront cost and retain it. However, this is not Capitalism, as much as Molyneux would like to redefine it. Not only that, but actual Capitalism constricts such a development as it is inherently destabilizing to it. It happened in Tucker’s age and it is also happening ((or at least, the Powers That Be are working towards it. See Patents, Copyrights, Net Neutrality etc)) now in the internet.

In closing, I came out of this discussion disillusioned. For all of Stefan’s proclaimed wish to understand and speak with the other side, it seems to me that he only wishes to score some easy points with his internet audience. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been so eager to kick me off his show with vague suggestions of a one-on-one talk without even bothering to learn who I am! It seems to me that instead of actually understanding what I said, he was all to eager to misrepresent Social Anarchism and cover that by continuously repeating his “wish to understand.”

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