F.4 What is the right-"libertarian" position on private property?

F.4 What is the right-"libertarian" position on private property?

Right-"libertarians" are not interested in eliminating capitalist private property and thus the authority, oppression and exploitation which goes with it. They make an idol of private property and claim to defend "absolute" and "unrestricted" property rights. In particular, taxation and theft are among the greatest evils possible as they involve coercion against "justly held" property. It is true that they call for an end to the state, but this is not because they are concerned about the restrictions of liberty experienced by wage slaves and tenants but because they wish capitalists and landlords not to be bothered by legal restrictions on what they can and cannot do on their property. Anarchists stress that the right-"libertarians" are not opposed to workers being exploited or oppressed (in fact, they deny that is possible under capitalism) but because they do not want the state to impede capitalist "freedom" to exploit and oppress workers even more than is the case now! Thus they "are against the State simply because they are capitalists first and foremost." [Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 564]

It should be obvious why someone is against the state matters when evaluating claims of a thinker to be included within the anarchist tradition. For example, socialist opposition to wage labour was shared by the pro-slavery advocates in the Southern States of America. The latter opposed wage labour as being worse than its chattel form because, it was argued, the owner had an incentive to look after his property during both good and bad times while the wage worker was left to starve during the latter. This argument does not place them in the socialist camp any more than socialist opposition to wage labour made them supporters of slavery. As such, "anarcho"-capitalist and right-"libertarian" opposition to the state should not be confused with anarchist and left-libertarian opposition. The former opposes it because it restricts capitalist power, profits and property while the latter opposes it because it is a bulwark of all three.

Moreover, in the capitalist celebration of property as the source of liberty they deny or ignore the fact that private property is a source of "tyranny" in itself (as we have indicated in sections B.3 and B.4, for example). As we saw in section F.1, this leads to quite explicit (if unaware) self-contradiction by leading "anarcho"-capitalist ideologues. As Tolstoy stressed, the "retention of the laws concerning land and property keeps the workers in slavery to the landowners and the capitalists, even though the workers are freed from taxes." [The Slavery of Our Times, pp. 39-40] Hence Malatesta:

"One of the basic tenets of anarchism is the abolition of [class] monopoly, whether of the land, raw materials or the means of production, and consequently the abolition of exploitation of the labour of others by those who possess the means of production. The appropriation of the labour of others is from the anarchist and socialist point of view, theft." [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, pp. 167-8]

As much anarchists may disagree about other matters, they are united in condemning capitalist property. Thus Proudhon argued that property was "theft" and "despotism" while Stirner indicated the religious and statist nature of private property and its impact on individual liberty when he wrote:

"Property in the civic sense means sacred property, such that I must respect your property. 'Respect for property!' . . . The position of affairs is different in the egoistic sense. I do not step shyly back from your property, but look upon it always as my property, in which I respect nothing. Pray do the like with what you call my property!

"With this view we shall most easily come to an understanding with each other.

"The political liberals are anxious that . . . every one be free lord on his ground, even if this ground has only so much area as can have its requirements adequately filled by the manure of one person . . . Be it ever so little, if one only has somewhat of his own -- to wit, a respected property: The more such owners . . . the more 'free people and good patriots' has the State.

"Political liberalism, like everything religious, counts on respect, humaneness, the virtues of love. Therefore does it live in incessant vexation. For in practice people respect nothing, and everyday the small possessions are bought up again by greater proprietors, and the 'free people' change into day labourers.

"If, on the contrary, the 'small proprietors' had reflected that the great property was also theirs, they would not have respectively shut themselves out from it, and would not have been shut out . . . Instead of owning the world, as he might, he does not even own even the paltry point on which he turns around." [The Ego and Its Own, pp. 248-9]

While different anarchists have different perspectives on what comes next, we are all critical of the current capitalist property rights system. Thus "anarcho"-capitalists reject totally one of the common (and so defining) features of all anarchist traditions -- the opposition to capitalist property. From Individualist Anarchists like Tucker to Communist-Anarchists like Bookchin, anarchists have been opposed to what William Godwin termed "accumulated property." This was because it was in "direct contradiction" to property in the form of "the produce of his [the worker's] own industry" and so it allows "one man. . . [to] dispos[e] of the produce of another man's industry." [The Anarchist Reader, pp. 129-131]

For anarchists, capitalist property is a source exploitation and domination, not freedom (it undermines the freedom associated with possession by creating relations of domination between owner and employee). Hardly surprising, then, that, according to Murray Bookchin, Murray Rothbard "attacked me as an anarchist with vigour because, as he put it, I am opposed to private property." Bookchin, correctly, dismisses "anarcho-capitalists as "proprietarians" ["A Meditation on Anarchist Ethics", pp. 328-346, The Raven, no. 28, p. 343]

We will discuss Rothbard's "homesteading" justification of private property in the next section. However, we will note here one aspect of right-"libertarian" absolute and unrestricted property rights, namely that it easily generates evil side effects such as hierarchy and starvation. As economist and famine expert Amartya Sen notes:

"Take a theory of entitlements based on a set of rights of 'ownership, transfer and rectification.' In this system a set of holdings of different people are judged to be just (or unjust) by looking at past history, and not by checking the consequences of that set of holdings. But what if the consequences are recognisably terrible? . . .[R]efer[ing] to some empirical findings in a work on famines . . . evidence [is presented] to indicate that in many large famines in the recent past, in which millions of people have died, there was no over-all decline in food availability at all, and the famines occurred precisely because of shifts in entitlement resulting from exercises of rights that are perfectly legitimate. . . . [Can] famines . . . occur with a system of rights of the kind morally defended in various ethical theories, including Nozick's[?] I believe the answer is straightforwardly yes, since for many people the only resource that they legitimately possess, viz. their labour-power, may well turn out to be unsaleable in the market, giving the person no command over food . . . [i]f results such as starvations and famines were to occur, would the distribution of holdings still be morally acceptable despite their disastrous consequences? There is something deeply implausible in the affirmative answer." [Resources, Values and Development, pp. 311-2]

Thus "unrestricted" property rights can have seriously bad consequences and so the existence of "justly held" property need not imply a just or free society -- far from it. The inequalities property can generate can have a serious on individual freedom (see section F.3). Indeed, Murray Rothbard argued that the state was evil not because it restricted individual freedom but because the resources it claimed to own were not "justly" acquired. If they were, then the state could deny freedom within its boundaries just as any other property owner could. Thus right-"libertarian" theory judges property not on its impact on current freedom but by looking at past history. This has the interesting side effect, as we noted in section F.1, of allowing its supporters to look at capitalist and statist hierarchies, acknowledge their similar negative effects on the liberty of those subjected to them but argue that one is legitimate and the other is not simply because of their history. As if this changed the domination and unfreedom that both inflict on people living today!

This flows from the way "anarcho"-capitalists define "freedom," namely so that only deliberate acts which violate your (right-"libertarian" defined) rights by other humans beings that cause unfreedom ("we define freedom . . . as the absence of invasion by another man of an man's person or property." [Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 41]). This means that if no-one deliberately coerces you then you are free. In this way the workings of the capitalist private property can be placed alongside the "facts of nature" and ignored as a source of unfreedom. However, a moments thought shows that this is not the case. Both deliberate and non-deliberate acts can leave individuals lacking freedom. A simply analogy will show why.

Let us assume (in an example paraphrased from Alan Haworth's excellent book Anti-Libertarianism [p. 49]) that someone kidnaps you and places you down a deep (naturally formed) pit, miles from anyway, which is impossible to climb up. No one would deny that you are unfree. Let us further assume that another person walks by and accidentally falls into the pit with you. According to right-"libertarianism", while you are unfree (i.e. subject to deliberate coercion) your fellow pit-dweller is perfectly free for they have subject to the "facts of nature" and not human action (deliberate or otherwise). Or, perhaps, they "voluntarily choose" to stay in the pit, after all, it is "only" the "facts of nature" limiting their actions. But, obviously, both of you are in exactly the same position, have exactly the same choices and so are equally unfree! Thus a definition of "liberty" that maintains that only deliberate acts of others -- for example, coercion -- reduces freedom misses the point totally. In other words, freedom is path independent and the "forces of the market cannot provide genuine conditions for freedom any more than the powers of the State. The victims of both are equally enslaved, alienated and oppressed." [Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 565]

It is worth quoting Noam Chomsky at length on this subject:

"Consider, for example, the [right-'libertarian'] 'entitlement theory of justice' . . . [a]ccording to this theory, a person has a right to whatever he has acquired by means that are just. If, by luck or labour or ingenuity, a person acquires such and such, then he is entitled to keep it and dispose of it as he wills, and a just society will not infringe on this right.

"One can easily determine where such a principle might lead. It is entirely possible that by legitimate means -- say, luck supplemented by contractual arrangements 'freely undertaken' under pressure of need -- one person might gain control of the necessities of life. Others are then free to sell themselves to this person as slaves, if he is willing to accept them. Otherwise, they are free to perish. Without extra question-begging conditions, the society is just.

"The argument has all the merits of a proof that 2 + 2 = 5 . . . Suppose that some concept of a 'just society' is advanced that fails to characterise the situation just described as unjust. . . Then one of two conclusions is in order. We may conclude that the concept is simply unimportant and of no interest as a guide to thought or action, since it fails to apply properly even in such an elementary case as this. Or we may conclude that the concept advanced is to be dismissed in that it fails to correspond to the pretheorectical notion that it intends to capture in clear cases. If our intuitive concept of justice is clear enough to rule social arrangements of the sort described as grossly unjust, then the sole interest of a demonstration that this outcome might be 'just' under a given 'theory of justice' lies in the inference by reductio ad absurdum to the conclusion that the theory is hopelessly inadequate. While it may capture some partial intuition regarding justice, it evidently neglects others.

"The real question to be raised about theories that fail so completely to capture the concept of justice in its significant and intuitive sense is why they arouse such interest. Why are they not simply dismissed out of hand on the grounds of this failure, which is striking in clear cases? Perhaps the answer is, in part, the one given by Edward Greenberg in a discussion of some recent work on the entitlement theory of justice. After reviewing empirical and conceptual shortcomings, he observes that such work 'plays an important function in the process of . . . 'blaming the victim,' and of protecting property against egalitarian onslaughts by various non-propertied groups.' An ideological defence of privileges, exploitation, and private power will be welcomed, regardless of its merits.

"These matters are of no small importance to poor and oppressed people here and elsewhere." [The Chomsky Reader, pp. 187-188]

The glorification of property rights has always been most strongly advocated by those who hold the bulk of property in a society. This is understandable as they have the most to gain from this. Those seeking to increase freedom in society would be wise to understand why this is the case and reject it.

The defence of capitalist property does have one interesting side effect, namely the need arises to defend inequality and the authoritarian relationships inequality creates. Due to (capitalist) private property, wage labour would still exist under "anarcho"-capitalism (it is capitalism after all). This means that "defensive" force, a state, is required to "defend" exploitation, oppression, hierarchy and authority from those who suffer them. Inequality makes a mockery of free agreement and "consent" as we have continually stressed. As Peter Kropotkin pointed out long ago:

"When a workman sells his labour to an employer . . . it is a mockery to call that a free contract. Modern economists may call it free, but the father of political economy -- Adam Smith -- was never guilty of such a misrepresentation. As long as three-quarters of humanity are compelled to enter into agreements of that description, force is, of course, necessary, both to enforce the supposed agreements and to maintain such a state of things. Force -- and a good deal of force -- is necessary to prevent the labourers from taking possession of what they consider unjustly appropriated by the few. . . . The Spencerian party [proto-right-'libertarians'] perfectly well understand that; and while they advocate no force for changing the existing conditions, they advocate still more force than is now used for maintaining them. As to Anarchy, it is obviously as incompatible with plutocracy as with any other kind of -cracy." [Anarchism and Anarchist Communism, pp. 52-53]

Because of this need to defend privilege and power, "anarcho"-capitalism is best called "private-state" capitalism. As anarchists Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer argue, the "American oil baron, who sneers at any form of State intervention in his manner of conducting business -- that is to say, of exploiting man and nature -- is also able to 'abolish the State' to a certain extent. But he has to build up a repressive machine of his own (an army of sheriffs to guard his interests) and takes over as far as he can, those functions normally exercised by the government, excluding any tendency of the latter that might be an obstacle to his pursuit of wealth." [Floodgates of Anarchy, p. 12] Unsurprising "anarcho"-capitalists propose private security forces rather than state security forces (police and military) -- a proposal that is equivalent to bringing back the state under another name. This will be discussed in more detail in section F.6.

By advocating private property, right-"libertarians" contradict many of their other claims. For example, they tend to oppose censorship and attempts to limit freedom of association within society when the state is involved yet they will wholeheartedly support the right of the boss or landlord when they ban unions or people talking about unions on their property. They will oppose closed shops when they are worker created but have no problems when bosses make joining the company union a mandatory requirement for taking a position. Then they say that they support the right of individuals to travel where they like. They make this claim because they assume that only the state limits free travel but this is a false assumption. Owners must agree to let you on their land or property ("people only have the right to move to those properties and lands where the owners desire to rent or sell to them." [Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 119]. There is no "freedom of travel" onto private property (including private roads). Therefore immigration may be just as hard under "anarcho"-capitalism as it is under statism (after all, the state, like the property owner, only lets people in whom it wants to let in). Private property, as can be seen from these simple examples, is the state writ small. Saying it is different when the boss does it is not convincing to any genuine libertarian.

Then there is the possibility of alternative means of living. Right-"libertarians" generally argue that people can be as communistic as they want on their own property. They fail to note that all groups would have no choice about living under laws based on the most rigid and extreme interpretation of property rights invented and surviving within the economic pressures such a regime would generate. If a community cannot survive in the capitalist market then, in their perspective, it deserves its fate. Yet this Social-Darwinist approach to social organisation is based on numerous fallacies. It confuses the market price of something with how important it is; it confuses capitalism with productive activity in general; and it confuses profits with an activities contribution to social and individual well being; it confuses freedom with the ability to pick a master rather than as an absence of a master. Needless to say, as they consider capitalism as the most efficient economy ever the underlying assumption is that capitalist systems will win out in competition with all others. This will obviously be aided immensely under a law code which is capitalist in nature.

F.4.1 What is wrong with a "homesteading" theory of property?

So how do "anarcho"-capitalists justify property? Looking at Murray Rothbard, we find that he proposes a "homesteading theory of property". In this theory it is argued that property comes from occupancy and mixing labour with natural resources (which are assumed to be unowned). Thus the world is transformed into private property, for "title to an unowned resource (such as land) comes properly only from the expenditure of labour to transform that resource into use." [The Ethics of Liberty, p. 63]

His theory, it should be stressed, has its roots in the same Lockean tradition as Robert Nozick's (which we critiqued in section B.3.4). Like Locke, Rothbard paints a conceptual history of individuals and families forging a home in the wilderness by the sweat of their labour (it is tempting to rename his theory the "immaculate conception of property" as his conceptual theory is so at odds with actual historical fact). His one innovation (if it can be called that) was to deny even the rhetorical importance of what is often termed the Lockean Proviso, namely the notion that common resources can be appropriated only if there is enough for others to do likewise. As we noted in section E.4.2 this was because it could lead (horror of horrors!) to the outlawry of all private property.

Sadly for Rothbard, his "homesteading" theory of property was refuted by Proudhon in What is Property? in 1840 (along with many other justifications of property). Proudhon rightly argued that "if the liberty of man is sacred, it is equally sacred in all individuals; that, if it needs property for its objective action, that is, for its life, the appropriation of material is equally necessary for all . . . Does it not follow that if one individual cannot prevent another . . . from appropriating an amount of material equal to his own, no more can he prevent individuals to come." And if all the available resources are appropriated, and the owner "draws boundaries, fences himself in . . . Here, then, is a piece of land upon which, henceforth, no one has a right to step, save the proprietor and his friends . . . Let [this]. . . multiply, and soon the people . . . will have nowhere to rest, no place to shelter, no ground to till. They will die at the proprietor's door, on the edge of that property which was their birthright." [What is Property?, pp. 84-85 and p. 118]

Proudhon's genius lay in turning apologies for private property against it by treating them as absolute and universal as its apologists treated property itself. To claims like Rothbard's that property was a natural right, he explained that the essence of such rights was their universality and that private property ensured that this right could not be extended to all. To claims that labour created property, he simply noted that private property ensured that most people have no property to labour on and so the outcome of that labour was owned by those who did. As for occupancy, he simply noted that most owners do not occupancy all the property they own while those who do use it do not own it. In such circumstances, how can occupancy justify property when property excludes occupancy? Proudhon showed that the defenders of property had to choose between self-interest and principle, between hypocrisy and logic.

Rothbard picks the former over the latter and his theory is simply a rationale for a specific class based property rights system ("[w]e who belong to the proletaire class, property excommunicates us!" [P-J Proudhon, Op. Cit., p. 105]). As Rothbard himself admitted in respect to the aftermath of slavery and serfdom, not having access to the means of life places one the position of unjust dependency on those who do and so private property creates economic power as much under his beloved capitalism as it did in post-serfdom (see section F.1). Thus, Rothbard's account, for all its intuitive appeal, ends up justifying capitalist and landlord domination and ensures that the vast majority of the population experience property as theft and despotism rather than as a source of liberty and empowerment (which possession gives).

It also seems strange that while (correctly) attacking social contract theories of the state as invalid (because "no past generation can bind later generations" [Op. Cit., p. 145]) he fails to see he is doing exactly that with his support of private property (similarly, Ayn Rand argued that "[a]ny alleged 'right' of one man, which necessitates the violation of the right of another, is not and cannot be a right" but, obviously, appropriating land does violate the rights of others to walk, use or appropriate that land [Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 325]). Due to his support for appropriation and inheritance, Rothbard is clearly ensuring that future generations are not born as free as the first settlers were (after all, they cannot appropriate any land, it is all taken!). If future generations cannot be bound by past ones, this applies equally to resources and property rights. Something anarchists have long realised -- there is no defensible reason why those who first acquired property should control its use and exclude future generations.

Even if we take Rothbard's theory at face value we find numerous problems with it. If title to unowned resources comes via the "expenditure of labour" on it, how can rivers, lakes and the oceans be appropriated? The banks of the rivers can be transformed, but can the river itself? How can you mix your labour with water? "Anarcho"-capitalists usually blame pollution on the fact that rivers, oceans, and so forth are unowned but as we discussed in section E.4, Rothbard provided no coherent argument for resolving this problem nor the issue of environmental externalities like pollution it was meant to solve (in fact, he ended up providing polluters with sufficient apologetics to allow them to continue destroying the planet).

Then there is the question of what equates to "mixing" labour. Does fencing in land mean you have "mixed labour" with it? Rothbard argues that this is not the case (he expresses opposition to "arbitrary claims"). He notes that it is not the case that "the first discoverer . . . could properly lay claim to" a piece of land by "laying out a boundary for the area." He thinks that "their claim would still be no more than the boundary itself, and not to any of the land within, for only the boundary will have been transformed and used by men" However, if the boundary is private property and the owner refuses others permission to cross it, then the enclosed land is inaccessible to others! If an "enterprising" right-"libertarian" builds a fence around the only oasis in a desert and refuses permission to cross it to travellers unless they pay his price (which is everything they own) then the person has appropriated the oasis without "transforming" it by his labour. The travellers have the choice of paying the price or dying (and any oasis owner is well within his rights letting them die). Given Rothbard's comments, it is probable that he could claim that such a boundary is null and void as it allows "arbitrary" claims -- although this position is not at all clear. After all, the fence builder has transformed the boundary and "unrestricted" property rights is what the right-"libertarian" is all about. One thing is true, if the oasis became private property by some means then refusing water to travellers would be fine as "the owner is scarcely being 'coercive'; in fact he is supplying a vital service, and should have the right to refuse a sale or charge whatever the customers will pay. The situation may be unfortunate for the customers, as are many situations in life." [Op. Cit., p. 50f and p. 221] That the owner is providing "a vital service" only because he has expropriated the common heritage of humanity is as lost on Rothbard as is the obvious economic power that this situation creates.

And, of course, Rothbard ignores the fact of economic power -- a transnational corporation can "transform" far more virgin resources in a day by hiring workers than a family could in a year. A transnational "mixing" the labour it has bought from its wage slaves with the land does not spring into mind reading Rothbard's account of property but in the real world that is what happens. This is, perhaps, unsurprising as the whole point of Locke's theory was to justify the appropriation of the product of other people's labour by their employer.

Which is another problem with Rothbard's account. It is completely ahistoric (and so, as we noted above, is more like an "immaculate conception of property"). He has transported "capitalist man" into the dawn of time and constructed a history of property based upon what he is trying to justify. He ignores the awkward historic fact that land was held in common for millennium and that the notion of "mixing" labour to enclose it was basically invented to justify the expropriation of land from the general population (and from native populations) by the rich. What is interesting to note, though, is that the actual experience of life on the US frontier (the historic example Rothbard seems to want to claim) was far from the individualistic framework he builds upon it and (ironically enough) it was destroyed by the development of capitalism.

As Murray Bookchin notes, in rural areas there "developed a modest subsistence agriculture that allowed them to be almost wholly self-sufficient and required little, if any, currency." The economy was rooted in barter, with farmers trading surpluses with nearby artisans. This pre-capitalist economy meant people enjoyed "freedom from servitude to others" and "fostered" a "sturdy willingness to defend [their] independence from outside commercial interlopers. This condition of near-autarchy, however, was not individualistic; rather it made for strong community interdependence . . . In fact, the independence that the New England yeomanry enjoyed was itself a function of the co-operative social base from which it emerged. To barter home-grown goods and objects, to share tools and implements, to engage in common labour during harvesting time in a system of mutual aid, indeed, to help new-comers in barn-raising, corn-husking, log-rolling, and the like, was the indispensable cement that bound scattered farmsteads into a united community." Bookchin quotes David P. Szatmary (author of a book on Shay' Rebellion) stating that it was a society based upon "co-operative, community orientated interchanges" and not a "basically competitive society." [The Third Revolution, vol. 1, p. 233]

Into this non-capitalist society came capitalist elements. Market forces and economic power soon resulted in the transformation of this society. Merchants asked for payment in specie (gold or silver coin), which the farmers did not have. In addition, money was required to pay taxes (taxation has always been a key way in which the state encouraged a transformation towards capitalism as money could only be made by hiring oneself to those who had it). The farmers "were now cajoled by local shopkeepers" to "make all their payments and meet all their debts in money rather than barter. Since the farmers lacked money, the shopkeepers granted them short-term credit for their purchases. In time, many farmers became significantly indebted and could not pay off what they owed, least of all in specie." The creditors turned to the courts and many the homesteaders were dispossessed of their land and goods to pay their debts. In response Shay's rebellion started as the "urban commercial elites adamantly resisted [all] peaceful petitions" while the "state legislators also turned a deaf ear" as they were heavily influenced by these same elites. This rebellion was an important factor in the centralisation of state power in America to ensure that popular input and control over government were marginalised and that the wealthy elite and their property rights were protected against the many ("Elite and well-to-do sectors of the population mobilised in great force to support an instrument that clearly benefited them at the expense of the backcountry agrarians and urban poor.") [Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 234, p. 235 and p. 243]). Thus the homestead system was, ironically, undermined and destroyed by the rise of capitalism (aided, as usual, by a state run by and for the rich).

So while Rothbard's theory as a certain appeal (reinforced by watching too many Westerns, we imagine) it fails to justify the "unrestricted" property rights theory (and the theory of freedom Rothbard derives from it). All it does is to end up justifying capitalist and landlord domination (which is what it was intended to do).

  


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