Property is theft?

This post was originally a static page on both my blogs and has been archived so that the content may be preserved. Since it was written, my views as described within may have evolved somewhat.

Perhaps the most basic, and paradoxically the most contentious, tenet of anarchism is its opposition to private property.

In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. This is considered one of the most influential works of anarchist philosophy and is the origin of the rallying cry “property is theft!” In it, Proudhon poses this question;

If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property! may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?

With this question in mind, I would like to expand upon the distinction between “private property” and “personal possessions” I made in What I believe in. In doing so, I would like to make particular reference to the“anarcho”-capitalists of the Austrian School of Economics.

Like most anarchists, I consider “anarcho”-capitalism to be an oxymoron, as by its very nature capitalism is not anarchic. An-caps have taken the dictionary definition of anarchy as “no government” and pasted it onto their ideology, utterly forgetting that anarchism is in fact a movement of philosophy and activism, with a long history and tradition, based upon principles of libertarian socialism and opposed to all forms of hierarchy and domination, not just the state. Going further, I would even suggest that an-caps do not want to dismantle the machinery of the state, but merely privatise it.

Murray Rothbard, for an “anarcho”-capitalist, is brilliant at inadvertently demonstrating the genuine end of his movement. The dilemma he posed was this: what if a King, responding to the threat of a strong right-wing “libertarian” movement, “employ[s] a cunning stratagem,” where he “proclaims his government to be dissolved, but just before doing so he arbitrarily parcels out the entire land area of his kingdom to the ‘ownership’ of himself and his relatives.” Rather than taxes, his subjects now pay rent and he can “regulate the lives of all the people who presume to live on” his property as he wishes. A king by another name – landlord. Rothbard’s next remarks highlight precisely how close the parallel is:

Now what should be the reply of the libertarian rebels to this pert challenge? If they are consistent utilitarians, they must bow to this subterfuge, and resign themselves to living under a regime no less despotic than the one they had been battling for so long. Perhaps, indeed, more despotic, for now the king and his relatives can claim for themselves the libertarians’ very principle of the absolute right of private property, an absoluteness which they might not have dared to claim before.

This glaring contradiction is again demonstrated by Rothbard when he correctly identifies the state as illegitimate because it “arrogates to itself a monopoly of force… over a given area territorial area” and yet then defends private property because “[o]bviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc.” In both cases the get out clause, the only difference Rothbard can cite between the State and private property, is that the latter was acquired “justly.”

So, what makes property just? According to “anarcho”-capitalists and right-”libertarians,” the Homestead Principle:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Even to me, this sounds utterly reasonable. However, that is because it doesn’t sound like capitalism. In the above paragraph, we have an eloquent justification for worker-ownership of the means of production, for each community holding its land in common, and for the rejection of any claims by a landlord or employer to property on which others toil. From whence, then, does he get the justification for private property in the capitalist sense of the word?

Simply, there is no requirement under the homesteading principle that a resource is in regular use for the proprietor to retain it, only that it has been transformed once through labor. After this, the propertarian may transfer ownership to someone else, discard, or rent the property with no stipulations on any further labour input. But is that not how states came into being? The concept of nationhood arose prior to the state, and it was the rise of feudalism which used the labour of those nations to develop the lord’s or king’s “property” (dominion). The king, lord, or baron, as the propertarian, gained property through accumulation of wealth and power and the use of such to gain dominion over a land. Yet again, Rothbard’s own words speak against “anarcho”-capitalist thought:

If the State may be said to properly own its territory, then it is proper for it to make rules for everyone who presumes to live in that area. It can legitimately seize or control private property because there is no private property in its area, because it really owns the entire land surface. So long as the State permits its subjects to leave its territory, then, it can be said to act as does any other owner who sets down rules for people living on his property.

Of course, he qualified this by saying that of course the state does not “justly” own its property but both the state and the capitalist in fact acquired property by “homesteading,” however he might have used the term to (falsely) differentiate “just” private property from illegitimate state property. Returning to Proudhon in 1840, we find the Homstead Principle already effectively refuted;

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. … The purchaser 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; and the proprietor, watching them die, will exclaim, ‘So perish idlers and vagrants.’

So, although “the liberty and security of the rich do not suffer from the liberty and security of the poor; far from that, they mutually strengthen and sustain each other” we see that “the rich man’s right of property, on the contrary, has to be continually defended against the poor man’s desire for property.” The very notion of private property renders, for example, travellers’ camps “illegal.” Nor are they the only ones who, in the propertarian system, must contest for the “legality” of their homes or die freezing in the streets / steal from and kill others to survive because they have no home. Private property, by its very definition, needs to be enforced. Whether a state or its private equivalent in protection and security companies, the private propertarian needs someone to act against trespassing – a “crime” which, as it involves no victims, no violence, no loss of safety or liberty, should not even exist.

The anarchist’s argument with private property, then, is that it is exploitative, it is coercive, and it entrenches the class system whereby the few live in privilege whilst the great many face poverty and deprivation. As the writers of An Anarchist FAQ put it, “social relations between capitalists and employees can never be equal, because private ownership of the means of production gives rise to social hierarchy and relations of coercive authority and subordination.”

The an-caps contend this by defining coercion as the purely overt threat or use of physical force, ignoring economic coercion and the restriction of choice through the environment of property domination. To them, then, there is no coercion in the relationship between landlord and tenant or employer and employee. Instead, they see it is a voluntary and mutually beneficial transation.

Whilst it is true that the tenant or employee does benefit from their transaction – they now have a roof over their head or a way to provide for themselves and their family – this does not mean the transaction is non-coercive. There is no equal footing in the relationship, especially when it comes to potential loss. The landlord or employer can afford to reject a potential tenant or employee – he can always find others in such an event. But the tenant or employee has no choice.

Even if it is not that one, he must submit to some landlord or employer. If not, he is left homeless or jobless. The threat is there: work or starve, rent or be without shelter. These are choices, yes, but the choice is akin to the mugger’s “give me money or die,” not to the ice cream vendor’s “raspberry or vanilla.” Likewise, it is also true that the threat is not made by the employer or landlord themselves, but the threat nonetheless remains, created by the very system of private property they operate in. Not all heads of state are despots or tyrants, and some can even have the very best of intentions, but that does not negate the fact that the system itself is one of dominion and servility. Once again, What Is Property sums up this position perfectly;

The proprietor, the robber, the hero, the sovereign — for all these titles are synonymous — imposes his will as law, and suffers neither contradiction nor control; that is, he pretends to be the legislative and the executive power at once . . . [and so] property engenders despotism . . . That is so clearly the essence of property that, to be convinced of it, one need but remember what it is, and observe what happens around him. Property is the right to use and abuse . . . if goods are property, why should not the proprietors be kings, and despotic kings — kings in proportion to their facultes bonitaires? And if each proprietor is sovereign lord within the sphere of his property, absolute king throughout his own domain, how could a government of proprietors be any thing but chaos and confusion?


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