Right-Wing Libertarian Position on Private Property

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Republished with permission.
Source: The Anarchist Library


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). 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 of 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 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 affect on individual freedom. 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 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 been 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 a “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.

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.



Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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