What is the Origin of Property, Part 4 of 4

In my last few posts I’ve tried to make out a convincing case that the idea and institution of property did not arise out of any just of legitimate desire for the products of one’s labour, but rather arose out of the system of power-struggle, with input from that legitimate desire.

The philosophy that I am principally arguing against would perhaps not disagree with any of the specifics of what I’ve said so far. That philosophy, which I would put under the umbrella term ‘right-libertarianism’, and which would include ‘libertarians’, anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, classical liberals, and all that sort of stuff, would simply say

“Certainly, Alderson,  for most of history in most places what has existed has been a horrible unjust fusion of political power with property ownership. But property ownership can take a liberating, non-coercive form, when it is shorn of its connection with coercive power.”

What I want to argue now, and what the preceding posts were meant to prepare the ground for, is that if we tried to form a liberating, non-coercive form of property, based not on power struggles but on the FOLP (Fruits of Labour Principle, i.e. you made it, you deserve to enjoy it), it wouldn’t look anything like property. In particular, it wouldn’t have what I called in Part 1 an ‘impulse towards totality’.

I say this because I think what is legitimate and reasonable in the Lockean FOLP-type view is certain reasonable claims, but these claims are not on a higher level than other claims, and cannot dominate them.

Consider, for example, a certain field, with a cave or something. I’ve lived in that cave for two years – it seems reasonable to say that I’ve developed a certain entitlement to it, and so it would be wrong to drive me out, or destroy the cave against my will. Similarly, I’ve planted olive trees in the field, and can now harvest the olives from them. It was a damn lot of work planting and tending those trees, so if someone else turns up and eats all my olives I will be very annoyed, and rightfully so.

BUT. There are many other claims that people will have on the field, the cave, the olives. For one thing, plenty of animals lived in this field before I arrived, and they have some claim not to be driven out of it or deprived of what they need to survive (they can’t really articulate this claim, but that’s beside the point). And if some lost malnourished children are found wandering around, it would be wrong to keep them away from the nourishing olives (Kalamata, obviously). They have a claim to the olives based on need. And the fact that other people have much weaker needs just means their claims are weaker in degree – claims to feed themselves with olives, to travel across the field, to seek shade under the leaves, to seek shelter from a storm in the cave, etc. And unless I am completely independent of society, my claims are qualified by the claims of others – who helped me to plant the trees, who provided me with the tools and seeds, who raised me and taught me to speak, etc.

Right-libertarian philosophy claims that the claims derived from labour and/or occupancy are absolutely privileged – they outweigh claims derived from need or advantage absolutely, and so the violation of those claims (the violation of property rights) is never acceptable, even ‘for the greater good’, even to save lives. This is based on the idea that ownership claims derive from self-ownership claims. These claims are made absolute and sacrosanct because they are seen as extending from claims to control our own bodies, to not be murdered, raped, mutilated, kidnapped. In Part 1 of this series, I tried to attack this derivation. My right not to have my arm cut off is not continuous with my right to not have my hammer taken away. They are different in kind.

I feel that claims based on labour (the FOLP) have weight because they contribute to people’s lives being good and pleasant and self-directed: people tend to, on the whole, have more control over their lives, and more happiness in their lives, when they can control the things they produce and have security and predictability in the things they surround themselves with. But security and predictability are one sort of good among others: there are other things that make your life go well (like eating olives when you’re starving) and they are on the same level as control of our own products.

There are in most situations a wide variety of competing claims, which cannot all be perfectly satisfied. Some decisions may satisfy more or less of them – and the framework in which these claims can be balanced and resolved is society. In balancing and resolving these claims, we make use of a combination of rules and decision-makers, individual or collective, appointed by those rules.

A rational and just society will maintain a framework for deciding these sorts of questions that 1) is flexible and subject to adjustment whenever circumstances make adjustment reasonable, 2) responds to difficulties, conflicts, and failures of the rules by returning power to whatever collective group incorporates all of the people involved in the decision, and 3) tailors mechanisms and systems to the specifics of particular sorts of problems.

A society based on private property will maintain a framework for deciding these sorts of questions that 1) changes, but only according to laws already laid down – which maintains and transfers ownership indefinitely, 2) requires that for each decision, there is only one person (or private group) entitled to resolve it, and 3) uses a single mechanism and system, with various adjustments and qualifications, for all different sorts of problems.

Property means taking the vast web of competing claims that exist and insisting that for each item, there should be one person who decides everything about it, and that all items should be exchangeable for one another.

For example, going back to our field example, the rational and just thing would be some sort of arrangement whereby where a strong claim conflicted with a weak claim, the strong claim was enforced, and when two strong claims conflicted, some more complex deliberation occurred where it was resolved. That might mean that nobody, including me, is allowed to damage it, people are allowed to pass through it without damaging it, I can expel people from my cave when sleeping space is abundant but must share if it becomes scarce, I can decide who eats my olives when food is abundant but not when food is scarce, etc. Or something different. And if in the middle of a famine someone proposed that they could produce ten times as much food from my land, but I objected, the issue would go before some manner of assembly.

A property system would be to say that I “own” the field, and consequently I decide everything. My minor claim to not have people shade themselves under the trees overrules the strong claim of some dehydrated person to take a rest; my minor claim to eat all the olives myself overrules anybody else’s claim of hunger and malnutrition. If someone else has their field destroyed by floods, I can take advantage of my stronger position to get them to pick all my olives but give me half the product. And if in an emergency some government or local assembly invades my cave and takes my stockpiles of olives, that appears as a violation of the system, something that goes outside it.

In this respect it shows itself to be a descendent of power struggle. The heritage of me being supreme, as having the right to make all decisions, whatever I decide, is that I want control, I want to assert my power, my domination, my status. The desire for status seeks totality, it seeks to extend power as far as it can possibly go, and sweep away all opposition. The desire for a good life seeks balance, seeks multiplicity and getting my way only when it’s important to me.

It might be claimed that a private property system is the one which is, as a matter of fact, most efficient, most prosperous, most transcendentally productive. I disagree, but I’m not going to get into that right now. Instead, I’ve been considering the idea that a private property system is the only fair system, the only one that does justice to freedom.

The point I’ve been trying to push is that the mere fact of there being legitimate claims deriving from labour does not explain the form that private property systems take. It doesn’t explain the idea of property as embodying a claim of totality, a claim to make all decisions in a certain domain. That form is a creation of aggressive, coercive power, taking over and perverting those legitimate claims.

Consequently, anarcho-capitalism is stupid.

4 Responses to “What is the Origin of Property, Part 4 of 4”

  1. Astrophilia Says:

    Hear, hear! I once got into an argument with an anarcho-capitalist. His position was that the justice system is flawed because it forces victims to pay for (via taxes, which are ‘theft’ apparently) the incarceration of their victimizers. He suggested that instead the perpetrators of a crime (like rape) would just have their cars/houses/what have you repossessed and the funds sent to the victim. Because there’s nothing degrading about having money thrown at you when you’ve just been raped, and having everyone act like justice has been served.

    Another great blog I read today about libertarianism and its ilk is here, talking more about the ‘personal freedom’ aspect of the political philosophy;

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Exactly – if you start by identifying money-ownership with self-ownership, you end up with situations like you describe.

    Also, what happens to homeless destitute rapists?

  3. Hegel on Property « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] requires ongoing collective control to resolve those conflicts. This is something I’ve discussed before, and since it requires as an institutional form, ongoing collective control, it is equivalent to […]

  4. Part 6: Owning, Having, and Fucking – what is property? « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] I’ve argued at more length elsewhere, if our concern were simply for use, we wouldn’t have anything resembling property – we […]

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