The Inherent Contradictions of the Anti-Private Property Perspective

Private property is something I think every individual who reads this blog and supports this podcast is a fan of. It is part of the backbone of modern western civilization and a concept that cannot be divorced from “freedom” and “liberty”. Without the ability to control scarce resources, you have no “freedom”. Yet, there are those (particularly on the left) that despise the concept of private property (even though they may take advantage of it every day). These anti-private property (and anti-capitalist by extension) advocates are simply incorrect. “In spite of its many followers, the whole public goods theory is faulty, flashy reasoning, riddled with internal inconsistencies, non sequiturs, appealing to and playing on popular prejudices and assumed beliefs, but with no scientific merit whatsoever.” 1 These critiques about the anti-private property perspective are easy to defend and will be done so in the paragraphs to come. I will be using a conversation with someone who aligns with a more left anarchist or left libertarian perspective to demonstrate the very real and apparent logical contradictions that come about when one tries to advocate for freedom and at the same time, cheer for the erosion of property rights. The conversation opened with the following question regarding property and property rights.

“How do you deal with a person who is just plain evil and wants to burn the forest you gather your mushrooms from and hunt in?”

This kind of dispute over property is the gold standard of “philosophical conundrums” that many enemies of private property think they can trap the Anarcho-Capitalist in. Unfortunately for them, dispute resolutions over scarce resources is one of the pragmatic reasons the Anarcho-Capitalist advocates for private property and a free market in the first place. The response to such a question should be to ask another question in return. We need more information to answer this problem so we need to ask “who has the better claim on the forest?” Hans-Herman Hoppe says the following regarding this clash over resources, “I want to do X with a given good G and you want to do simultaneously Y with the very same good. Because it is impossible for you and me to do simultaneously X and Y with G, you and I must clash.” 2 What the anti-private property advocate fails to understand is that abolishing private property does not abolish scarcity. This failure to deal with this very real fact of existence means clashes over scarce resources without private property are only going to be exasperated, not mitigated. The Lockean homestead principle, or first user idea, is really the only way to understand who has a better claim to this forest. Who homesteaded it first? The hunter/mushroom gatherer or the person that wants to burn it down? Why is the first user ideal? Ethically, it makes the most sense.

A person that finds a previously unclaimed plot of land, as an example, and transforms it by clearing trees, building a house, or planting crops, clearly has a better moral claim to that plot of land than any individual that would arrive after this homestead operation has been established. In fact, most people would recognize that any individual that would arrive after this homestead has been established and demanded resources from the homestead owner, would be nothing more than a bandit and thief attempting to take what is not rightfully theirs. There is also a pragmatic reason for supporting property ownership and a first user. If we had to wait until the 9th or 12th user arrived before any legitimate economic action could be done with the resources, then we have many people standing around waiting for that 9th or 12th person. 3 This is inefficient and impractical and would greatly contribute to a lowering in the standard of living and would probably cause unnecessary starvation and death.

Of course, as is the case when talking to most people who do not understand the importance of private property and instead seek to subvert it, this request for clarification on who was the first user is either scoffed at or ignored. This conversation I had was no exception to this. This person responded with the following comment:

“You can’t own nature. And what it naturally produces should be ‘socialized’, meaning treated as thing belonging to all mankind. I mean the stuff that is actually produced by nature or exists without human intervention.”

As the previous arguments I have presented have shown, you can indeed own nature for pragmatic and ethical reasons. This is a claim I hear almost every time I encounter a left libertarian or left anarchist; this idea that individuals have no inherent right to own “nature” since they do not “make” nature. Instead, since no individual “created” nature, nature should belong to everyone. This sounds nice but in reality does nothing to solve the problem of scarcity inherent in our environment, as Hans-Herman Hoppe points out above. Even this individual sees that scarcity is a problem by asking their original question regarding someone who wants to remove the forest and someone that wants to hunt and gather in it. Both are mutually exclusive ends because the resource in question, the forest, is a scarce resource. How does making nature a “thing belonging to all mankind” answer their own question they proposed to me in the first place regarding the forest? The answer is that it does not. This only serves to highlight the implicit biases of left libertarians and left anarchists. This bias is made abundantly clear when they care very little, or simply do not see, how their own “solutions” do nothing to solve the problem (or in this case, make it worse).

On top of this inability to solve the problems they propose as “problematic” for Anarcho-Capitalists, this claim that nature should belong to all is also logically inconsistent. Typical for collectivists, they argue that these resources should belong to the collective, all of mankind, or society. The problem is that these collectives are abstractions. This indeed means “the prime errors in social theory is to treat ‘society’ as if if were an actually existing entity.” 4 Society is merely an abstraction. In reality, society is just a collection of individuals interacting. As soon as this group of individuals disperse, society disappears as well. This is the basis for much of the Austrian School of Economics that posits individuals as the source of all action, not collectives. Rothbard comments on this idea of nature and the individual by saying the following:

“For, as we have seen, no producer really ‘creates’ matter; he takes nature-given matter and transforms it by his labor energy in accordance with his ideas and vision. But this is precisely what the pioneer–the “homesteader”–does when he brings previously unused land into his own private ownership. Just as the man who makes steel out of iron ore transforms that ore out of his know-how and with his energy, and just as the man who takes the iron out of the ground does the same, so does the homesteader who clears, fences, cultivates, or builds upon the land. The homesteader too, has transformed the character of the nature-given soil by his labor and his personality. The homesteader is just as legitimately the owner of the property as the sculptor or the manufacturer; he is just as much a ‘producer’ as the others.

Furthermore, if the original land is nature- or God-given then so are the people’s talents, health, and beauty. And just as all these attributes are given to specific individuals and not to ‘society’, so then are land and natural resources. All of these resources are given to individuals and not to ‘society,’ which is an abstraction that does not actually exist. There is no existing entity called ‘society’; there are only interacting individuals.” 5

Let us also take this idea of nature being owned by everyone in a socialist manner to its logical conclusion. The world population in 2015 was 7,324,782,225 people. 6 If we take this concept of “nature is owned by all of mankind” to its logical conclusion, then someone in India is just as much a quotal owner of an acre of land in the United States as the person that may live on that acre of land. In fact, that acre of land would have to be divided up into 7,324,782,225 equal shares (with decreasing a portion even from this to account for population growth). Say someone wishes to plant crops on this one acre of unclaimed land and homestead it. Ethically, they are then not entitled to engage in this economic action without the consent of the 7,324,782,224 other humans on earth. We are talking about principles, as ridiculous as this sounds, and this is the logical conclusion of this principle that “nature belongs to all of mankind”. This principle has created “a world in which no man is free to take any action whatever without prior approval or indeed command by everyone else in society.” 7 The kicker is that the person that made this particular claim in the conversation called themselves an “anarchist”. But taking this anti-private property perspective to its logical conclusion clearly shows that it is indeed statist and quite possibly a terribly oppressive and tyrannical form of statism.

Moving on, this person made another assertion that is typically made against Anarcho-Capitalists by “anarchists” of a collectivist persuasion.

“Once you claim something other than your possessions to be your property, you in effect claim to be a mini-state ready to use force to make others comply with your rules.”

A claim like this, to me, is a very good example of sophistry. On the surface, it seems like a legitimate claim or observation about the strict view on property rights that Anarcho-Capitalists hold. Essentially, it’s claim that Anarcho-Capitalism is an extreme form of “minarchism” with each landowner acting as “dictator” on his property. It only seems like a legitimate observation if you don’t care about context and definitions (most left libertarians and left anarchists in fact do not care about those things). David Hume says the following regarding the origins of the State:

“Almost all the governments which exist at present, or of which there remains any record in story, have been founded originally either on usurpation or conquest or both, without any pretense of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people. When an artful and bold man is placed at the head of an army or faction, it is often easy for him, by employing sometimes violence, sometimes false pretenses, to establish his dominion over a people a hundred times more numerous than his partisans.” 8

This is drastically different than the legitimate ways an Anarcho-Capitalist claims property and resources can be obtained and claimed. In fact, the Anarcho-Capitalist is thoroughly against “usurpation and conquest” since such actions are coercive and violate property rights. Seeing as how property rights are central to Anarcho-Capitalism and the Non-Aggression Principle, it is intellectually dishonest to conflate a homesteader defending his property from bandits with bandits “defending” their stolen goods. It is like saying that the kind of force a rapist uses is the exact same kind of force his victim is using to defend themselves. Clearly, such an equivocation is absurd and false. It is why such “arguments” against the force used by legitimate property owners in defense of their property is sophistry and intellectually dishonest.

Not only that, but trying to slander or discredit Anarcho-Capitalism by equating it to “extreme minarchism” or minimal statism is laughable coming from collectivist “anarchists” with an ideology that very clearly ends with a deplorable state.

“The spurious logic of the dialectic is not open to the left-wing anarchists, who wish to abolish the State and capitalism simultaneously. The nearest those anarchists have come to resolving the problem has been to uphold syndicalism as the ideal. In syndicalism, each group of workers and peasants is supposed to own its means of production in common, and plan for itself, while cooperating with other collectives and communes. Logical analysis of these schemes would readily show that the whole program is nonsense. Either of two things would occur: one central agency would plan for and direct the various subgroups, or the collectives themselves would be really autonomous. But the crucial question is whether these agencies would be empowered to use force to put their decisions into effect. All of the left-wing anarchists have agreed that force is necessary against recalcitrants. But then the first possibility means nothing more nor less than Communism, while the second leads to a real chaos of diverse and clashing Communisms, that would probably lead finally to some central Communism after a period of social war. Thus, left-wing anarchism must in practice signify either regular Communism or a true chaos of communistic syndics. In both cases, the actual result must be that the State is reestablished under another name. It is the tragic irony of left-wing anarchism that, despite the hopes of its supporters, it is not really anarchism at all. It is either Communism or chaos.” 9

So when the Anarcho-Capitalist view on property is taken to its logical conclusion, it is abundantly clear no contradictions are in place that subvert its original position of freedom, liberty, self-ownership, free markets, and anti-statism. Any attempts to profess liberty, freedom, and self-ownership without private property falls flat and fails miserably. Such positions invariably end up being statist and contradict the goal of freedom.

Notes:

  1. Hoppe, H. (1993). The economics and ethics of private property: Studies in political economy and philosophy. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic.

  2. Hoppe, H. (2014). From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy. Auburn, AL: Mises Institute.
  3. Woods, T. (2015, October 08). Ep. 507 Anarcho-Capitalism or Anarcho-Socialism? Why We Should Embrace Property Rights. Retrieved from http://tomwoods.com/podcast/ep-507-anarcho-capitalism-or-anarcho-socialism-why-we-should-embrace-property-rights/
  4. Rothbard, M. N. (1973). For a New Liberty. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Population of the entire world, yearly, 1950 – 2100. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2016, from http://www.geohive.com/earth/his_history3.aspx
  7. Rothbard, M. N. (1973). For a New Liberty. New York, NY: Macmillan.
  8. Hume, D. (1752). Popular Basis of Political Authority: David Hume, Of the Original Contract. Retrieved from http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/print_documents/v1ch2s4.html
  9. Rothbard, M. N. (2008, January 4). Are Libertarians “Anarchists”? Retrieved from https://mises.org/library/are-libertarians-anarchists

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