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Against a Universalist Conception of Property Rights 1

by Keith Preston

Like the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, I very much recognize the importance of non-state property rights as a bulwark against the ongoing centralization and accumulation of state power. But where I part company with many of them is their insistence that there is only one “true” form of “property rights.” Historically, there have been something like 3000 different systems of property rights. It would seem to be a bit presumptuous for we contemporaries to assume that all hitherto existing systems of property have been invalid and that we have finally discovered “Private Property” in its true form.

I regard “property rights” in and of itself as a subjective value rooted in the evolved customary norms and historic traditions of particular cultures, peoples, and time periods.

As an example, traditional West African societies had no concept of land ownership. The idea of “property in land” was as alien to them as “property in the air” would be to us. However, these societies were also slavocratic societies where individual wealth was measured in terms of how many slaves an individual owned. The Europeans, however, had a system of property rights, as we know, though their system was the feudal model of the time, not the Lockean-liberal-bourgeoisie conception of property that modern people are familiar with. The Europeans measured individual wealth in land and the amount of land one controlled.

While a libertarian approach to property theory certainly eliminates certain kinds of property (such as slave ownership), my best guess is that a nation or civilization dominated by anarchists would have widely varying conceptions of property depending on local cultural norms and ideological currents: syndicalist, Lockean, mutualist, distributist, anarcho-communist, allodial, tribal, clannish, communitarian, familial, geoist, religious, etc. As I’ve said before:

“I’m in favor of private property, not just for individuals as the Lockeans are, but also for families (as illustrated by the law of inheritance), communities (“the commons”), property rooted in ancestral traditions (for instance, the recognition of the prerogative of indigenous peoples’ to their sacred burial grounds), the property of tribes and ethnic groups (their historical homelands), and of nations (their generations-long established domain).”

Property theory is simply one of those things that anarchists and libertarians disagree on, like abortion, capital punishment, children’s rights, animal rights, the environment, and lots of other things. I don’t think there can ever be a consensus on these questions, and in an anarchist-dominated society, those with incompatible views would divide and separate.

One comment

  1. I think there are certain epistemic and functional reasons to tend towards a pretty hard-core ‘bourgeousie’ merchant concept of property rights – including unlimited land-lordism – but I see this as a pretty minor problem compared to Statolatry and ideological imperialism. Without the State to socialize the costs of their bad ideas the GeoLibs, etc. would hardly be a threat to anyone but themselves.

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