This is a very interesting rebuttal to the standard anarcho-capitalist view of property theory from a classical anarchist perspective.
By Will Schnack
Check out Will’s book here.
This is a reply to Tom Woods Show Ep. 507, “Anarcho-Capitalism or Anarcho-Socialism: Why We Should Embrace Property Rights.” In this show, Tom Woods speaks with Nathan Fraser, who asks him a variety of questions relating to property rights from a hypothetical social anarchist perspective. I believe Tom Woods’s position on private property to be a fair challenge to communism, while erring too far in the other direction. In doing so, Tom Woods loses sight of the original intentions of anarchism, and promotes statist economics in an anarchist political garb.
Opening the heart of the show, Nathan Fraser asks Tom Woods how he views property rights in the dispute between anarcho-socialists and anarcho-capitalists. Tom Woods then makes a few statements regarding his support for private property, and how he believes it to be a natural right, but that consequentialist arguments can be made for it also. He delves into a concept of ‘original sinner.’ In this, he acknowledges the Rousseauian position, that property is theft, and which sees the source of conflict as having arisen from the private claim on the commons. However, he counters that he believes the source of conflict to originate with those who declare that no one can have private property. He sees these as the only possible sources of conflict. He chooses the latter position as being correct.
In choosing sides, it becomes clear that Woods takes a step back from classical anarchism. The echo chambers of history resonate with the words of another Frenchman—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the father of anarchism— who, with obvious influence from Rousseau, repeated that “Property is theft!” but who—being a critic of Rousseau’s social contract theory— also declared, in a dialectical manner, that “Property is liberty!” The dialectical process and the balancing of antinomies are central concerns of the classic anarchism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Tom Woods ignores the original project, using the political rhetoric of anarchism, while maintaining a statist economic model.
In Tom Woods’s discussion of original sin—Who started the conflict?—, Tom Woods sides with negative claims to property, but, in so doing, loses touch with the libertarian spirit, which must properly acknowledge that, as both positions currently exist within the realm of human concern, both positions are part of the expression of the individual, and must both be incorporated into any valid model of freedom. Freedom, after all, is the ability to choose among options, and a choice is the ability to express one’s desires, no matter how contrarian. The choice of whom the first aggressor—when taken on its own, without reference to the land the conflict regards—, is a purely subjective interpretation of possible scenarios, which one tries to compel the other to accept in order to have their way. This is true of both right-wingers like Woods, who see aggression as the denial of property claims, and left-wingers who see aggression in claiming property. Proudhon transcended all of this, by recognizing these as two existing forces that constantly interact, in very much a similar manner to supply and demand, and which, under proper equilibrium, complement each other. This equilibrium was to be found in equal liberty, which necessitated the elimination of the state and its instituted inequity.
Woods suggests that private property is necessary in order to allocate scarce goods to people who would otherwise conflict. However, this position seems totally unaware of the Proudhonian concept of possession or personal property, which performs the same function, but under socially acceptable terms. In the Proudhonian concept of possession, one retains their right to exclude others so long as an item is being occupied and used in a socially acceptable manner. Contrary to common misunderstanding by mutualists, social acceptance of occupancy and use was to be defined by one’s payment of ground rent to the community. Proudhon clarified that this was not rent or a tax, but an indemnity.
One could understand this as a form of security in which one pays off one’s community in order to secure unhampered possession. Another way to understand it is that the community is one’s agent, which possesses and protects the land in one’s immediate absence, in order that it may be returned. The community is incentivized to do this, because the land has been allocated according to comparative advantage, with the most productive folks getting the most productive land, and thereby producing more ground rent for security payments. Because the rent is socialized, it is beneficial for its use to be personalized according to its most productive capacity. This is the geo-mutualist position that I support, Proudhonian mutualism refined through Henry George’s clarity.
Later on in the show, Tom Woods suggests—quite reasonably, and using an example from Rothbard— that the first user in an area gets to define what is acceptable to them. He suggests that if an airport wants to locate next to a neighborhood that it may offer to pay them off for the noise pollution. This is pretty reasonable. So why, then, doesn’t Tom take the position of a consistent libertarian—an anarchist—and apply this logic further to land? If one wants to exclude others from land which they want to use as well—a cost—, one should compensate them for their exclusion. This also addresses another of the concerns that arise, in regard to the use of shared possessions. He notes that two people that share a car—something which he seems to find miraculous despite car-share co-ops and simple joint-ownership having existed for a long time, and even before the sharing economy started to boom— might have conflicting schedules regarding its use. Placing bids on time slots to use the car is a way to resolve this issue in a non-arbitrary manner. The same can be done with land. However, Tom Woods, in his polarized view of property, would rather pick an arbitrary position—that the conflict originates from the disregard of one’s claim to property—than acknowledge that this is one of two truths, two antinomies— the other being the position that conflict originates in the claim of property—, which arise in the very same instant, but from two different perspectives. Hegel— an apparently strong but indirect influence on Proudhon— is often quoted, “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.”
The concept of balance was very much at the heart of Proudhon’s anarchism, and I can’t help but feel that reactionary models—such as anarcho-capitalism, which was funded in large part by the William Volker Fund, who financed Murray Rothbard—were intentionally intended to pervert this, and to create divides in anarchism. Tom Woods, likely unknowingly, falls into a tradition that was sponsored by the banking class in order to co-opt the language of anarchism, the same banking class that also sponsored Marxism, through folks like Jacob Schiff. Jacob Schiff financed the Bolsheviks, and the Volker Fund, Rothbard.
Tom Woods suggests that, without a system of property, one has to engage in constant conflict or constantly ask others if one can use an item. He suggests a scenario of collective ownership, “If I’m growing an apple tree, then, do I have to get the consent of everybody else in society to eat that apple?” He suggests this is not possible. He suggests the car scenario, in which a car is shared and its desired use by users conflicts timewise. “Who uses it now?” He suggests there is no resolution, but that it would come to blows. Then he entertains the manner in which property rights may be established, suggesting that verbal declarations are not enough, because they may clash. Instead, he suggests using a system in which one can be seen to be objectively following the rules. He believes the homestead principle to meet this condition, stating a first-user principle from then on.
In analyzing what Tom is saying, it is certainly clear that some clearly defined manner of possession is necessary, but this is separate from his conclusion of private property. Possession is socially granted, a matter of contract, while property is privately claimed by force, an act any reasonable person would consider aggression. Possession does not require much physical enforcement, because a system of possession is beneficial even for its least impressive members, and it is in their interest to maintain the order. Capitalism requires force, because it impoverishes society, whose members then have no choice but to react. Now, possession is not to be mistaken for communism, either, which always assumes society as a whole to be the possessor. In communism, that which is possessed by the individual may be overridden for the sake of the majority, but in mutualism that which is possessed by the individual is guarded by way of contract. Mutualism is the rule of rights—justice— applied to economy.
Tom Woods’s principle of the first user falls within this realm of justice, but only under the conditions laid out by the principle’s founder, John Locke, who, in his proviso, suggested that one could only homestead as much as one leaves for other individuals to also homestead. That is, one can’t assume rights to more than others have rights to. The homestead principle is a good start, but so long as one leaves out Locke’s proviso, and assumes that property rights are perpetual, even after a point of scarcity, we step toward the monopolization of land, which anarchists have always opposed. Whereas anarcho-capitalists would homestead a plot and then use violence to keep it, a real anarchist—a mutualist—would pay those off with whom there is a dispute, like a civilized human being who has ethical integrity. Like an airport who wants to make noise by an existing neighborhood, for example. This would also allow a basic income for the otherwise homeless, something which is proven to be more efficient than incarceration for trespassing and vandalism, which are both greatly reduced by the increase in social mobility. It would give them a hand up, rather than a hand out, and would disincentivize theft, raising the costs above the benefits: People who have something to lose consider the consequences of their actions.
While Tom Woods suggests that it is impossible to get consent from society to eat his apple, shortly afterward he suggests the homestead principle as offering this very same solution. He even pitches the homestead principle as something that is common sensical and socially agreeable, which leaves me to wonder why he feels an assembly would be so unlikely to accept it as a resolution. However, this also demonstrates the problem with propertarian views as held by Tom Woods and others like Hans Hoppe: They make assumptions about the resolutions of society. And this is why their system has to be imposed by gunpoint, because it is not a resolution that is freely accepted by society. Picking one side of a conflict, and then giving it one’s all, does not resolve the issue as a matter of justice. As property rises in value, due to its scarcity, disputes also naturally arise. These disputes need resolutions, and the homestead principle does nothing to calm disputes relating to the increasing scarcity of good land. This is better resolved in compensating others for being excluded from it.
When asked about whether private property interferes with the right to travel, Tom Woods suggests that one has a right to travel on one’s own property, and that easements can be enforced so long as an individual has been using the space as a road or path before it was claimed by another user. I largely agree with Tom here, except that I believe this logic is better applied to personal possessions (including real property) than to private property, and so I believe that society maintains a right to place new easements where it sees necessary. Proudhon, too, spoke of the right of first occupancy.
When Nathan Fraser asks about the demarcation between abandonment and absentee ownership, Tom Woods asks back if a suit is abandoned in his closet, while he is not wearing it. Can someone else use it, so long as they place it back in the same condition? He suggests that some of the value of property is the feeling of security that a thing will be there when one returns. This is certainly true, and while Tom’s argument is a proper limit for communism, it is not a good argument for private tyranny. Possession can play the same function, without swinging the pendulum past the point of balance and into the other extreme.
Woods suggests that in a private property system of capitalism common law would decide the matter of absentee and abandonment arbitrarily, but that it would be “figured out together.” Well, Tom, it looks like you do think society can give you permission to eat your apple, and they can do so before you eat it. After all, if you have it your way, it will be society which enforces your property system through common law. This is unreasonable, however, because the perpetual ownership inherent in capitalism runs counter to the whims of the tenants and the homeless, and unless they are excluded from participation in the jury, they have no reason to perpetuate capitalism. There is no incentive in a common law setting for tenants to keep private property around. One may counter that tenants gain from the upkeep of the property when they have a landlord, but all of the duties of the landlord can be filled by the plumber, electrician, and carpenter more directly. After all, it is common for a landlord to simply make calls to these folks, rather than doing the work themselves. The bill is paid with the rent money of the tenants.
It’s important to understand that the landlord’s rental income is a surplus produced from a land monopoly, which wouldn’t exist without the state. Were the state to cease existing, the landlord’s estate would itself be a state, and rent would be taxes. That is, if we are to regard a state as a monopoly on the use of force, ours is a republic which landlords are subservient to, but at once end their subservience and their forces simply represent an oligopoly which has replaced the monopoly of the state with many smaller states. I admit this may be preferable, but it is not anarchy by any hard standard.
While Tom Woods admits the arbitrariness of his system, geo-mutualism provides a non-arbitrary means of distinguishing abandonment from absentee-ownership, and this is a matter of whether one has secured their claim with their community or not, by compensating them for excluding them. In doing this—paying the community rent— one maintains the same positive effects that Tom names, such as a socially-recognized claim to exclusive use of a piece of land, the ability to store things there, and to leave without one’s claim being challenged. Possession is much more stable than private property, as possession implies the exclusive use of land, labor, and capital with social approval, while private property implies the exclusive use of land, labor, and capital with social unrest. While anarchy is often portrayed as social unrest, and while Tom Woods’s vision of the barbaric capitalist enclosure of the commons is closer to this mission, classical anarchism assured that anarchy was order, and took the proper measures to balance the interests of society.