Economics/Class Relations

The Most Difficult Aspects of Anarchy

By Shawn Wilbur

Center for a Stateless Society

Response to Kevin Carson’s Rejoinder by Shawn Wilbur

At base, Kevin and I disagree about the possibility of, as I put it, “a truly anarchic space, outside the legal order and beyond the realm of permissions and prohibitions.” That’s a serious disagreement, since it amounts, for me, to a disagreement about the possibility of anarchy. If I was, as Kevin suggests, implicitly acknowledging any “set of rules” governing property, it would amount to a complete failure of my project. The point of giving familiar, more-or-less legal names to the steps in the extrication I described was simply to mark the rationales for a series of “gifts.” My working assumptions are that Proudhon’s objections to existing property conventions have really not been answered, and that perhaps they are actually unanswerable in legal terms. My project has not been to describe potential property rights, but merely to describe property as a quality of individual being in such a way that its individuality and its exclusivity might be dealt with separately and the potential conflict between them acknowledged. The point is not to reconstruct some “right of self-ownership,” but to suggest that if one wishes to enjoy the freedoms we have come to associate with that so-called right, we could achieve that end by considering our own property and the property of the other in a particular way — a manner involving a certain sort of extrication, or, to bring things back into the familiar language of property, a cession or gift. These are not proposed rules, but simply “transactions,” to use the vocabulary of Proudhon’s work in the 1850s.

Turning to the specific responses, I’m a little surprised to find myself presented at once as proposing a presumably unrealistic world without rules and as defending principles to be somehow enforced. To be clear, the paragraph that Carson treats first has two simple points: 1) use the right tool for the job, and 2) the right tool will almost always be dependent on a variety of local factors. My point about the cost principle was primarily that it, among the various principles regularly discussed by mutualists, is easier to discuss without reference to a wide variety of local factors. I think that is correct, and that it is useful to make the distinction between approaches that are heavily dependent on local factors and those that are not — principally because it is in the need to adapt to local factors that I find my own opening to the sort of property-pluralism Kevin is pursuing. While I have very little faith, for example, in land-value taxation as a general solution to land-tenure problems, because of the difficulties of quantifying land value in a complex economy, I think that it remains a very useful tool in our kit when the conditions are right for its application. And as the representative in this conversation of a certain kind of neo-Proudhonian position, I certainly shouldn’t rule out the possibility that a position which seems uncertain or even unjust in principle might well be, in practice, the right tool to defend liberty and justice under certain conditions. That, after all, is the heart of Proudhon’s “New Theory,” and the means by which he finally found a place for property as a tool for liberty in his mature work.

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