Pick-up basketball and grab what you can

There are three types of governing regimes:

  1. Lawless — There are no rules preventing people from acting on the bodies of others. There are no rules preventing people from acting on pieces of the world.
  2. Grab World — There are rules preventing people from acting on the bodies of others. There are no rules preventing people from acting on pieces of the world. Roderick Long has called this the “Grab What You Can World.” This is the world that is consistent with negative liberty, self-ownership, and the non-aggression principle. It lacks property rights because property rights empower individuals to act on the bodies of others. Every person is free to do literally anything short of acting on the body of another person.
  3. Statism — There are rules preventing people from acting on the bodies of others. There are also rules that limit people from acting on pieces of the world. The latter rules, aka economic regulations, trump the former rules when they are in conflict. Right-Wing Libertarianism as espoused in America is a flavor of statism in that it advocates a massive web of rules that limit people from acting on pieces of the world, e.g. property rules and contract rules. It also maintains that those rules trump the rules preventing people from acting on the bodies of others: it permits people to act on the bodies of others to enforce economic regulations. Almost everyone is a statist in this regard. They just disagree on what the economic regulations should be.
Limits on acting on the bodies of others Limits on acting on pieces of the world
Grab X
Statism X X

Most of the time, I use Grab World in debates to simply push people off of procedural justice arguments. After dropping the Grab World, the argument tends to go in one of two directions.

First, the interlocutor notes that under Grab World, we would face a tragedy of the commons situation where everyone is miserable and lots of people are starving. If everyone could just grab whatever piece of the world they wanted, that would destroy the incentive to work and everyone would be way poorer. I am glad to get this response because, in making it, the interlocutor has given away the procedural justice claim. They have said that it is OK to use aggression to destroy liberty and self-ownership when doing so is necessary to achieve good welfare consequences. Their normative focus has shifted from process to consequences.

Second, the interlocutor says that Grab World is wrong because it doesn’t give to each what they produce. If everyone could just grab whatever piece of the world they wanted, that would mean people who produced stuff with the sweat of their brow would be deprived of it. I am also glad to get this response because it also means the interlocutor has given up the procedural justice claim. They have said that it is OK to destroy liberty when doing so is necessary to achieve a desert-patterned distribution. Their normative focus has shifted from process to desert.

Normally, I am happy to concede either of these arguments. Shifting the normative framework from process to desert or consequences is necessary on the merits (as laissez-faire cannot be justified on procedural libertarian grounds) and far more favorable to my position. Good welfare consequences are not maximized by laissez-faire and capitalism is extremely inconsistent with desert.

Pick-up Basketball
Although I normally concede these arguments, I am not actually convinced that they are true. Or at minimum, I am not sure that the Grab World would mean things would be totally chaotic and everyone would starve and die, as some of the more hysterical objections to it claim. I am skeptical because I imagine that most people would find ways to get along well enough to not lead to human extermination. Conventions would develop around the recognition that anyone could grab anything at any time that would try to placate everyone. Social rebukes would be a weapon towards some kind order, albeit different from the order we have under statist property regimes. It wouldn’t be perfect and would almost certainly mean less wealth and income overall, but I bet it would be survivable on the whole.

One reason to believe this would be the case is that we have some examples of mini-worlds that are like the Grab World already. The one I am most familiar with is public basketball courts, which I spent a significant amount of time on as a kid.

A public basketball court consists of some concrete with lines drawn on it and a hoop or two. There are no rules regarding the use of them. In theory, you can show up with your ball and do whatever you want. Nobody can exclude you from the court. There is no rent to pay to use the court. If someone else is playing there already, there is nothing that prevents you from just going on and playing as well. It would destroy most of the utility of the court if multiple games tried to play in an overlapping fashion, but there is nothing to stop you from doing it, if you want.

The potential for utility-destroying chaos and over-use created by this Grab World doesn’t actually materialize though. There is order on these street courts that has developed conventionally even though it is unenforceable and not required by any given court-use regulations.

The order that has developed on the public basketball courts is more advanced than one might initially think as well. One obvious way to organize this Grab World is on a first-come-first-served basis with a queue. I imagine most people would initially opt for that kind of order to deal with this Grab World. But there are problems with this order. You have no idea how long someone or some set of people plan to use the court before they leave. People will get frustrated if they never get to use the court because they are 5 deep in the queue and have no idea how long each person ahead of them in the queue will take. And so on.

These problems have been accommodated a number of ways. First, it is very rare that anyone will use more than half of the court. This doubles the capacity of the court. Second, usually at least one of the games being played can take all comers. The most popular such game is “21” which does not utilize any teams and can pretty much accommodate as many players as want to play (limited by the physical capacity of the court) and can add players right in the middle of the game without missing a beat. Third, the team games are almost always limited to 10 points. Once one side in a team game hits that many points, the losing team has to get off the court and allow those waiting to play to come on. This allows people to cycle on and off the court instead of waiting endlessly in line.

I could go on, but the basic point should be clear. The order that has developed around this Grab World is as inclusive as possible. This is probably in large part for altruistic/reciprocal reasons, but also because you have to sufficiently satisfy everyone who wants to play. If you don’t satisfy them, there is nothing that prevents them from just ignoring your game and using the court concurrently, which largely destroys the usefulness of the court.

A basketball court is a very limited environment of course, but I think it provides some insight into what an actual Grab World would look like. Under all sorts of social pressure and always faced with the threat that someone can just grab whatever you are using, some kind of order will form that allows people to make do.

Like I said at the top, that Grab World order might be poorer than the statist order we have now, and that may be a good argument against it for those very concerned about welfare consequences. But for those who say they aren’t so concerned about welfare consequences and really just care about liberty-respecting processes — as many libertarians claim, usually dishonestly — I don’t see why they should necessarily oppose the Grab World. If the Grab World is roughly workable like a public basketball court is, then a lover of negative liberty, self-ownership, and non-aggression should seriously consider advocating it, rather than the liberty-destroying statist propertarian stuff they currently do.

  • GeorgeDance

    This is not Grab World. Grab World is a world in which there is one rule: people may not act on the bodies of others without their consent; there are no rules governing what they may do to anything non-human. But on the basketball court, there are rules. For one, as Bruenig notes, no one may just take over a court and use it all day; there are limits on use. For another, people using a court have to use it to play basketball; if Matt and his wife showed up to claim a court and use it to play frisbee instead, people would object and try to convince them to leave; failing that, someone could very well resort to touching them to make them go away (which never happens in Grab World).

    Most importantly, unlike Grab World, everyone is respecting everyone else’s property. The easiest way to get a court from other people would be to simply walk onto their court and take their basketballs so they can’t play. Yet that doesn’t happen, (even though it would be happen all the time in Grab World). Why not? Maybe for some it is simple reciprocity: people who believe they are entitled to their basketballs would believe that other people are entitled to their basketballs. That never happens in Grab World. For others, it might be intimidation: they think that, if they grabbed a bunch of players’ basketballs, the players might use “violent, physical coercion” on them to get them back. But that never happens in Grab World either.

    If Bruenig wants to find real-life examples of Grab World in the real world, he is going to have to look elsewhere.

    Grab World https://www.nolanchart.com/grab-world

  • GeorgeDance

    Jay Looney – “In fact it was not contradictory until you made it so by purporting a need for some institution when in fact its definition precludes one existing.”

    You’re quite right that, by definition, Grab World’s Basic Rule cannot be enforced. But, then, why would anyone obey it? The only reason they do, in Grab World, is because that’s part of the definition, too: if people routinely broke the Basic Rule, it wouldn’t be Grab World any more.

    That is not an objection to the idea of Grab World, but it is an objection to the idea of it as an actually existing system. There is little point in instantiating Grab World, having it immediately break down into a world of violence and coercion, and then just saying, “Oh, well, we tried.”

    Grab World https://www.nolanchart.com/grab-world

  • GeorgeDance

    “It is more or less communism, yes.” No it isn’t. There is property in communist societies; it just all belongs to the state.

    “Though it does say that there is a state that is preventing people from assaulting and battering and the like.” No it doesn’t. It says there is a Basic Rule that forbids its own enforcement.
    Grab World https://www.nolanchart.com/grab-world