Why Have Property At All?

So I’ve been reading this paper from libertarian philosopher Matt Zwolinski about why a basic income is both consistent with, and even required by, libertarian precepts.

What’s interesting about Zwolinski basic income advocacy is that the way it works is by first establishing that property is anti-libertarian, in the sense that it clearly relies upon the initiation of coercive aggressive violence to restrict bodily movements of others:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

From here, Zwolinski’s move is basically to say that a basic income is what you need to put in place to make this kind of liberty destruction permissible. This argument proceeds by appealing to a Nozickian-like formulation of the Lockean Proviso (which is to say, not the actual proviso, but a made up version of it said to capture its essence). The short of this is you need to fork over enough resources to everyone so that they can have a basic standard of living if you are going to fence them off from all the resources. Otherwise, your fencing off the resources from them is literally killing them.

As regular readers here will recall, I think this style of libertarian argument (from Nozick on down) is way off the mark. For starters, this Lockean Proviso approach basically tries to ensure people are at least as well off as they would be in the alternative without property (hence neutralizing any harm the introduction of property has caused). But if all your resource-use institutions need to do is make sure everyone is better off than an alternative world without resource-use institutions, then basically any set of resource-use institutions will do. I can just as well declare all resources will be used according to social democratic institutions and then justify the liberty infringements that entails by pointing to the Lockean Proviso and noting that I’ve clearly ensured everyone is better off than they would be in the alternative without any resource use rules. In short, basically every economic system passes the Lockean Proviso.

Beyond this point though, what astonishes me about the way Zwolinski proceeds (not just here but elsewhere) is that he starts already with the view that property must exist. But there is little explanation or why this is so. Surely the natural reaction of a libertarian committed to the abstract principles of liberty above all else should be to reject property period once they realize it is liberty-infringing. Why is there any effort, coherent or not, to even try to salvage the institution of property from the brutally straightforward conclusion that libertarian precepts forbid it because it is a form of violently coercive liberty restriction?

In asking these questions, I certainly know of some answers people can give. But all of these answers pose severe problems to libertarians. You can say property is good because it’s solid for human flourishing and that kind of thing, but this is precisely the argument, say, social democrats make about the welfare state and they have really good evidence to support themselves on that. You can say it’s necessary so that people may be able to get what they produce (a kind of “sweat of the brow” argument), but this naturally falls apart with complex capitalist development where huge portions of the national output flows each year to landowners (who don’t deserve it), capitalists (who arguably don’t deserve it, at least under strict labor-desert), and to people more generally from accumulated technology/knowledge that nobody alive made and therefore nobody really deserves the output from.

The strong move for libertarians here is to actually go back to the origination of the term “libertarian,” which had to do with anarchist communists. The anarchist communists so loved liberty that when they realized property infringed it, they said to do away with property. These propertarians who masquerade as lovers of liberty, however, just walk themselves into increasingly weird logical circles and corners trying to salvage an inherently anti-libertarian institution with exaggerated hand waving.

  • GeorgeDance

    Only fair; the only reason we needed a new label was because the anti-property gang took over the word “liberal”. If we get that back, you can have “libertarian” back.

  • GeorgeDance

    But it does destroy their liberty to eat that particular apple. Just the same as fencing off a piece of land doesn’t deny others the possibility to use land; just that particular land.

  • GeorgeDance

    But ‘grab what you can’ isn’t a world without property – people would still be appropriating things and excluding others from using them. All it would eliminate would be the non-coercion principle; the idea that it’s wrong to take other people’s property.

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    You’re missing quite a lot here.

  • GeorgeDance

    I would certainly appreciate your vetting what I’ve written about Grab World:

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    Just skimming that, I see you made the very common pseudo-libertarian appeal to the sanctity of the “home.” You’re not being honest. Libertarianism protects the sanctity of the title, whereas the claim to the “home” is not based on title. You have to change this:

    “1. If justice requires that we follow the non-aggression principle, then people can come into the house [you live in] and grab up the stuff and you cannot use force to prevent that.”

    To this:

    “1. If justice requires that we follow the non-aggression principle, then people can come into the house [whose title you legally own] and grab up the stuff and you cannot use force to prevent that.”

    But it fucks up the whole moral tone of your argument. This ought to be telling: you have to appeal to (disguised) anti-libertarian ideas in order to make your point morally intuitive.

    Libertarianism says that if you live in a house, and the owner of that house wants to come in and kick you out, his right to do so ought to be absolute. None of that state-mandated eviction process like we have currently — if you violate your rental contract (say by not paying rent), you get physically removed. No 3 month warning period, no appeals process, no mandatory court hearings, no venue in which to make an appeal to personal hardship. These kinds of laws, which exist in most places, are derived from the idea of the sanctity of the home, and are anti-libertarian. Under libertarianism, you only get that stuff if you can negotiate it into your initial contract, which you can’t. Libertarianism by its highest principle gives no special place to the “home” as such — on principle it _only_ protects the “home” of owner-occupied properties.

    Start being honest and defending your actual position.

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    Following up to my other post about the distinction between “house you live in” and “house you own,” we can easily extend “grab world” to include the house that a person lives in as an extension of their body. Thus, in the grab world, a person cannot aggress on another’s body, _nor_ can they aggress on another’s home — even if property titles would allow them to do so under libertarianism.

    I.e., even a landlord who would “own” someone else’s home cannot aggress upon that person’s home. We consider that to be an assault on the person, taking into consideration the special place of the home in a typical human life. The claim to sanctity of the home is based on personal bodily sanctity rather than on property title, thus there is no such distinction as rental vs. owner-occupied property, but just people who have homes.

    I didn’t read your whole argument in detail, but what does that change do to it?

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    I read a bit more and see you included some nonsense about using force to defend against rape. If you want to be intellectually honest, you need to look up “steel-manning” and completely change your approach.

    Bruenig didn’t say anything about defensive force. And he did not need to. There is no need to flesh out all the details of “grab world” — he only specified enough to make the point.

    All you’re doing is going after little things that he didn’t specify or address, that are completely aside from the point, in order to look for the weakest possible interpretation of what he says. Yet if you cared about truth, you would be fleshing these things out (if at all) only when they are relevant to the main point, and using the _strongest_ possible interpretation.

    And you should always be wary of the possibility that you’ve been strengthening Bruenig’s argument insufficiently: you _try_ to interpret it in the strongest way possible, but always admit that you _might_ be missing something and there _might_ be a stronger interpretation than the one you took.

    (Especially since he’s not some long-dead author, but someone you can actually ask for clarification: “is this really your position?” You can literally just email him and get a response.)

    When people do the exact opposite of this, it’s rather impossible to deal with them.

    So basically, in conclusion: no you don’t get to assume that “grab world” forbids defensive force. The opposite is far more reasonable an assumption — but it’s completely irrelevant to make _either_ assumption, as the point we’re supposed to be of “grabbing” vs. “appropriating,” and defensive force against rape has nothing to do with that.

    It just doesn’t refute any point about “grabbing” vs. “appropriating” to talk about the need to defend against rape. We can all easily see that recognizing the need to defend against rape does not prove that “appropriating” is less forcible or less aggressive than “grabbing.”

  • GeorgeDance

    Oh, sure; it’s theoretically possible to get the agreement of every person in the world to allow you to eat an apple. But, practically, you’d probably starve to death before you did that.

  • Baldie McEagle

    Are you saying there are people out there who believe I should not eat food? If so, I automatically have the right to put up walls and arm myself against them.

  • GeorgeDance

    What I’m saying is that, first Mr. Bruenig says appropriating property in anything is liberty-destroying, if it excludes others from using the same thing, because they’re no longer at liberty to access it – therefore, people who believe in liberty should not believe in property; second, actions like eating food and burning firewood do exclude others from using the same things; and therefore, by his argument, appropriating food or firewood is liberty-destroying and people who believe in liberty cannot consistently do either.

  • Baldie McEagle

    You are an idiot.

  • GeorgeDance

    And who decides that? Ask 2 starving people arguing over who gets to eat an apple which of them would be “bettered” most by eating it, and what are the chances they’d agree?

  • Konrad_Lorenz

    The owner of the apples should initiate a bidding process between the two of them. That will determine which will be bettered most.

  • GeorgeDance

    What strikes me as weird is the idea that we don’t need property, because we can adopt ‘social democratic institutions’ instead. I’m not aware of any social democratic states without both property and property rules that restrict the ‘bodily movements of others’. Can you point to one, or at least give some idea of how it would operate?