Can you sustain an economic philosophy solely by begging the question?

This piece by David S. D’Amato was just brought to my attention. It is made in response to a post I wrote earlier in which I asked why we should have property at all if it is indeed a liberty-infringing institution, like libertarian Matt Zwolinski concedes. Here is a run down of the problems with his piece.

Begging the Question on Force Initiation
Here is D’Amato:

Certainly it is true (and libertarians readily admit) that all property, by definition, creates a monopolistic right, a right to exclude—ultimately, coercively exclude—others from the use and enjoyment of a particular piece of real estate.

Nonetheless, whether or not this right amounts to the kind of initiatory coercion that libertarians oppose is, of course, a distinct question, one that hinges on whether the monopoly right (i.e., the private property claim) in question can be justified on libertarian grounds. As philosopher Roderick Long notes, “[P]roperty rights claims, like all rights claims (at least in the sense of ‘rights’ that prevails in political theory), are claims to the legitimate use of force.”

As is typical in the libertarian set, there seems to be severe difficulties with distinguishing between what we might call Actual Initiation (defined as “who touched who first”) and Ideological Initiation (defined as “who did the thing we thought was illegitimate first”). In my piece, I blockquote Matt Zwolinski’s perspective on Actual Initiation:

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.

Since D’Amato’s piece is ostensibly a response to my piece, you’d think he would have dealt with Zwolinski’s point here, but he doesn’t at all. So we are left to wonder, does D’Amato think Zwolinski is wrong in this quote? What mistake exactly has Zwolinski made? There doesn’t seem to be any made: Actual Initiation is being done by the person who is appropriating the land. That is, they are the person who is unilaterally threatening violence against all others should they walk over the land being unilaterally snapped up by the appropriator. This threat comes, not in response to any provocation or wrongful act. It is not defensive. It is aggressive.

The way D’Amato tries to get out of this obvious point is to fuck around with the word “initiation.” For him, “initiatory coercion” only exists when the violence your using against someone is not “justified on libertarian grounds.” Even a grade schooler should be able to see that this is just a tautology. “Libertarianism” is discussed as being a philosophy that is opposed to “initiating coercion.” But then “initiating coercion” is cleverly defined so as to exclude all coercion initiation that is “justified on libertarian grounds.”

You could swap out any ideology for libertarianism here and reach the same conclusion. Marxism-Leninism is a philosophy that is opposed to all coercion initiation, so long as we define “coercion initiation” as not including all coercion justified on Marxist-Leninist grounds. Right? More broadly, all economic philosophies are against aggressive violence when you define aggressive violence as not including the aggressive violence those philosophies are for. This is utterly stupid word games, but it somehow truly enraptures libertarians who seem to think it is profound.

Misunderstands Grab World
D’Amato’s next mistake is to assert that all economic philosophies require ownership of resources of some sort, the upshot being that libertarianism’s property-based coercion is not a unique defect:

Bruenig, moreover, seems not to realize that even in his Marxist Arcadia, property will be (indeed, must be) owned by someone or some group, be it the state, the Worker’s Party, or the some munificent autocrat. Bruenig, moreover, seems not to realize that even in his Marxist Arcadia, property will be (indeed, must be) owned by someone or some group, be it the state, the Worker’s Party, or the some munificent autocrat. Will this crucial prerogative—the ability to hold property—be limited to an Orwellian Inner Party, or will it be distributed, allowing each and every individual the legal right to acquire and hold property? For even where, as a matter of theory, no one may own property, still someone must manage and administer the resources held for the benefit of the commonweal.

Once again, D’Amato is rehashing little mental scripts he has memorized over the years without responding to my argument. I claim, and have for many years now, that there is an economic system that involves no ownership over any property. Borrowing from Roderick Long, I call this the Grab World. Under the Grab World, the only rule is that you may not initiate force against another person’s body. Short of that, you can do absolutely anything. Nobody is managing any resources; anybody can grab any resources at any time (provided it doesn’t require touching someone else’s body to do so). If you put those resources down, then anyone else can grab them. It’s a free-for-all of grabbing stuff as you please.

My question to libertarians who play around in the coercion game has always been: why don’t you want Grab World? Even if you supposed (wrongly) that there were other non-coercive ways to manage resources, you must at least admit that Grab World is also non-coercive. So what exactly is un-libertarian about it? What is the anti-aggression argument against it? And in making that argument, don’t beg the question on ownership because that’s what Grab World is asking you to justify: the existence of ownership period.

I read on hoping he’d actually get to Grab World, and he does. But he somehow totally misunderstood it!

Quite contrary to Bruenig’s claims, libertarian property theory—and, more broadly, the libertarian rejection of invasion or aggression—does not endorse a “grab-what-you-can” principle of homesteading, under which one simply asserts unqualified ownership over a tract of land, and is thereafter entitled to hold the tract free from interference.

No. No. No. No. Grab-what-you-can World, which is a phrase pulled from Roderick Long (someone D’Amato quotes in the piece), is not a fucking homesteading theory. It is the anti-homesteading theory. It is the theory that no matter what kind of labor mixing dances or first occupations or whatever you do, you will never be able to use force to exclude others from pieces of the world. D’Amato seems totally incapable of contemplating this hypothetical reality and this is the reason why he cannot actually respond to my question: why not just do Grab World?

Is there any libertarian who can explain why we shouldn’t just do Grab World if what we are concerned about is the initiation of coercion (non-circularly defined)? Like I said in my piece that D’Amato apparently did not read, there are all sorts of utilitarian and desertist type arguments people make (though none of them support laissez-faire capitalism). But what is the argument about force, aggression, coercion, violence that explains why libertarians oppose Grab World? I have yet to see one.

  • GeorgeDance

    I’ve read it; it has nothing to do with Grab World. On Russell’s planet, people have property, and they trade goods and services. What they don’t have is money – they trade Obs, or Obligations.

  • GeorgeDance

    “there are all sorts of utilitarian and desertist type arguments people make (though none of them support laissez-faire capitalism). But what is the argument about force, aggression, coercion, violence that explains why libertarians oppose Grab World?”

    First of all, there’s no reason libertarians cannot make consequentialist (which I think is what Breunig means by “utilitarian”) or desertist arguments against Grab World; that would be like saying they can’t make consequentialist or desertist arguments for libertarianism. It sounds like you’re saying libertarians can make only question-begging arguments for libertarian rules, while complaining if they make any.

  • GeorgeDance

    “Is there any libertarian who can explain why we shouldn’t just do Grab World if what we are concerned about is the initiation of coercion?” The simplest explanation is that “Grab World” is a thought experiment in which it is assumed that everyone is a pacifist (“nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body”); so “doing” or instantiating it in reality would require that everyone be a pacifist.
    Grab World https://www.nolanchart.com/grab-world