I’ve argued here and elsewhere that property is an institution of involuntary, violent, coercive aggression (I, II, III, IV, V, et al). These arguments are clearly correct, but they are lacking in one important respect: they don’t constitute a full descriptive account of the institution of property. They describe certain characteristics of property — that it is violent, that it is coercive, that it is involuntary. But they don’t fully describe what is going on when someone holds property, transfers property, rents property, and so on. Here, I attempt to provide a more robust description of the institution of property using a concept I have dubbed Violence Vouchers.
Saying someone owns a piece of the world obscures what is actually going on. Ownership is not a relationship between a person and a piece of the world. It is a relationship between a person and all other persons. It is a relationship that consists of the following threat: should someone else act upon this piece of the world, violence will be brought against them in order to cause them to desist.
The person who we call the owner is the person who has the power to direct violence against others who try to act upon the piece of the world. In our society, that person directs violence against other people by calling upon the state, which then mobilizes its police forces to carry out the violence. Thus, what makes someone an “owner” is that they possess a violence voucher that they can redeem with the state under certain circumstances. The circumstances in which the owner can redeem their violence voucher depends upon the laws. It is the laws that create violence vouchers and construct their terms and conditions.
When a state (or state-like entity) establishes a system of private property, all it really does is hand out violence vouchers to people who we call owners. This can be done through direct grants to individuals or by establishing some set of rules, the following of which entitles the follower to a violence voucher. The Homestead Acts are a good example of the latter: individuals that followed a specific set of rules were given violence vouchers that they could redeem with the state should someone else act in a proscribed manner towards some piece of the world they “homesteaded.”
Thus, when we say someone holds property, all we mean is that someone has a violence voucher that they can redeem with respect to the specific piece of the world we call their property. The exact terms of the violence voucher can differ depending on the laws of the state that has issued it, but generally it entitles the holder to, at minimum, direct the state’s violence against others who try to act on the piece of the world that the violence voucher covers.
People do not trade pieces of the world. They trade violence vouchers. When a trade has occurred, the pieces of the world have not changed. There are no metaphysical switches in pieces of the world that register a new owner. All that has happened is that violence vouchers have changed hands.
In fact, the existence of violence vouchers is the only reason the “trading of property” happens in the first place.
Suppose I wanted to act upon a house I have spotted, by which I mean live in it. This seems easy enough: walk on in and start living in it. If I could do that, I would never trade something for the house. I would never “buy” the house. But it turns out that I am prevented from doing that. The person who currently lives in the house has a violence voucher that they will surely redeem if I try to live in the house. It is because I know that the violence voucher will be redeemed that, if I want to live in the house, I have to trade for it.
When I trade for the house, I don’t actually trade for the house of course. I trade for the house’s violence voucher. The house has no value at all to me. Only the violence voucher does. It’s quite obvious why this is so. If I come into ownership of the house (whatever that might mean) without coming into ownership of the violence voucher, I could not keep anyone out of the house. The prior owner and anyone else could live in the house and I would be powerless to exclude them. This would be of no value to me. I buy the house specifically so I can exclude people and maintain it as a place just for me. Which is to say: I buy the house’s violence voucher.
This violence voucher swap works both ways of course. No person would ever sell me their house’s violence voucher for some property I had. They would only sell it to me for some violence voucher I had. Giving me their violence voucher in exchange for some thing that they cannot exclude from others via the redemption of a violence voucher would be a total loss for them. Additionally, giving me their house’s violence voucher for some piece of the world I do not have a violence voucher for would also be a total waste for them because, if I do not have a violence voucher for it, they would not need to trade me anything in order to gain the ability to access it.
One important insight that springs from these observations is that there is no such thing as a non-coercive trade. All trades rely upon violent coercion. I only trade with someone because they have a violence voucher that they will redeem if I decide to act upon the piece of the world without doing so. They only trade with me for the same reason. If you got rid of the coercion, which is to say you got rid of violence vouchers, no trading would occur. You would not need to trade in a world without violence vouchers. Indeed, it’s not at all clear what a trade even is in such a world because after the “trade” has happened, everyone would be in the exact same position as they were before the trade, i.e. everyone would still be able to act freely upon all the pieces of the world involved in the trade just as they were before the trade.
People do not rent property from other people. They trade their violence voucher over some piece of the world in exchange for the person they are renting from agreeing to waive their right to redeem their violence voucher over some other piece of the world for some period of time.
To be concrete about this, suppose someone (landlord) has a violence voucher with respect to an apartment unit. Suppose someone else (tenant) has a violence voucher with respect to $1000. The tenant would like to live in the apartment unit, but if they try to do so, the landlord redeems their violence voucher and the state boots them out. Due to this violent coercion, the tenant is forced to strike a deal with the landlord, a deal we might call a rental agreement. In the rental agreement, violence vouchers are not swapped (as in the trade explained in the prior example). Instead, the landlord agrees to waive their right to redeem their violence voucher for a period of time if the tenant gives up to the landlord the violence voucher the tenant has with respect to the $1000.
As with the trade, this is not a voluntary agreement. It is an agreement coerced through violence. It is more pernicious than the trade though. With the trade, violence vouchers are swapped such that each party to the trade maintains their wealth level (by wealth I mean the value of the portfolio of their violence vouchers). But in the rental agreement, the landlord has held on to their violence voucher with respect to the apartment unit and received an additional violence voucher with respect to the $1000. The landlord’s portfolio of violence vouchers has grown larger while the tenant’s portfolio of violence vouchers has shrunk.
A rent can thus be described as the acquisition of a violence voucher in exchange for temporarily waiving a right to redeem a violence voucher. A rent is when you leverage threats to redeem your violence vouchers in order to acquire violence vouchers from others without giving any violence vouchers in return.
This definition of rent is not constrained to renting buildings of course: it can ultimately capture all capital income including interest and dividends. What a capitalist does is leverage their portfolio of violence vouchers in order to get others to give them violence vouchers without the capitalist having to give up any violence vouchers in return. Or, to put it in Marxist terms, a capitalist leverages their control of the means of production in order to coerce others to pay them for nothing.
Some will reply that the capitalist has given more than nothing. They have given access to pieces of the world that can be used productively. But to say this obscures the reality. Nobody needs the capitalist to give them access. Access is available so long as nobody acts (violently) to shut it down. It is only the prospect of a violence voucher redemption that precludes access.
What the capitalist has actually done is agreed to not redeem their violence voucher for some period of time against those who are using those pieces of the world. They have held a gun to the head of those who wish (or in fact need) to use those pieces of the world and demanded that violence vouchers be forked over to them in exchange for not shooting. It’s extortion plain and simple. If the state did not issue violence vouchers or refused efforts to redeem them, it couldn’t happen.
The last section is the one that will probably rankle the most people, so I’d like to clarify its implications. Rents are certainly suspicious on their face, but that suspicious nature is not necessarily dispositive of their justness.
Rents cannot be justified on just deserts grounds because they involve the distribution of resources to those who merely leverage violence vouchers to capture an income, which, unlike working, is not actually contributory. Rents cannot be justified on just processes grounds (i.e. on voluntarism grounds) because they are acquired solely through threats to redeem violence vouchers. Thus, the two most favored right-wing frameworks of economic justice cannot justify rents.
But you may attempt to justify the rents on other grounds, e.g. utilitarian grounds. You may argue that the payment of these rents creates a market in capital allocation, which generates price signals that directs resources to their most productive uses. Sure we pay a hefty fee for that — around one-third of national income flows to capital each year, the vast majority of which is held by a tiny fraction of Americans — but maybe that hefty fee is worth it for the broad-based welfare gains it supposedly generates. Of course, for this to pass utilitarian muster, it must be the case that there is no better welfare-maximizing way to allocate capital, which I suspect isn’t true, especially compared to what we have now.
There are also institution-agnostic egalitarian grounds that might justify a system featuring these rents. If one-third of the national income flowed to these rents, that may not be a problem if the distribution of the rents was relatively equal, i.e. everyone got a pretty even chunk of passive income each year. Maybe such a thing is possible, but it is not the world we currently find ourselves in. In 2007, 47 percent of capital income went to the top 1 percent of households. Seventy-two percent went to the top 10 percent of households. In the same year, 75 percent of capital gains went to the top 1 percent of households. Ninety-two percent went to the top 10 percent of households.
So while it is possible to imagine a world in which those rents are justifiable on utilitarian and egalitarian grounds, it seems very unlikely that there is not some other constellation of institutions — at minimum market socialist ones — that would deliver more utilitarian and egalitarian outcomes.
Regardless of how this all shakes out within the realm of political justice, I think violence vouchers are worthwhile as a descriptive matter. A private property economy is not built upon the trading of pieces of the world really. It is built upon a market of government-issued violence vouchers. These violence vouchers are what really establish what we call “ownership.” These violence vouchers are what coerce people to trade. These violence vouchers are what make “ownership” over pieces of the world at all valuable. It is these well-placed threats of violence that actually animate the so-called “voluntary” capitalist economy, and descriptions of the institution of property that fail to capture this core reality are inadequate.