Property and Conflict

By now, I think I’ve made my point that private property institutions violate self-ownership, negative liberty, and the non-aggression principle. Although your everyday amateur libertarian will continue to believe, beyond all reason, that their preferred institutions are justified by these concepts, many of the smarter libertarians have already given up that line. Here, I address one of the arguments those smarter libertarians try to use for property that focuses on preventing conflict.

Grab What You Can
Before I get into that point, I want to re-establish the concept of the grab-what-you-can world (GWYCW) because it is a useful one for my purposes here. In the GWYCW, “nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body, but subject to that constraint, people regularly grab any external resource they can get their hands on, regardless of who has made or been using the resource.” Because grabbing up pieces of the world does not involve acting upon any other person’s body, but preventing people from grabbing up pieces of the world does, the GWYCW is the only world that is consistent with self-ownership, negative liberty, and the non-aggression principle.

Basic libertarian principles directly and straightforwardly favor the GWYCW. There is no libertarian reason why any other system should be preferred. Transitioning from the world in which nothing is owned to a world where things are owned is the most anti-libertarian thing that can ever be done. All “ownership” functionally amounts to is a proclaimed right to violently attack others should they try to act upon some piece of the world. Contrary to popular conceptions, a “property right” is not a right over a piece of the world, but a right over other human beings: to initiate aggressive violence against them if they do not abide by your rules regarding some piece of the world whether they consent to those rules or not.

Avoiding Conflict
That private property is extremely anti-libertarian poses a problem for libertarians, who are notable for their near worship of private property institutions. One of the ways they have taken to getting around this is to talk about the necessity of private property institutions for the avoidance of conflict. Here is Stephan Kinsella:

As I explain in What Libertarianism Is, ownership of one’s body, and ownership of external objects, do have something in common, but it is not “first use.” It is rather that in each case, the resource in question is assigned to the person with the best link to the resource so as to avoid conflict and permit peaceful, productive use of the resource in question. This analysis draws on that the pioneering work of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his monumental treatise A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (esp. chs. 1, 2, 7). The institution of property arises only because of the fundamental fact of scarcity, or rivalrousness, in the world. This makes violent conflict over the use of various scarce resources–Misesian means to action–possible. For those living in society who prefer peace, prosperity, and productive use of resources instead of violent conflict, it is obvious that it is desirable to assign an owner to each such contestable resource. These resources include our bodies, and other means we use in action to causally bring about our ends. Such rules, to suffice as social rules, must be objective and fair to ever be accepted by individuals and as an improvement over a world of might makes right. Thus, the search among civilized people in society is always for objective (what Hoppe calls intersubjectively ascertainable) property assignment rules. Human bodies and other resources share in common that they are both scarce resources, and property rules are needed for each.

There is a great deal wrong with this paragraph, but here I only want to address the issues pertaining to conflict. The word “conflict” is ambiguous, so it is helpful to distinguish between rules conflict on the one hand and frustration conflict on the other.

A rules conflict occurs when the set of rules that govern the use of material resources create impossible contradictions. If we have a rule that gives both A and B the right to exclusively use X, then that’s a rules conflict. Notably, the GWCYW does not contain any rules conflicts. Nobody is permitted to act on the body of others. Everybody is permitted to act on any non-human piece of the world as they please. If followed, this should never generate any irreconcilable contradictions. At all times, everyone knows precisely what their rights are regarding all the pieces of the world around them. Thus, you don’t need to invent private property institutions in order to avoid rules conflicts.

A frustration conflict occurs when people get so frustrated by the set of rules that they start fighting with one another. If GWYCW generates any conflict, it is conflict of this sort. You can imagine that — even though the rules of GWYCW leave no doubt about who can do what with any piece of the world at a given time — people will get frustrated when they wake up one morning to find people grabbed all the stuff they have been using. Such a grabbing would not lead to any rules conflict because it clearly is within the rules, but it may lead to a frustration conflict if the person starts a fight over it.

That GWYCW is likely to lead to frustration conflicts is a fair enough point, but the requirement that we avoid frustration conflicts sinks laissez-faire libertarian institutions as well. At its heart, the frustration conflict point turns upon some estimation of what human beings are willing to tolerate. We can imagine that human beings won’t tolerate the GWYCW, but we know human beings wont tolerate the kind of extreme laissez-faire institutions libertarians prefer.

This is the point I was making last year when I brought up Karl Polanyi’s notion of the double movement. As an empirical matter, everywhere in the world where you see capitalist institutions imposed upon a society, there is a frustrated push back. You see unions organized, industrial warfare, and ultimately political movements that aim to, at minimum, change the laws so as to soften the brutality of capitalist institutions.

Libertarians might charge that none of these reactions took place in the context of some platonic form of the laissez-faire economy that has never been implemented, but this is not serious. A more honest accounting shows that frustration conflicts boil up quickly in worlds with libertarian (or if you’d like “quasi-libertarian”) institutions. Those frustration conflicts are the leading impetus behind things like unionization, regulation, social welfare programs, minimum wages, and a whole list of other things libertarians hate so much.

Thus, the requirement that a system not have rules conflicts does not generate the conclusion that we need private property instead of the GWYCW. The requirement that a system not have frustration conflicts may generate the conclusion that GWYCW is a failure, but it also generates the conclusion that the institutions preferred by libertarians are failures.

At the most basic level, a scarcity allocation system consists of a set of rules that determines who gets what at any given moment in time. The fact that you need some set of rules (whether that’s the simple libertarian rules of GWYCW or some others) does not tell us at all what those rules should be. Kinsella and those like him seem to be suggesting that the only way to have peace, prosperity, and productivity is to adopt some laissez-faire rule set. Yet, the most productive, prosperous, and peaceful (in terms of internal conflict over resources) societies in the history of the world don’t utilize those rule sets.

At minimum then, the “avoids conflict” requirement that all economic systems must necessarily meet can clearly be satisfied with non-libertarian institutions. Moreover, libertarian (or “quasi-libertarian”) institutions do not appear to actually adequately avoid (frustration) conflict, which is the historical reason why we have the mixed economies we currently do. Thus, libertarian institutions are neither necessary nor sufficient for conflict avoidance.