Violence, Property, Theft, and Entitlement

After a long break, I have found myself sufficiently annoyed once again at arguments regarding property that make no sense and fail to apprehend even the most basic criticisms that have for centuries been levied against them. So, I have decided once again to clarify how incoherent it is to say your views on taxes or property are driven by an opposition to coercion, force, theft, and so on.

To start, let’s create a straightforward definition of theft as a forceful taking:

Theft occurs when (1) you threaten or use force against someone (2) to exclude them from scarce material resources (3) without their consent.

Under this definition of theft, clearly taxes qualify. But, if you look closely, you’ll notice this definition actually captures all appropriation and ownership of scarce material resources. What does it mean to say you have a property right in some particular resource? It means that you can threaten or use force against everyone else to exclude them from that particular resource without their consent. A principled stand against force, coercion, aggression, and so on thus requires the conclusion that property is theft in the same sense as taxes are theft.

Once this point has been made, invariably the interlocutor (to varying degrees of awareness) adds a fourth element to the definition of theft. The modified definition of theft goes like this:

Theft occurs when (1) you threaten or use force against someone (2) to exclude them from scarce material resources (3) without their consent (4) provided the scarce material resource belongs to them.

The fourth prong is the Entitlement Prong. It essentially states that (1)-(3) are only theft when the person being forcefully excluded from a material resource is entitled to it. So, for instance, doing (1)-(3) to recover a “stolen” car is not theft on this view because the car thief does not satisfy the Entitlement Prong. Similarly, doing (1)-(3) to keep someone off of “your” land is not theft because that someone does not satisfy the Entitlement Prong either.

Under this four-prong definition of theft, it is in fact entitlement that is doing all of the argumentative work. The initial anger at “force” and “violence” and “coercion” drops out entirely. People who adhere to this definition are not opposed to those things. In fact, they are quite happy threaten and use force constantly and endlessly so long as doing so does not run afoul of the Entitlement Prong. What started as an opposition to force, coercion, aggression, and so on turns out to really be an opposition to arrangements that do not afford to each what they are entitled to.

But here’s the problem: people disagree about what everyone is entitled to. There are different philosophical theories about what belongs to each person. This means that you have to actually make an independent case for why your own theory of entitlement is correct, not just assume it in the background and thereby call all forceful actions contrary to it theft.

For example, consider the question of whether levying payroll taxes to fund old-age pensions are theft. Whether you think it is or isn’t, you actually apply the same theft test:

Theft occurs when (1) you threaten or use force against someone (2) to exclude them from scarce material resources (3) without their consent (4) provided the scarce material resource belongs to them.

Both sides agree that (1)-(3) are present (as they always are when scarce resources are being distributed exclusively to individuals). What they disagree about is whether the Entitlement Prong is satisfied. The person who thinks the payroll taxes are not theft believes that the workers are not entitled to the taxed increment, but rather that the old-age pensioners are entitled to it. The person who thinks it is theft believes the opposite. Therefore, the whole thing turns, not on the questions of force and coercion, but solely on the question of entitlement.

Ultimately, the cryer about violent theft finds themselves in an argumentative double-bind. They can use definition one above, in which case they can go ahead and call taxes categorically theft but also have to call property itself categorically theft. Or, they can use definition two above, in which case their efforts to call taxes categorically theft just vacuously beg the question on entitlement. Thus complainers about force and violence and such need to either come out against property itself or stop talking about force and violence (which they aren’t actually opposed to if they support property) and instead argue solely about entitlement.

7 thoughts on “Violence, Property, Theft, and Entitlement”

  1. How do you want ownership to transfer between people? Violently or peacefully?

    danfromct and Dr J are into peaceful transfer.

    Granted they’ve become confused by deontological nonsense but their endpoint is clearly the sensible one because, QED, every civilisation that has ever arisen did so on the back of intensive agriculture, which in turn relied on private property.

    Not to mention there are no attested examples of any civilisation ever advancing from an agrarian to an industrial condition without either private property and trade or a democidal central-planning state, and no examples of anything but private property and trade leading to a post-industrial/affluent condition.


    Original appropriation is taking an item or a plot of land ‘from’ nobody and so is peaceful. To say it’s taking the land from anyone is, at the time of appropriation, a bizarre metaphysical claim.

    Trade and gift are obviously peaceful.

    Theft ain’t so much. If you deprive me of the use of something I acquired peacefully then I should be entitled to defend it BECAUSE I acquired it peacefully. This is called common sense. It leads to peaceful, safe outcomes.


    “1. The fact that some objects are only consumable by a single individual (and thus rivalrous) does not mean that all objects must become “property” devolving onto some single individual.”

    No, but it is what makes sense if you want to live in peace with your neighbours, QED human history and the relationships you have with your neighbours IRL.

  2. Huh? Property is a shared convention. We agree to a system which determines who controls what, how they go about attaining control, how they transfer control. Once the conventions are shared and “institutionalized” this facilitates human cooperation and problem solving.

    Property isn’t about force and violence and coercion and theft. It is a peaceful way to define who controls what which is designed to eliminate coercion and disputes. If property conventions are effective, then society flourishes. If they are ineffective, or not well agreed upon, then all hell breaks loose.

    But, what if someone disagrees with these conventions and institutions? Well, there are ways society has established to change or adapt or refine institutions too.

  3. There’s a bit of question begging in the above. Contracts being a voluntary transfer of title, they depend on a notion of entitlement; they’re not contradictory to the notion, and it is not contradictory for anyone (libertarian or not) to believe in both notions.

  4. By the same token, a rapist does not agree with the idea that a woman’s consent is needed in order to have sex with her. On your account, a woman who uses force on a would-be rapist (even if just to try to push him away) would be as hypocritical about consent as you accuse libertarians of being.

  5. Well, who decides what rights there are in Breunig world (aka Grab World)? Breunig, of course. How else would it work?

  6. “536 people in Washington control a quarter of the country’s output, making them the richest 1% of the richest 1% of the richest 1%”

    “Typical dishonesty. You know full well that the resources belonging to the United States are not the private property of the politicians in Congress.”

    But who controls those resources? who decides how those resources are used? (usus) Who decides which of them can be used to produce things, and then has the same control of those other things? (fructus) Who decides which of those things can be destroyed? (abusus) The 536 politicians in Congress, or some fictitious being called the “United States”?

    You might not be being dishonest. You might think that there really is some being called the “United States” that exercises that control and is making all those decisions. But when you accuse everyone who thinks that the control and decision-making is actually being exercised by people of “dishonesty”, one has to question your honesty in turn.

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