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.