I previously republished essays by Abel Tomlinson and Hogeye Bill discussing different forms of libertarianism, but I neglected to discuss the ideas in depth myself. Since I have undertaken the task of running the present website, and of attempting to help grow a libertarian community here in the Ozarks, I thought it would help if I explain my own position, and what direction I want to take the site.
From the title of the present post, and my claim during our live forum on anarchism that I am “agnostic” between the views of Abel and Bill, readers may guess, correctly, that I want to try to persuade self-identified libertarians of different persuasions to work together, at least as much as we can.
I want to work towards a coalition in part because libertarians of any variety seem to make up a tiny minority of people in Northwest Arkansas and the surrounding area, and I doubt whether genuine change towards a libertarian society of any kind can occur without such a coalition.
My task is made more difficult by the fact that many people, on all sides, seem to believe their own values to be incompatible with those of the others, and to have little desire to attempt a coalition as a result. However, given that people with vastly different views were able to participate in our live forum at the Fayetteville library, and to have a civil discussion, it seems that persuading people to help form a coalition and to work together on various projects is not completely outside the realm of possibility.
It is, admittedly, a long-term project. In the rest of the present post, I do only two things. First, I try to outline the essential differences between critics and defenders of “private property.” I concentrate on attempting to understand the criticisms of property put forth by social anarchists, primarily because I believe most members of the Ozark Voluntaryist facebook group lean towards lockean property norms and away from commons in their own preferred system, and that they already understand how lockean norms are basically supposed to work, at least in theory. Second, I brainstorm some potential ways to try and persuade members of different sides to work together, leaving the work of pursuing the different ideas for the future.
Property and Equity:
Social anarchists argue that all people have a “right” to labor and sustain their own lives, and to make use of the natural resources of the earth in this pursuit. While this “right” doesn’t mean anyone can force others to work for them, or to live by taking what others have produced, it does mean each individual has a “right” to have as much opportunity to live as others do. Social anarchists believe people have a claim to the means of living, but do not believe anyone has a “right” to reduce other people to means to further their own life.
Thus, social anarchists distinguish between “personal property” and “private property.” If a person holds title to some resource, (or “claims ownership” over the resource,) and the same person makes use of the resources themselves to further their own life, then they treat the resource as “personal property”. If one person holds title to some resource but doesn’t use it, while another uses it but holds no title to it, then the title-holder treats the resource as their “private property.” If the title holder only allows the user to use the resource on condition that the user surrenders some portion of what they produce with the resource to the title-holder, then social anarchists call the share of the produce which the user surrenders to the title-holder “usury”.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first person to explicitly call themselves an anarchist, makes basically the same distinction with regard to land in his book What is Property? He uses other terms, “usufruct,” or “possession,” rather than “personal property,” and “property” rather than “private property,” but the idea is essentially the same.
Not only does occupation lead to equality, it prevents property. For, since every man, from the fact of his existence, has the right of occupation, and, in order to live, must have material for cultivation on which he may labor; and since, on the other hand, the number of occupants varies continually with the births and deaths, — it follows that the quantity of material which each laborer may claim varies with the number of occupants; consequently, that occupation is always subordinate to population. Finally, that, inasmuch as possession, in right, can never remain fixed, it is impossible, in fact, that it can ever become property.
Every occupant is, then, necessarily a possessor or usufructuary, — a function which excludes proprietorship. Now, this is the right of the usufructuary: he is responsible for the thing entrusted to him; he must use it in conformity with general utility, with a view to its preservation and development; he has no power to transform it, to diminish it, or to change its nature; he cannot so divide the usufruct that another shall perform the labor while he receives the product. In a word, the usufructuary is under the supervision of society, submitted to the condition of labor and the law of equality.
Thus is annihilated the Roman definition of property — the right of use and abuse — an immorality born of violence, the most monstrous pretension that the civil laws ever sanctioned. Man receives his usufruct from the hands of society, which alone is the permanent possessor. The individual passes away, society is deathless.
What a profound disgust fills my soul while discussing such simple truths! Do we doubt these things to-day? Will it be necessary to again take arms for their triumph? And can force, in default of reason, alone introduce them into our laws?
All have an equal right of occupancy.
The amount occupied being measured, not by the will, but by the variable conditions of space and number, property cannot exist.
Social anarchists condone “personal property”, but object to “private property” and to “usury.” They argue that a “private property” owner acts like a guard running a toll gate on a road. When the guard charges a fee for passage, they don’t produce anything themselves. Instead, they merely stand in another’s way, preventing others from using resources to produce or live.
Because social anarchists believe people have a “right” to have the opportunity to live, they say that the guard violates the rights of those trying to travel along the road. Since the travelers are “entitled” to pass by uninhibited, the guard “steals” from them by preventing them from passing unless they pay a fee.
Similarly, an absentee landlord “steals” from tenants who live on and/or cultivate or work land which the landlord solely holds title to. The landlord does nothing in exchange for rent other than refraining from ejecting the tenant from the land they hold title to, but social anarchists regard the landlord as having no “right” to make this threat, and thus no right to charge “usury” in the form of rent on land.
Similarly for wage labor, interest on loans, intellectual property, and tariffs. With wage labor, the capitalist claims ownership over the means of production, the means of living, and refrains from kicking the workers out of the factory, (or preventing them from using the means of production,) on condition that the workers do their job for a wage rather than producing and selling their product or service to consumers themselves. The “profit” the capitalist makes merely by holding title to the resources in question qualifies as “usury” in the sense that they take a share of the product of the workers even though they only allow the workers to produce, rather than actively helping them to produce.
In Marx’s view, capitalists gained the ability to exploit workers through a difference between the price of labor and the price of the product of that labor; the capitalist could pay workers a high enough wage to sustain the worker’s ability to produce, then sell the product their workers created at a higher price than what they paid their workers. Since the workers create more value than they receive, they are exploited.
In Proudhon’s view, capitalists gained the ability to exploit through a difference between the value individuals could create on their own, and the value a group of people could create by working together. By employing a group of people but giving each individual only the “individual side” of the value they helped to produce, while keeping the surplus value, (created as a result of the individuals working together rather than apart,) for themselves, capitalists again kept more value than they truly had a hand in creating, claiming credit for creating value that was really created through association, or “collective force.”
With loans, bankers use their control of credit to extract usury through interest. With intellectual property, owners of IP prevent people from using particular ideas without their permission, extracting usury by charging prices for goods and services higher than they otherwise could. With tariffs, taxes, licensing laws, zoning laws, and so forth, governments extract usury by taking money from those producing and trading, and business owners, (by colluding with governments,) extract usury through eliminating competition, gaining better control over prices, and increasing their profits. And, of course, if chattel slavery were still widespread, the slaveowners could be said to be extracting usury from their slaves by allowing their slaves to live and make use of their physical bodies.
The basic concern is not over individual ownership vs. joint ownership, as social anarchists condone individual ownership of resources used by the same individual, e.g. clothing, a home, tools, etc., and capitalists accept joint ownership when it is a result of voluntary association, or contractual agreement. Nor is the discussion about how to handle different kinds of resources, since whether a good is “capital” or not is a question of how the good is used by human beings, not a fixed or inherent attribute of the good itself, a point made explicitly by Benjamin Tucker:
Marx, [declared] capital to be a different thing from product, and [maintained] that it belonged to society and should be seized by society and employed for the benefit of all alike. Proudhon scoffed at this distinction between capital and product. He maintained that capital and product are not different kinds of wealth, but simply alternate conditions or functions of the same wealth…
Rather, the concern is over a division between those who hold title to resources and those who produce. Social anarchists advocate abolishing “private property”, or eliminating the ability of some to control the means of production in order to keep more value for themselves than what they actually create. They believe that the result, more or less, would be that everyone would have to participate in production, and no one would be able to live as part of a ruling class, exploiting producers while producing little or nothing themselves.
“Communists” and “collectivists” imagine accomplishing this by making producers joint owners of the means of production, with something like consensus democracy giving them the ability to make decisions. Since all producers would be joint owners of the capital they used to produce, and all owners would participate directly in the work of production, the division between workers and rulers would be abolished.
“Mutualists”, (or at least some “mutualists”, like Kevin Carson in his early writing,) similarly treat natural resources like land as inalienably, jointly owned by everyone, but say that individuals can claim special title to enough land or resources to make a living, so long as they accept that they have borrowed these resources from the commons for their own use and can’t use the resources as “private” property, renting it to others.
None of these groups advocate forcing individuals to give up land they live on, cultivate, or work themselves, but they regard “usury” as illegitimate, and sometimes, (though not always,) advocate using force to prevent “usury” or “exploitation” from occurring.
Thus, for example, if two people agree to a rental contract, with one holding title to land they no longer live on or use directly, and the other holding no title to the land but living on it, then Social Anarchists treat this contract as invalid and non-binding. “Mutualists”, and some other social anarchists, may simply treat the tenant as the owner of the land as soon as they become the new occupant. In refusing to help enforce “usurious” contracts of any sort, they may oppose usury peacefully, without using “coercion” in the sense understood by “anarcho-capitalists.” Social anarchists of various sorts could also, of course, join together to create worker cooperatives, mutual aid societies, cohousing communities, and so forth, each individual consenting to abide by certain terms of membership.
Or, in other cases, social anarchists may advocate using force to either appropriate “private property,” (e.g. taking over a factory,) or to enforce other sorts of norms of resource use which “capitalists” disagree with, (e.g. defending a squatter from an angry land owner coming to forcefully evict them.) It is these actions which, by “anarcho-capitalist” standards, violate the non-aggression principle and raise objections.
Defenders of “private property” may point out that someone could produce something themselves, and then treat it as “private property” once they have created it. For example, someone could build a road before building a toll gate on that road. Building the road would count as production, so the “capitalist” argues that, by charging others a fee to use the road, the road’s “owner” is getting paid for having produced the road. The “capitalist” treats production as granting producers a “right” to use what they have produced as “private property”, keeping title to it while letting others use it for a fee. Writers like Frédéric Bastiat, in debates with Proudhon, made arguments similar to this, attempting to defend rent, interest, and profit as equitable compensation for labor.
Social anarchists, in response, can point out that, in creating resources to be used as capital, producers often make use of other capital, created by other people. Proudhon’s idea of “collective force” can be easily expanded to the whole of the human race. If, in everything we do, we depend upon the help of others, then this raises a question of what we deserve as compensation for our own efforts, and of what those others, whom we depend upon, deserve in turn.
Both supporters and critics of “private property” seem, more or less, to argue that people “should” be able to reap the fruit of their labor, to keep what they create. Supporters argue that a “society” without “property” would reduce people to slaves. If I have no “property right” in what I create, then anyone can come along and take it for their own use, which reduces me to a slave, producing with little to show for it while others consume what I produced without producing anything themselves.
Critics argue precisely the reverse: those with property can consume what those who work for them produce without helping to produce themselves, all while the producers live with no property of their own. Even in a society that began with even distribution of ownership, but that also allowed for “usury”, a vicious circle would emerge that would lead to ever greater division of society into propertied and propertyless classes, (so the critics often argue.) Both supporters and critics regard their own preferred norms as necessary for people to live “freely,” while arguing that the opposite system takes away the freedom of those living within it, and allows others to take what they create, exploit them, and rule over them.
I think we can usefully distinguish between supporters and critics of “private property” by treating them as taking different positions regarding contracts, and regarding consent. Defenders of “private property” accept “usurious” agreements as legitimate, at least under certain conditions, while critics treat them as necessarily illegitimate, treating people as holding an inalienable right not to be exploited through usury, a right which they have no capacity to forfeit, even through explicit expression of consent. Thus, defenders of property argue that a person can gain title to resources through homesteading, creation from other resources they have a title to, and “voluntary” trade. Critics argue that every human being has an automatic claim to the resources they need to survive, a claim that only ends where the like claims of others begin.
Brainstorming Possible Common Ground:
I think the above explains the views of the different sides, at least well enough for a blog post. If I now attempted to ask the question, “Which side is correct?”, would anything come of it? Could we settle the question to the satisfaction of enough libertarians, (self-identified libertarians,) that enough of us could work together to actually create a community, or society, which we found far preferable to our present one?
I doubt this. In this essay, I treat the different sides as simply made up of people with different fundamental values, or “grounding norms.” It may be that all the different sides share “equity” as a value, loosely meaning that they all want people to “reap what they sow,” while disagreeing about just who specifically is responsible for “sowing” what, but I make no attempt to persuade either group that the other side has the “correct answer.” It will be enough if I can persuade different sides that the others may have reasonable answers, and that cooperation between people with these different views is possible, and desirable, at least on some projects.
It is easy to dismiss calls for such cooperation as disguised attempts to convert one side to the other. I ask that readers think hard before concluding that any coalition between “anti-property” and “pro-property” libertarians is undesirable.
Libertarians of any sort are a minority of the population, in pretty much every part of the globe. I doubt that, in my lifetime, we will become the majority. I don’t mind if we are unable to change the whole world; after all, a core part of libertarian philosophy is letting go of the desire to control others, to make them conform to one’s own values. But I would like to at least minimize the ability of others to control me; I’d like to live a relatively free life.
I believe I can only achieve this by working with others. Perhaps anarcho-communists would prefer the way the world is today to the way they think it would look under anarcho-capitalism. Perhaps ancaps would prefer today’s world to an anarcho-communist one.
But perhaps not. If there is any possibility that those who think of themselves as libertarians can, by cooperating, create communities that they would all rather live in when compared to the world we all live in today, I think it is a possibility worth pursuing. Bastiat and Proudhon, despite disagreeing about property and exploitation, and about the nature of true freedom, were still able to work as allies. If we want to live free, we need to do the same.
The present essay is an attempt to determine how to come up with strategies to facilitate such cooperation. In that vein, I present a list of ideas for the consideration of those reading:
1) While opponents of usury may have different grounding norms from those who accept it, the question of what sort of social conditions lead to a stratification of society into, more or less, propertied and propertyless classes is at least in part an empirical one. Assuming that the views of the different sides depend partially on their beliefs regarding this empirical question, investigating this question could potentially help us persuade one or the other side to sympathize more with their counterparts. Convincing “social anarchists” that a vicious cycle would be less likely to arise under “anarcho-capitalism” than under the present system could help slightly allay their fear of “anarcho-capitalists” successfully moving society towards their own preferences, while convincing “anarcho-capitalists” that the likelihood of a vicious cycle emerging in their system is greater than they may believe may, similarly, help draw them closer to “anarcho-socialism.”
2) How well worker ownership and management of the means of production, a network economy, or an “usurious” economy could achieve prosperity for participants is also, in part, an empirical question. Convincing either side that certain methods of organizing/coordinating behavior work better or worse than they believe, (by their own standards of “better or worse,”) could help to draw either side towards the other.
3) Even if the different sides hold fundamentally different values, their values may still, in some cases, lead them to advocate for similar things. For example, laws that require someone to obtain government permission before becoming a florist could be opposed by both “social anarchists”, (on the grounds that such laws restrict the freedom of some in order to enable others to exploit them,) and “anarcho-capitalists”, (on the grounds that such laws violate the non-aggression principle.) If a wide range of laws enforced by governments today are opposed by multiple groups, those groups could more successfully combat such laws by working together. Finding as many such cases as possible, where different sides could share specific goals, could help coalition builders.
4) Coming up with ways members of different groups could resolve disputes “after the revolution” could help persuade members of both sides to at least tolerate the existence of the other.
5) How far self-identified libertarians and anarchists require the aid of others to achieve their aims, and how compatible or incompatible are the values of different individuals, are also, to an extent, empirical questions. Convincing people of both the need and the possibility of cooperation across boundaries could help encourage people to cooperate, (however begrudgingly, warily, or reluctantly some may do so.)
6) Analyzing the values of different groups could open up ways to use the values of one group to defend the conclusions of another, (e.g. using the knowledge problem to criticize corporate bureaucracy, or using opposition towards hierarchy to criticize “democratic” institutions.) Even finding small overlaps in different value systems could be greatly worthwhile.
I leave the task of pursuing these lines of inquiry for another day. My present aim is merely to understand the values of the different sides, and to come up with ideas for how to proceed. If readers have any input on how well they think I have understood the ideas I try to summarize, I invite you to leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.